Monday, 24 April 2017

Cuddle Cloths

Taking stock. I have never felt guilty about having several projects on the go at once. I finish things sometimes, sometimes not. But nothing is 'wasted'. Even if a project doesn't physically become A Thing of Value, it has taught me or entertained me or soothed me. It has a purpose. I keep these half-stitched projects and take them out and study them. Or just cuddle them for a while and listen to their tales. They are my Cuddle Cloths. Some may Become Important. Others will remain unobtrusive, quietly sitting in a basket or draped over a chair. One day they may be Called. Or not.  No UFOs or WIPs here, those terms beg too many questions and place too many demands.

Here is a selection of my Cuddle Cloths.



My Mother's Day Bouquet Cloth. Two strips of silk into which I bundled the wilted flowers and leaves. Steamed for half an hour in a semi-used onion skin dyebath. I often have one of those sitting around. Left for a week, opened, rinsed, pressed, sandwiched up with a strip of walnut-dyed silk noil and kantha stitched. I put the last stitches in yesterday and felt sad and satisfied at once. It has no 'purpose'. It is too small for a scarf or shawl, too precious for a table runner, too long for a book wrap, too unassuming (and double-sided) to be hung on the wall. It is a Cuddle Cloth, no more, no less. It gives me pleasure and preserves the precious bunch of flowers from my precious daughter forever. If someone asks 'what is it FOR?', there's my answer.








This is the newest addition to the family. A piece of lichen-inspired embroidery on a scrap of old linen, gifted to me by a friend. This was begun on Friday during a workshop with the sublime Alice Fox where we looked at ways to stitch with found objects. Here are all my loose threads pulled from natural dyed cloths, kept because I can't bear to discard them. In among are some actual scraps of dried, dead lichen. I will not take live lichen (even that growing on dead wood may be alive). It grows too slowly and some is endangered. I am not expert enough to know which is prolific and which is rare so I leave it all and take only photos. But these small wisps were blowing free, completely dead and dried. Little openings in the threads invited holes. That is what I am working on at the moment, the holes. There will doubtless be seeding in the future. Possibly French knots. We will see. This is a Make-It-Up-As-I-Go-Along Cloth. I am enjoying stitching it.









This is my Going in Circles Cloth and with it, some Nine Patches from salvaged denim. For now, they sit together in a basket as if they may belong but they haven't yet been joined by stitch. They are living together first to see if it works out, before they tie the knot. Or not.

 The cloth itself needs more work. There are many more ways to make a circle with cloth and stitch to be explored.













My Fallen Leaves Cloth, begun in a day's stitching session with Caroline Bell, who showed me how to make the holes. I examine this daily, it sits over my office chair. I often feel the urge to stitch it but the spaces are nearly all filled and I am not yet ready for the Finish. I am saving it for One Day...

















Some Sixteen Patches made from a selection of natural dyed cloths. Just Because Cloths. There are four, there may be more, or not. They may be joined into one big Sixty Four Patch and stitched some more. They are deliciously multi-textured, due to the different weights of cloth (linen, silk noil, old flannel sheet, Osnaburg, wool, recycled cotton shirting). They are also invitingly flat. Hand stitched seams, finger pressed open then stitched down. They create a new checkerboard cloth that invites a second layer for substance and then some more stitch. They are simple things, these four squares of squares, but they hold such Promise. While they wait, and tempt, they are Cuddle Cloths.













These cloths are from my Beach Bundle last February - Ten Turns of the Tide. I want them to become A Piece. To have Importance. Especially since I have recently been alerted to a suitable call to entry with a looming Deadline. But these cloths are mute. They tell me nothing of what they should be. I keep thinking of the ripples the tide makes in the sand. The relentless in and out, twice a day, without fail. But these thoughts won't translate into action. Yet.

If the Deadline is missed, there will be another.













