Craeft

I went to see Alex Langlands speak about his new book, Craeft, as part of York’s Festival of Ideas. John booked my free ticket as a surprise, knowing my abiding love for Tales from the Green Valley, the predecessor of the BBC Victorian Farm series. (Actually, John appeared as an expert in one episode of Wartime Farm, which is a source of much pleasure and not a little envy to me…)

The talk began with an investigation of the word craeft, which Alex explained is more to do with power than skill. In a pre-industrial, pre-consumer age, this makes sense. To engage in craeft is to exert power: over the landscape, raw materials, the very climate itself. Craeft is a transformative power in its own right, but also requires our physicality, our vitality, to drive the process. In turn, both the skills of the craftsperson and the products that ensue result in yet more power, further shaping the landscape, both agricultural and political.

Having listened to Alex speak about making use of the world around him, sourcing free materials from the landscape and squeezing his passion for craeft into his spare time, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked. Don’t you think, asked one member of the audience, that to engage in craeft presupposes a certain level of privilege, in terms of time and money? And although Alex dealt with this well, it was a recurring theme.

Once home, I raised this with John. For me, craeft is the opposite of consumption. I keep a list of the things I buy for projects, and it is ludicrously short. The odd ball of wool, when I know I can’t spin to that specification. Two or three lengths of Liberty lawn, a much savoured part of a trip to London. Thread. Always thread. The odd packet of seeds, although I save and swap as many as I can. The vast majority of what I make with comes completely free, either as a gift, salvaged from other people’s cast offs, or gathered from the natural world. Once people know that you make things, they send all sorts your way. I have my entire family saving old shirts and keeping their avocado pits in the freezer. Last week my aunt texted me to say that she had two freshly shorn fleeces ready and waiting. Another aunt, Fiona, taught me to make baskets one rainy afternoon in Derry. But it comes from further afield than family. There are guilds of craftspeople desperate to share their expertise. My spinning wheel, which I think must date from the 1960s, was a gift from a woman I’d never met, who wanted to pass it on to someone who would use it. Craeft in public and people will stop to share tips with you. And when I do spend money, I spend it on high quality materials and tools that will last and last. All my patchwork is done on a 1916 Singer, bought from the charity shop down the road for £20. Not only does it sew smooth and straight, but it is quiet and beautiful and easily repaired. To see craeft as consumption is, I think, to miss the point.

It is the difference between spinning from prepared, dyed top, and being given a slightly stinky fleece in a old feed sack, dags and all. In the first case, you can choose your method of spinning. With a raw fleece, though, you get to make all the choices. How aggressively are you prepared to skirt it? Are you going to scour it, cold soak it or spin it in the grease? Will you blend the fibres from across the fleece or spin each section separately, to preserve their distinct qualities? Should you card it or comb it? Spin woolen or worsted? How and when might you dye it? Both are examples of spinning, yet one clearly involves more power, more control.

The other issue is that of time. It wasn’t until we had two children and a third on the way that I began to make making a part of my everyday life. At the very point when I had the least time, the act of making became more important than ever. It keeps me sane, having something in my hands. Craeft isn’t something special, kept for days when John takes all the kids out of the way. It is a part of our everyday lives, undertaken while I’m waiting at the dentist, or for the potatoes to come to the boil. And rather than children being a barrier to craeft, they are a reason to engage in it more often. So much of our making is done alongside one another: one project inspires another and another until, in little pockets all over the house and garden, things are being made, and everyone is at peace.

Having said all that, I think that our different attitudes to craeft run deeper that our perspectives on time and money. There was much discussion of lost crafts – of the fear that we are not training people in certain skills so that, in ten years’ time, we may no longer be able to mend clocks or engineer a cricket ball. Yet I think that we are in danger of losing something far more fundamental. It is an issue of phenomenology as much as skill. To be a person who engages in craeft, in the true meaning of the word, is to adopt a certain schema. It is to look at the world in a very particular way, one which sees it as something malleable, something both transformative and to be transformed. It is, in short, to have a different sort of relationship with the world. To see the potential in every thing, not just in classes and courses and kits, but in weeds and animals and hedgerows. It is to go for a ramble and bring back not just lungfuls of fresh air, but pockets full of fallen lichen for dye, bits of fluff for lighting fires, a bit of wood to be carved, dogwood to add colour to a basket. To walk not through a picture postcard of a landscape, but a living, creative world.

This is what we are in danger of losing: the zeitgeist that craft is for everyone, by everyone, for the good of everyone. That it is ordinary and everyday. That there is beauty in the simplest of things, well-made and well-loved. And that all you need to get started is the willingness to try.

Madeleine

PS What do you think about craeft? How important is it in your life? How do you think we can best encourage others to participate in its resurgence?

