idea spin

Does your brain ever get in a tizzy, it's so full of ideas?

Sometimes they come so fast that I am buzzing and they are flying off me like sparks from a Catherine Wheel. It can be so overwhelming that it feels dangerous - I almost want to protect myself from the fury of it all.

It also makes me afraid - will I be able to remember them all, can I get them all down on paper before they fade?

Scribbling, sketching, pacing around, more scribbling.

And then, of course, it's not long before I flop, like an exhausted puppy.

Then, the ideas begin to form themselves into a queue. The queue can get quite irritable and impatient. And I'm not so keen on those greedy, gobbling ideas then.

Oh, for balance, for calm. Does this ever come?

the beauty of patchwork quilts

For as long as I can remember, and probably before that too, I have loved patchwork quilts.

As the years have passed, I have found all sorts of reasons for loving them, but the older, deeper attraction still endures.

Describing how patchwork quilts make me feel is difficult. It would be wrong to call it a passion or obsession: it's something altogether more simple and gentle. Perhaps something like the love one has for a grandmother? Patchwork is beautiful, yet solid, worn, reliable, comforting. It's soft and fragile, and also warm, nurturing, and full of memories.

It's probably no surprise, then, that the first patchwork quilt I knowingly encountered lay on the spare bed at my Granny's house. She was a prolific and patient patchworker, and it was with her that I discovered the magic of the fabric scrap bag: a wonderful, jumbled treasure trove of printed cottons, many left over from the handmade dresses she created for herself and her daughters from the 1930s to 60s, and carefully saved to reuse.

I used to spend hours sitting on the floor, ransacking the scrap bag and trying to identify the pattern of an old apron, a cushion, a faded dress or just an imagined memory. It seemed there was a story to every one. Here with my Granny I learnt to cut out and sew together hexagons into tiny doll's quilts for the bunkbeds my mother had cleverly created from two tiers of a plastic vegetable rack. I watched as her nimble brown fingers embroidered stem stitch around every single hexagon as she added them to the backing fabric. When we got home I begged my mother to teach me more.

From a very early age, then, I was captivated. I began to accumulate my own bag of scraps and to beg snippets from family and friends. The summer before I went away to start my embroidery degree, I stitched into the night to create a duvet cover and curtains which would speak to me of home when I traced my fingers over the faded, familiar patterns: dressmaking remnants, old frocks, the patches on my fashionably ripped jeans, ancient Laura Ashley prints from my sewing friends.

Only three years later, I stitched all summer again to make a wedding quilt for my too-soon marriage. For months I'd begged supplies from my relatives and friends, and my elderly aunts turned out their cupboards and sent me scraps of beautiful tea dresses along with their memories. Every day I sat and embroidered suns, moons, poetry and birds onto our magical quilt. Sadly, that marriage is over now, and the quilt does not survive in its entirety.

There were many other quilts and cushions over the years, but the one thing that bothered me was that they were all made on the sewing machine. I really, really wanted to create a hand-sewn, hexagon quilt like my Granny used to make: brightly coloured, full of memories, happiness and sunshiney days.

And so, about fifteen years ago now, I began collecting. The scrap bag was raided, charity shops scoured, beautiful new fat quarters washed and ironed. Hundreds of hexagons carefully cut from birthday cards, magazines, old drawing paper, the scripts of my ex-husband's novel and my Mum's book of prayers. Every piece of fabric tacked onto its backing piece and sorted into colour families. Finally, when enough pieces had been amassed, the mammoth job of hand-sewing each piece into the double quilt.

It began when my youngest son was just a baby, as a replacement for that wedding quilt: two babies and a bad back had ensured that our bed had increased in size beyond the scope of the original. But over the years, life happened, my marriage broke up, and it changed from a loving quilt for two into a fierce, independent quilt for one. Still I stitched. Sometimes, weeks, months, years went by without that quilt receiving any attention. I met my new husband and we moved into our new house, and, sporadically, I continued to stitch. I stitched for love, for fun, for consolation, for comfort, creativity, companionship and solace. The last fifteen years of my life are bound up in the making of that quilt, and the history of my family is in the fabric.