Finally... My Over-Lap Quilt. 
This will always be a Cuddle Cloth, it is its destiny. I have trialed many possible layouts and with the opinions and advise from my Instagram community, I have decided on this one. I think today, I may begin to join these blocks. Then there will be more stitch, some circles no doubt. The moons in my Spiritcloth centres invite that. And making log cabins involves going around. So it's a theme. 

Also in here are little scraps of walnut dyed cloths that were gifted to me by a friend.
Those precious, thoughtful little gestures that mean so much.

I was discussing log cabins with another stitcher recently and was overheard by a woman - a talented artist but not familiar with textiles - who thought I was describing the construction of an actual log cabin. Wouldn't that be grand? To build your own actual cabin? Maybe one day. 

Meanwhile, I will work on my cloth and stitch version and it will shelter me a little. k3n xx

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

My Over-Lap-Quilt

Some random thoughts on edges.. A raw edge has possibilities. It can soften, give a little of itself, fray. Its limits are blurred and yielding. Interesting how different cloths handle being torn. Some part easily, without regret and leave a neat row of even fringing. Others fight the rending and scar across the cloth where threads cling on to the last. Then leave long and short jagged thread tails. 

How to unite two strips of cloth  so they become one, seam-lessly? An overlapped edge creates a flatter cloth for stitching later. No seam-bump. No ditch to fall into. Just a gentle gradient to stroll up and slide down. Because the joining is only the beginning. Later comes the embellishing. Plying the needle over the edges, to and fro and around in circles. Uniting the torn parts into a whole-cloth again. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 😊 xx

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Stitch-hand

In my last post, I talked briefly about stitch and promised 'more later' so.....
I believe a fluid, intuitive hand stitch is distinctive and unique to a person, like hand writing.
The crux of the matter is in the 'fluid, intuitive' side of things. It's a hard thing to be. Like 'random' is the hardest 'pattern' to do. ( That's a design oxymoron right there).
Being self-conscious is difficult to avoid. Think about it. Conscious of self. How can you NOT be?


I want to stitch like I write. Not when I am doing my 'best' hand, in a card or a thank you letter for example. You know the kind. Find a posh pen, even practice in rough to get the wording right. Not like that. I want to stitch like I write when I am scribbling a note to the kids. Or writing a shopping list. When I was at school and had a new exercise book, the first few pages would be self-conscious neat. It wasn't until about page 7 that my real hand writing kicked in. That's how I want to stitch.
There are exercises one can do to discover one's 'stitch hand'. Stitch blindfold or in the dark. Done that while camping. Well, by tilley lamp which is pretty close with my poor old eyes. Stitch left handed (or right if you're a lefty). Stitch in different directions. Stitch from the back of a piece. Stitch like no one is listening. Does any of this work? Does it matter even? xx


PS note to self, my stitchabet includes:
Running stitch -
        In parallel lines
        In staggered lines
        Cross hatch
        Concentric circles
Seed stitch
Backstitch
I sometimes make myself do fancy embroidery stitches but it's like speaking French. I can do it well enough. I can express myself. But it doesn't come naturally. I expect I shall return to this. In due course. xx

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Being authentic

Recently I read this article and it resonated with me. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that my working practice has changed a lot over the past year or so. Or rather, many aspects have reverted to where I started years ago with old and repurposed cloth and hand stitching. I have rediscovered the pleasure of holding work in my two hands rather than using my sewing machine. Which ever way I look at it though, I have been experimenting, rediscovering old habits and discovering new ones. But I don't want to flounder around and I want my practice to be satisfying.

So as it's roughly a year since I turned at a crossroads (perhaps it was more a T junction, or a fork in the road), it seems like a good time to review 'where I'm to' as they say here in Somerset. So the article came along at the right time. Funny how that happens. After reading it,I made a list of the concepts I find important.


Authentic voice
Focus
Fluidity of practice
Clarity
Being true to myself
Individuality

But first let me back up a bit.