A two-week quilt for Ben

I had been saving bits of fabric for some time – old clothes, remnants from other quilts and household projects – to make Ben a quilt to leave home with. The other children had their quilts first, but I knew I wanted Ben’s to coincide with the time when he headed off to university. It can be a peculiarly lonely time, those years in tertiary education. Although ostensibly in the company of friends – at parties and lectures and Sunday film nights – there is none of the background noise of family life. Little siblings might not be as much fun as your peers, parents might be downright annoying, but it’s hard to overestimate the value of your family just being there. They’re there when you eat your sleepy breakfast, there when you get in from school, there in the washing dumped on your bed, there when you want to lounge in the hammock and find that someone has beaten you to it. Underrated and ill-appreciated, the comings and goings of family life are the very best sort of company there is.

I wanted to include as much of us as possible in his going-away quilt, which is partly why I left it until last. Every time I cut up an old shirt or dress for another project, I tucked a couple of strips away for Ben. Slicing through new fabrics to add to his siblings’ quilts, or the kitchen cushions, or a summer holiday bucket hat, a strip always made its way into his pile. It didn’t matter if they were narrow or wide, long or short: this quilt used every size of scrap in every colour available. Even the grey sashing came from old white bedsheets, worn through in the middle and transformed in a bucket of dye. I wasn’t quite sure how many scraps I would need – I had yet to write the pattern – but I knew that I must be fairly close, and had another year to keep collecting.

At least, that was what I thought, until A Level results day last year when he decided that he’d go straight away, rather than taking a year out. It was absolutely the right decision, and we supported him in organising the essentials: finance, accommodation, and … quilt making. Although perhaps that last was only essential to me. It turned out that making a quilt – an essential quilt, mind – in just under two weeks is the ideal displacement activity when you are worrying about your eldest flying the nest. All those things I thought I had a year to do – like just getting used to the idea – I had to do in two weeks, instead. So I made him his quilt in double quick time.

We’d sketched out an idea in advance – a colour gradient of quilt-as-you-go string blocks, sashed in some way. It didn’t take long to do the maths, dye the old white cotton, and get started. Almost everything in his quilt is repurposed from elsewhere in our home. The orange and white backing is an favourite old duvet cover, split in half to make backings for both my boys. The twenty four blocks of wadding are the very last of some cotton fleece I bought to make the warmest – and heaviest – lined curtains in the world, before we had proper heating in this somewhat drafty old house. The sashing is, as I say, strips of old white sheets, and the fabrics in the blocks are almost all fabric he recognises – fabrics which have memories attached.

 

I say almost because I did run out of pink and had to buy a fat quarter pack to make it work. So for a month or two odd strips of the pink felt unrooted, somehow, in my mind. Until, that is, a new niece arrived and I used the leftovers in her quilt. Now they remind me of her, and when he went to meet her he saw his fabrics in her cot and even thought to tell me.

Home again, after several months away, his quilt is rather more crumpled than I remember, but that’s just a sign of use. I asked him whether he’d liked having it. Of course, he told me. It makes a huge difference, having something like that on your bed. It makes it feel like home.

Madeleine

PS – Have you ever made a memory/ going-away quilt? How did you make all the different scraps work together? I love scrap quilts but they take a bit more thought to make them work. I’d love to hear your suggestions because the scrap pile is growing again!

PPS – Is anyone interested in making a quilt like this? If so, let me know and I’ll post the pattern and tutorial (for free, of course).

 

Please would you be kind enough to resubscribe?

During my break from this blog, I’ve had so much fun dreaming up all the things I want to do with it. Cecily’s voice, for a start, is something that I’d like to keep alive. One day, I’d like to draw my favourite posts together into an ebook, if only for me to read when I’m old. And yet I also want to express myself as a modern woman: someone with an education, a career, a family, and choices. I want to talk about all the places we go and things that we do – that we simply wouldn’t have been able to do in 1932. I’d also like to link up to or talk about other people’s blogs that bring me so much pleasure, and the inspirational attitudes and achievements they portray.

In short, I’d like the blog to be a place where I can express the many different aspects of who I am. A place where I can publish a short story that I’ve written, or just muse about daily life. I want to talk about the modern flute music that I’ve been learning, or about spinning alpaca fibres, or choosing patterns from Ravelry. I also want to start sharing some of my own patterns – some for free, some for sale – which will mean writing about them sometimes.

As I suspect you know, GDPR comes into force tomorrow. I’m by no means an expert, but it’s a set of regulations intended to protect individuals’ data. Because I would one day like to try selling some of my sewing and knitting patterns through this blog, it makes sense for me to make sure that my mailing list complies with these regulations from the off. That means that I need everyone on my list to have actively clicked through a couple of steps to confirm that they really do want to be on my mailing list. You’ll notice that there’s a new paragraph in the ‘Join our community’ box – this is there so that you know what you are signing up for. There will be a second email coming out today, asking you to resubscribe. I’ll have to delete my previous mailing list this evening. I hope you don’t find this all too off-putting; as I say, it is just to ensure that I comply with regulations from the start. I promise I’ll stop bombarding you with emails and get back to normal from tomorrow!