And now, it's almost finished! For various reasons, it felt like the right time to complete it, and last week I added the final piece. When I look at it now, I feel differently about it. I'd no longer choose all those eye-popping colours, they are too bright for my tastes now. But I'm determined to finish it. I've stitched a memory to my Granny on one of the pieces, and this autumn I plan to start hand-stitching it to a soft cotton backing. It's going to be given pride of place in the back bedroom, which has recently acquired the elevated status of spare room since my eldest son left home.

You can see more photos of the gorgeous fabrics in my Granny's quilt and some other things besides on my Flickr page.

i love autumn

I think we can officially say that autumn is here. There is that lovely nip in the air, the leaves are turning, the geese are on the move, there's a new smell, a sense of purpose... and the students have arrived.

Let's just say, sleep does not, for the time being, appear to be on their menu. Once I had managed to bring myself round this morning, I went for a walk to try and exorcise some of the gloom and despondency that tends to settle when you have been kept awake most of the night by people coming and going, banging on doors, singing, tripping about in high heels, and shouting 'William! Let me in!'

Bless their enthusiasm.

The park as usual was mostly deserted, yet full of that heavy freshness that an autumn day can bring. On my walk I noticed:

A green, damp smell of grass clippings.

Four mistle thrushes having a bath in the half-hidden hollow at the centre of the old bowling green.

The rasp of magpies.

A single feather on the grass.

Yellow leaves lying on the path, surrounded by an aura of wet concrete.

Three tiny alder cones.

Single lime tree seeds looking just like embroidery stitches.

The trains whizzing by high up on the embankment.

The office boys with their bedhead hair walking to the station in a flurry of aftershave.

Unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me, so I took these pictures of some leaves and seedheads I picked in the garden to draw, instead.

one of those days

Today I've had one of those days when you start off all enthusiastic and get loads done and then burn yourself out really quickly and find yourself in the kitchen eating half a packet of Fox's Crunch Creams.

Anyway, for a while now I've been working on a pattern for these little bags, and I've finally arrived at one I like, which I'm pleased and relieved about, because I'm not naturally a 3D sort of girl. However, I'm not quite happy with the embroidery on this one yet - maybe it's the positioning, maybe it's the design, maybe it's the colour - not quite sure.

Unfortunately, the Fox's Crunch Creams are not helping with the decision-making process. They have made my brain go a bit la-la.

I will go and play with my threads for a bit and see what happens.

a morning of experiments

I've had a funny, interrupted morning of experimenting with little stuffed things. I had some ideas late last night and was keen to get going early. Interruptions, which were many, included the postman, the bin men, people rushing about and going to college, people mooching about and unwillingly going to work, two long phone calls and two or three sudden urges for a cup of tea...

However, I did manage to make one or two things, including this pincushion, which I'm rather pleased with, and some strange keyrings, which I'm not so pleased with. I think the colours need work - what do you think?

I also thought I'd post a picture of my new pale blue labels, of which I'm inordinately fond...

I had thought of working on the keyring colours this afternoon, but fear of further interruption probably means that I'll make a few more pincushions and linen hearts instead, as it's not too taxing and I can curl up and listen to my new audio book, The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis.

But first, another cup of tea...


In an interesting article in the Independent last Monday, Tom Lubbock describes his reaction to the shortlist of entries for the Association of Illustrators' annual critic's prize:

"A strain of whimsy seemed to have become default mode for commercial illustration. Whatever the topic or medium, the tone of the treatment was cosy-jolly-twee."

This immediately caught my attention, not least because I like to consider myself a person far-removed from whimsy (even the word is horrid). And yet, I am drawn to many things that I'm afraid Tom Lubbock might describe as whimsical. What does this say about me?

The dictionary describes whimsy as something 'odd, fanciful or quaint'. Well, I'm all for odd and fanciful, but I think it's the 'quaint' that brings me out in a rash. It's something I try to avoid everywhere I go, but what actually is it? Am I just being a snob? Is what I consider to be the height of good taste somebody else's idea of whimsy?