Around two years ago, I finished a series called Evolution - a Brief History of the Universe from the Big Bang to the Present Day. You can see the pieces here. The techniques I used, mostly with commercial fabrics and some of my own procion hand dyes were stitch and flip, fabric collage, confetti, a LOT of machine top stitching and free machine quilting, some hand stitch, lots of surface embellishment with silk waste, angelina fibres, sheer overlays, fabric confetti, beads etc, all designed and assembled using a technique I developed based on quilt as you go. That's a long list and the pieces reflect that. They are rich and vibrant and they tell a story. Whenever I exhibit them or give my talk based upon them, they are admired. I still take bookings for the workshop teaching people to make their own version. I am proud of them, I feel they are an impressive body of work.

Supernova from the series Evolution - A Brief History of the Universe from the Big Bang to the Present Day
 But finishing the series made me feel that I had 'done' all the techniques I learned and developed in the making of them. I don't want to do that stuff anymore. The series was a huge undertaking involving a lot of learning and research on the subject matter (after all, my inspiration was literally EVERYTHING) and I think it exhausted me, not physically but creatively. I made a couple more pieces for juried exhibitions which are now touring with SAQA Europe and the Contemporary Group of the Quilters Guild.

Pahoehoe - touring with the On The Edge exhibition
with the Contemporary Quilt Group of the
Quilters Guild of the British Isles


But I wanted a change. My home is full of my work. It covers the walls in all the rooms. There is older work rolled up under the bed. I have been very prolific. I wanted to take a more process-focused, considered approach. I wanted to return to my first love, hand stitching. Years ago, all my traditional quilts were hand pieced and hand quilted. Before I was lured by the possibilities of the sewing machine. I used to hand embroider, do English Paper Piecing and crazy patchwork. Now there is nothing wrong with the sewing machine or the work it produces. Teaching myself to do freehand machine quilting gave me a huge boost creatively. I didn't believe I was artistic, didn't think I could draw until I learned to 'draw' with the sewing machine needle. It is a great skill to have and has given me countless hours of pleasure. But over the past year or so, I have felt the need to slow down. Perhaps it's since I reached my half century? Who knows!







Anyway, to review I thought it would be good to itemise the things I wish to focus on, so I don't get distracted or diverted, so here goes. These are the practical how and whats. I don't think it suits me to specify a style or voice. Hopefully that will come through. I plan to review later, in the light of my list at the top.

Materials

Repurposed or vintage cloth wherever possible
Vintage threads ditto
Vintage lace ditto
All the above to be natural fibres
Modify my exisiting commercial fabrics and threads by overdyeing or 'ageing' with tea
Found objects, rust, plant materials for printing and dyeing

NB carefully consider purchases and consumption of new materials

Vintage cotton and linen - charity shop finds

Selection of vintage and naturally dyed threads




























Techniques

Eco printing and natural dyeing with rust, kitchen waste and plant materials.
Hand stitching (more below)
Working with nature eg the Cloth Cache project (see earlier posts)
Making 'useful' items as well as art pieces

Recycled cloth dyed with brown onion skins

That's a short list of techniques with some broad categories on it. I need to give more thought to how I want to work within those parameters.

It is a perpetual temptation to try new things and I have fallen foul of this in the past. But referring back to the article mentioned at the beginning, it can be a block to creativity I think. So I am going to make another list of the things I am currently doing and be ruthless about what I want to keep and what will side-lined for now. I'll come back to that. xx














Rust printed scrap of old linen stitched into a piece of wool blanket

Eco prints on silk and wool

Japanese boro inspired sample from recycled denim

Commercial fabrics 'aged' with walnut ink (thanks Nikki!)


Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Know your onions

For me, the principle attraction of natural dyeing and eco-printing is the unpredictability of the results. Take the humble onion, the red variety in this case. Skins are widely and freely available. Go wherever they are sold and ask to root through the box for the loose skins. In no time at all, you will have a bag full, for free. The shopkeeper will probably even by grateful that you have tidied them away. Take them home, put them in a pan with some water, bring up to simmer for an hour or so and the water turns a wonderful ruby red.