With all the official stuff said, can I say that I am practically hopping with excitement to start sharing my designs with you? I love to teach, and this first set of patterns is designed with people who are new to garment-making in mind. Given the number of people who have commented on my hand-made wardrobe and said that they’d never know where to begin, I thought that I could help. And now that means complying with GDPR, even if you are reading this from outside the EU.

I hope that this doesn’t scare you off. I have no intention of the blog becoming a hollow marketing ploy. I just want to share what I’m making, and see if there’s any sort of future in it.

In the meantime, there’s a spot reserved for me just in front of my spring flowerpots. The met office has promised sunshine for later today, and so I’ll take my knitting out there, with Wuthering Heights on the radio for company. Before that, though, there’s the hoovering to do, and a post to dream up while I do so, about Ben’s first flight into the big world this year. Fledgling, I think I’ll call it, and add a photo of the quilt I made for him to take. He’s heading home for the summer next week, and the medium-sized cousins are coming to stay. It’s going to be a houseful. I can’t wait.

For my future self

There’s an awful lot of thought involved in sewing, but exponentially more when you are trying to use every last scrap in a number of long-term projects. If I start with quilt A, I’ll want a bit of that fabric for variety, but what if I don’t leave enough for the cornerstones in quilt B? Yet I can’t start with quilt B until I know that there’ll be enough wadding left over from C. Then there are old sheets to be divided three ways and dyed all the right colours, and all in all it is far too much to think about when I have a scant hour to get my machine out and sew in the middle of term.

These quilt packs, then, are a little gift to my future self. The summer holidays are the perfect time to sit down and work out patterns for the two that I’ve designed myself, and make lists of all the types and sizes and numbers of pieces required. It’s not something I’d normally do, cut three quilts out at a time, but in this case it really is the only way forward. Some of it is straightforward: cut the background fabric for one quilt and slice the rest up into strips and squares to enrich the other two. Other elements are a little more nail biting: could the wadding set aside for one quilt really stretch to two? Just – with a lot of crazy piecing for the one which will be quilted so heavily it won’t matter. And should I use those fabrics on the fronts, or save them to piece a back? There’s lots of measuring and calculating, but I think I’ve got it all worked out, and written instructions for my future self to make sense of each fat pack.

It would be so much easier to throw this lot away and buy a few yards of brand new fabric to make each quilt top. I could buy a roll of batting, and some extra wide yardage to back them all. But that seems very wasteful when it turns out that I have just enough after all. There’ll be a single trip to the haberdashers to buy the thread needed to sew each quilt, but that will be that.

Originally, I’d anticipated diving straight into one of these quilts as soon as the packs were complete, but now that I’m in the mood for thinking, I might press on with a couple of other head-scratching projects and get them done. One is a little rocking chair we’ve had for a couple of years now, waiting for a sanding and a brand new cover. The other is a wingback chair I bought on a whim for a song a couple of weeks before I realised quite how many projects lurked around the house. Ben’s already sanded that one for me, and it too needs new upholstery. So perhaps I ought to tackle them before the hurly-burly of term begins again.

From the outside it may seem dull, all this maths and cutting and sorting, but in little increments it’s rather fun. I make a pot of tea, put the wireless on and before I know it I’m joined by one or other of the children, wanting to make something too. Yesterday Fliss cut into some lovely florals she got for her birthday, to make a little teddy quilt. They are much, much prettier than my crazy-paving wadding. And as I had my eye on that gorgeous aqua print, she cut me a couple of strips to add to Ben’s scrappy quilt. I tucked them away with the other pieces, looking forward to getting them out one rainy autumn afternoon. I think she’s rather lucky, my future self.

Into the pot

Now that I’m into it, these quilt kits are proving great fun to put together. I finished cutting the main fabric for Seb’s eiderdown cover last night and put it into the dye pot today. It’s going to have a patchwork top: improvisational stars on a navy blue background – the words ‘winter’s night’ keep running through my head. Both of the bed-sized quilts I’ve made so far (Seb’s Devon quilt and Ilse’s Diamonds) have featured lots of white, which was a happy marriage between the effect I wanted and the materials I had to hand. But although that wasn’t what I had in mind for these next three, the fact is that all our sheets are white and they keep being worn through at a steady rate by one or other of us.