Probably. I guess we just have to believe in ourselves and what we're doing and keep on exposing ourselves to challenges and different expressions of creativity. It's too easy to waste time constantly comparing our work with other people's and lose the essence of what we're about ourselves.

dotty crochet

It's finally finished! I've been feverishly hooking away at the last of my sixty squares, trimming, neatening, sewing them all together, edging... and here it is! My first ever crochet project (well, I made a daft scarf a couple of years ago but I don't count that).

I'm ridiculously, childishly excited about this small achievement - I've always wanted to learn to crochet properly and thanks to the lovely Teresa on You Tube, I've learnt to make squares out of little circles. Yay! It did take me a while, and I'm too embarrassed to admit how many times I had to replay the video and have it explained to me again, but Teresa is a very patient teacher.

I'm especially in love with the wools I used. They were all snatched from the sale bargain bucket at John Lewis in a most unladylike manner back in July and are mostly cotton, merino and cashmere - lovely to work with, and gorgeous colours. I think one of my mistakes in the past when trying to master woolly techniques has been my misguided belief that cheap scratchy wool should be used when learning. This way, it was like learning to stroke pussycats.

And now I can't wait to make more! I've already got a hundred ideas for more rugs and throws in more lovely colours. The only trouble is, the yarn sale is now finished...

a continuous line

This week I drove up to Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal to see 'A Continuous Line - Ben Nicholson in England'. Do try to catch this exhibition if you can - it is going to Bexhill next, followed by a stint at Tate St Ives until next May.

I loved - as always - his wonderful drawings, full of detail and intimacy but observed with such clarity and restraint. Many of the drawings and paintings were from his time spent in Cumbria with his first wife Winifred, and often feature a single, naively drawn horse, sometimes appearing as if they were chalk horses, embedded into the landscape. His skilful juxtaposition of real-life perspective and plan view is something I've always loved and often tried to incorporate into my own work with varying degrees of success.

There is so much to say about Ben Nicholson's work that you could probably devote a whole blog to it - I could certainly go on interminably about its appeal and inspiration to me. The way his drawings are so different to his paintings, and both of those in a completely different language to his reliefs - yet all of them so obviously his work. As one who is drawn to many different media and techniques daily if not hourly, this is definitely something for me to think about.

But this time, perhaps the most important thing I came away with was an excitement about his use of texture. Paint applied onto more paint, allowed to dry and rubbed away again and again, creating worlds of complexity and depth in a single square inch. I particularly loved what the exhibition notes had to say about this:

"In a period of turmoil his art proposed a new way of thinking about the world. Part of that was a re-engagement with nature and tradition. The gently worked textures of his pictures' surfaces that represent a tradition of craftwork..."

Chris Stephens in the exhibition catalogue explains how although Nicholson's own father was a significant painter, he was inspired as much by watching his mother at work in the kitchen: "He set out to show that the making of art was ordinary and domestic, as essential as housework".

This idea is summed up for me in this picture of Barbara Hepworth, with whom he fell in love in 1931:

The actual picture is large, around 3'x4', but even from my feeble snap you can see how he achieves a wonderful layering effect, so reminiscent of patchwork and applique. It's all paint and pencil, no collage, and conveys a gentle homeliness and a sense of great dignity, both at the same time. Perhaps that's how he felt about Barbara?

So, a brilliant day out for me, and I've come back positively throbbing with ideas and inspiration. Oddly though, one of my best ideas came to me through a conversation I overheard between two ladies in the tearoom...

Note: the images of Ben Nicholson's work are photographed by me from the catalogue for the sole purpose of sharing my impressions with you, but they are of course copyright of his estate and shouldn't be reproduced or used for anything important.

monday treats

I made one of my rare visits to Matalan today in an attempt to get hold of one of these...

Lovely, aren't they? And only £6 each! Anyway, as usual everyone else had been there before me and there were none left, so I consoled myself with the two rather gorgeous vessels displayed at the top of the post: a shiny, blue-green Denby-ish casserole dish to introduce style and elegance to my dinner table on Stew Night, and a satisfyingly smooth and sinuous spiral bowl which is, apparently, handmade. Both very cheap and very lovely, although of course now I am fretting that someone somewhere has been paid peanuts to make them and I feel bad.

There is always something to feel bad about, isn't there? And they were supposed to cheer me up...