Red onion skins simmering in a slow cooker

I do not claim to be an expert, I have been playing with natural dyeing for a little over a year so I am still very much a novice. I read a lot, research, follow other natural and eco dyers on social media but above all, I experiment. I did some dyeing with onion skins right at the beginning of my natural dyeing career early last year and unsurprisingly, I got a reddish brown colour from red onion and a golden brown colour from brown onions on silk habotai and noil. (Silk habotai is a fine silk and is what most people think of as 'silk' whereas noil is a coarse, slubby fabric woven from the shorter fibres left after the longer fibres have been removed to make the fine silk. I discovered silk noil in a sample pack I bought to try different kinds and loved it. It is reminiscent of linen but is great for natural dyeing as it is a protein fibre. Protein or 'animal' fibres such as silk and wool take natural dyes in general without the need for an additive or 'mordant'. Cellulose or plant-based fibres such as cotton, linen or hemp in general do need a mordant such as soy or alum to enable the dye to 'bite' into the fabric and be fixed. But as I said, I am no expert and I would refer you to Wild Colours UK or the Maiwa website for comprehensive information).





Anyway, huge digression, back to the matter in hand, my onion dyed and printed silk, gold and reddish brown colours, as you would expect. Silk noil on the left. habotai on the right.


















After that I became so wrapped up (pun intended!) in eco printing that I left the humble onion skin behind, except for occasionally throwing a few torn up bits of skin into a bundle to enhance the leaf prints.

Then a few weeks ago, I went to visit a friend who has also recently been seduced by natural dyeing and she was showing me her collection of natural dyed samples. She is aiming to dye a range of greens and browns for a series of landscape inspired work and I was particularly struck by a little stack of olive green cotton and linen pieces. They had been mordanted in alum then dyed in red onion. No other additives. So I went home, went foraging in my local supermarket and set to. I alum mordanted some linen and cotton scraps. I simmered my onions to extract the dye. I added my pre-mordanted cloth as well as some noil and some old wool blanket.


 And I got shades of reddish brown on the linen and cotton. Nice enough but not the olive green I was hoping for.






















 On the unmordanted silk noil, habotai and wool, I got a beautiful shade of gold - old gold or antique gold I would call it. The top is the wool followed by noil then habotai. All the reddish brown pieces are the various cotton, linen and hemp scraps, all pre-mordanted with alum.

So I messaged my friend, perhaps she had added iron or something else to the dye bath? No she hadn't. So I did some research and read that the chemicals in onion skins are very complex and can yield all colours from dark red through browns, oranges and terracottas to golds and the elusive olive green. What colours they decide to give you and when depends on a whole range of factors, relating to the onions themselves such as how and where they were grown, and lots of other factors depending on your dyeing conditions, acidity or alkalinity of the water, temperature and duration of simmering and so on. Fascinating, I hope you will agree. I read a paper by Jenny Dean which seemed to suggest that alkalinity would more likely result in greens.





So yesterday, I went back to the same supermarket and tidied up the red onion basket for them again. (They love me!) I had some left over alum mordanted cotton sheet and also some noil and some old wool blanket so I repeated the exercise. Only this time, I ground up a few indigestion tablets (calcium carbonate = alkali) in my pestle and mortar and added them to the dye bath. I had read somewhere (not sure where) that doing this, the dye bath turned green before your eyes. Mine stayed defiantly red.  A very experienced natural dyer had told me on Instagram that adding iron to the dye bath gave olive green. Now I know this isn't how my friend got that colour. But I wanted insurance. So I divided my dye bath in two pans and to one half, I added a good slosh (natural dyer's standard measure) of my 'clean' iron water. I have two kinds of iron water. The 'dirty' kind is simply rusty rain water bailed out of one of the buckets in the garden that house my rust collection (such as the one in my previous post). The 'clean' kind is made by putting a fist sized piece of steel wool into a large jar and topping up with a third white vinegar to two thirds water (ish). When the liquid turns brown it is iron water. Here are the two pans.

This is the un-ironed one, as you can see, it's reddish brown. The length of white stick has some alum mordanted cotton thread wrapped round it.

The ironed one - much more promising, though at this stage it looked almost black and I was wondering if I had overdone my slosh of iron water. It has that lovely iron bloom on the top of it.


So I simmered both for around an hour I think. I am not very accurate in my time keeping but it was about that. Usually, I would leave dyebaths to cool overnight but I couldn't wait, so I fished the cloths out with tongs into the sink until they were cool enough to touch then I squeezed the excess dye back into the pots. I did the unironed cloths first, then the ironed ones.












The unironed ones were much the same colours as my previous efforts without the indigestion tablets, except the gold on the wool and silk is darker. I also got a lovely gold on a piece of alum mordanted cotton sheet.

From top to bottom: this time's cotton sheet, last time's noil, last time's habotai, last time's wool blanket, this time's wool blanket.






















I didn't take a photo of the other pieces but they were all that same reddish brown in various shades. When I squeezed out the ironed cloths, I could see straight away that I had olive green. Yeaayyy! So I mixed both left over dye baths together and chucked in all the disappointing reddish brown cloths and simmered them for another half hour. I know! Reasonably sccientific up to that point (well, perhaps not!) and at the end, I revert to type, mix things up and chuck things in. But..... look at all the lovely olive greens! The darker pieces are from the first ironed dye bath and the lighter pieces are from the 'chucking it in' stage of the proceedings. I also chucked in some other scraps that were hanging about, the bottom two scraps are bits of flannel that had been tea dyed but not mordanted with alum (as far as I remember). I love doing this, especially with repurposed cloth because I often get lovely marks appearing as you can see here. I also deliberately don't spin my mordanted cloth or rinse it very thoroughly or wring it out properly because I actually prefer patchy results. Neither do I scour anything which means prewashing it on hot in a special detergent to ensure even take up of the dye. I like things uneven. And I don't like to use lots of heat and water if I don't have to.

Green from red - finally! With the help of a little iron.
So in conclusion, do I know my onions? Hardly! But I got the results I wanted in the end, just not by the means I planned. And that's why natural dyeing fascinates me. My next plan is to go to my friend's house and try again there, using her water and the onion skins from her supermarket. It can never be a completely controlled scientific process as there are way too many variables, but it's a lot of fun!

Thursday, 16 March 2017

For the love of rust

To the unenlightened, rust is nasty stuff, evidence of decay and neglect and to be avoided. These days, items are made from metals chosen because they do not rust, or they are treated to prevent it. Folk are loathe to sit on old garden furniture in their pastel summer finery because the rust will stain and be impossible to remove. But to those of us awakened to the beauty of rust, we see something more. Here is a photo of my  favourite rusty pieces. Some are parts from my old land rover, others are my 'ploughshares' gathered from local fields after the plough has passed, and identified for me by my farmer friend as 'the tine off a bailer' or 'a suspension spring' or 'that's just a rusty ol' bit of iron'.

One woman's trash is another's treasure


My Instagram feed is littered with photos taken by other like-minded souls of rusty pieces found on the beach, in the street, in the fields and we drool and make envious comments. We also share photos of rusty things that we can't take home. Here is an old manhole cover seen on a beach in Wales. It was no longer serving any purpose so was junk. But was way too heavy for me to take. Sadly. So I just took a photo to remind me of its beauty.

If I had been staying longer, I would have wrapped it in cloth and left it a few days
 to take a print but I only found it on our last day
Rusty panel on a beach - too large to carry

Rusty chain and ring at Stackpole Quay, Pembrokeshire

























Recently on Instagram, a fellow artist posted a photo of an elaborate rusty drain cover and stated that she had been tempted to lay down on it in her cream wool jumper. Many of us posted that we would have too. She was heartened by our understanding. 'I KNEW you all would get it!' she said.


Pile of my own rust and eco printed work. The piece along the bottom of the photo is called 'Trapped'
 and is a folded length of repurposed flannel sheet with found rusty items stitched into it
 and left hanging in a tree in my garden for several months.


I was first awakened to the beauty of rust by an exhibition at the Festival of Quilts a few years ago by the artist Regina Benson. Beautiful expansive cloths draped, hung and folded in pleats that you could walk among and experience the play of light and shadows through the rust dyed glow. Now I collect it like a magpie collects shiny things. I walk the pavement alert to the telltale browny-orange colour of a bottle top or a nail. I swoop and in my pocket it goes.



I know it doesn't do it for everyone so what is the appeal to those of us who acquire the obsession? Is it merely the beauty of the colours and the textures in the rusty things themselves?


Rusty old plough half-hidden by nettles.
I wrapped a metre of silk around this for a few weeks last summer.

Ploughshares - the piece of silk dyed by the plough
Backed with rust-printed linen and hand stitched
































Details of rust-printed silk


Is it the potential that we know exists for transferring those beautiful hues to paper and cloth? Is it the knowledge for those of us addicted to eco-dyeing and printing that the inclusion of a few rusty bits or the addition of some rusty water to a bundle will change the colours, the patterns, give of itself generously and work with the chemicals released by our plant materials?


Rusty bits on paper

The resulting prints

Whatever the reasons, I find it beautiful and endlessly fascinating. Just let me rust....

Rust printed fragment of old linen stitched into a scrap of vintage woolen blanket


Monday, 13 March 2017

Cigar-shaped buds

Fifteen years ago, I went to horticultural college. I had always been something of a botanical binomial nomenclature geek (illustrated right there by my use of that phrase). Our weekly 'plant ident tests' ingrained this geekness deep into my psyche. I had a running battle (friendly) with 'the other Catherine' on my course. (Same name as me, different spelling). We were both the only students with 100% on the idents for ages. We both sailed through conifers, perennials not in flower, evergreen shrubs, even deciduous trees in bud. Hence my post title. I will never forget Fagus sylvatica, the common beech, in bud because it has buds shaped like little cigars and its name starts with 'fag' - English slang for cigarette. Tortuous perhaps, but it has worked for me all these years.

Fagus sylvatica - cigar shaped buds

So beech trees always remind me of plant idents at college, and 'the other Catherine'. And the day she missed an 'i' in 'drummondii' and lost half a percent. Leaving me plant ident champion with my 100% record intact. I think I am perhaps a little prouder of that than I should be.

On my walk today, I made a bundle.Two rusty nails from the pavement on my way to the fields. A handful of buckthorn berries picked up from the path. I trampled my cloth in some patches of green algae on the way across a muddy field.


























When I reached the top of the hill, some primroses caught my eye, growing among the brambles.
Of course I wouldn't pick the primroses, but I gathered a few of the deep purple bramble leaves for my bundle.

Bundle ready to roll
You will see by my feet in the last photo that I am perched on a log with my knees in a less than ladylike position. But it was a handy perch alongside a flat patch of bare ground on which to lay out my cloth, so decorum (as if I have any?!) went by the board.

And the beautiful old beech, by the stile has an exposed network of roots where the bank has eroded. A perfect spot to hold this little bundle, firm and contained but in the full face of the wind and rain when it comes, as it surely will if the lion in March has not yet given way to the lamb.

Can you see the bundle?

This bundle is the latest in my ClothCache project. This is the footpath running along the top of Pretwood Hill just outside Ilminster, Somerset. If you are passing and you spot it and have an urge to take it, you are welcome. Leave me something in return if the spirit moves you. Tell me on this blog or via Instagram with the #clothcache if you will. 

And the final photo goes to little Stella who is always up for a photo bomb and is here doing it in stile! Thank you for reading, your interest is greatly appreciated. k3n xx