It’s been a while since I dyed anything – three years at least – and I’d forgotten how much fun it is. Having got everyone out of the house at the same time, two hours of solitude seemed too good an opportunity to miss, and I spent a happy while in the garage, listening to the wireless and stirring a pot of naviest blue. There’s something a little bit witchy about it, to be honest, and a little bit addictive. There are plans to dye the sashing for Ben’s quilt (grey, yawn, but it’ll bring the rest of it together) as soon as I have it all cut, but dying isn’t quite as utilitarian as that. Today’s session has already had me dashing in to cut a few more strips to throw into the pot and add to my basket of precuts. And I bought a two-pound bag of salt, which means that I’ll have half a pound left over. Hmmm, we can’t have that cluttering up the cupboards. I’ll just have to dye whatever bits of sheet are left over once all the kits are made. Pink, I think. Or perhaps green! Or aquamarine…? How will I ever choose?

Whirlwind

Oh my. Turn your back for a moment and the pile of craft-jobs-to-be-done grows exponentially. Out of sight, in cupboards and drawers around the house, more scraps and old clothes and odd bits of this and that gather than I ever thought possible. I knew I had a few projects lined up, but with my push to use every craft material for the purpose I had bought it for earlier this year, I thought I was quite on top of it all. In a way, I was. Every single piece of fabric or skein of wool has been sewn or knitted into its intended product. But what I’m left with are the remnants and the lame ducks of the crafting world: worn sheets, crumpled scraps of fabric and outgrown and stained clothes.

Now, I know that I could send some of this off with the rag and bone man to be rewoven into shoddy, but I genuinely want to make these things. So last week I gathered everything together into one tremendous heap on the dining room table and went through it all, sorting it into projects as I went. There’s the end of the fleeces I was given last summer to spin up. Three old white sheets to dye. Lots of snippets of fabric to trim into useable sizes for the three quilts I have lined up. Wadding for each one – two threadbare blankets and Seb’s sorry-looking eiderdown. A stack of granny squares which just need sewing together into a dolly blanket to set aside as a gift. Two pieces of fabric large enough to make a sunhat for our holiday in Greece. Some linen and some embroidery silk to turn into two more labels. The list goes on.

Literally nothing in the pile was new. Nothing had been bought (or given to me, with the exception of the fleeces) for a particular project. But it seemed such a waste to throw it all away when I could see all the potential in it. So I made a list of each and every project I had in mind, and made myself a kit for each.

In some cases, this was easy. The linen and thread went together with my hoop and needle: done. The fleece was already washed and sorted. But all that scrap fabric needed trimming, with sheets and scraps being divided between three different patchwork tops. And those old clothes? Well, they needed the collars and cuffs chopping off before they could even be cut up into strips. Seb, whose room the finished product was intended for, was keen to begin, and he and Ben and I made reasonably short work of turning a heap of old clothes into a basket of fabric yarn.

The simple act of preparing the materials has made them so much more appealing. By the time the yarn was made, everyone wanted to have a go at plaiting it. It’s trickier than it looks, because the balls have a way of making a sort of inverse plait beneath the real, intended one, but you find ways of dealing with this pretty quickly. Seb did a little bit – a yard or so – and I did the rest in two long evenings with John and the wireless for company. An hour of stitching round in spirals and the rag rug which had been waiting for well over a year was done. It’s by the reading chair in Seb’s new bedroom, and he’s nominated it the place to sit on the floor when he’s playing with his soldiers. Cheery and bright and completely recycled, we all rather like it.

Next up is that dolly blanket, and then the embroidery I think. And all the while, whenever I feel like it, I’ve been chopping away at that fabric, and building three kits for quilts. I keep thinking about how much fun it’s going to be, sewing it all together. And about how simple it is, to turn something cumbersome into something new and inspiring. The dining room table is in a state of flux, there are measurements and sketches building up in my little notebook, but I’m amazed at how quickly I’m whipping through these projects. In a whirlwind, in fact.

Diamonds

In the end, it flew straight off my lap and onto her bed, with her already in it, too excited to sleep. I’d promised it for Sunday evening and sewed all that afternoon, square after little square, until the chicken was ready and we sat down to eat together. There were six more still to go. Get ready for bed, I told her, and I’ll tuck you up in it while you sleep. But six small squares don’t take long, and her eyes were still open when I carried it up to her room.

I have been waiting, throughout the making of this quilt, for those squares to turn into diamonds. I kept thinking that it would happen at the next stage of the process: when the top came flying together, when it was bound, or when I started to quilt it. But they never came. All I could see were patchwork squares, old bits of this and that salvaged from summers past. Blouses and shirts, frocks and flimsy cotton skirts, old sheeting worn out in the middle, a woollen blanket of my grandad’s. Snippets of new fabrics, and remnants from dressmaking projects. Lovely things in their own right, worn and faded and soft. But not diamonds. Never diamonds.

Until, that is, I had tucked it around her and kissed her goodnight and was tiptoeing out of the room. I looked back for one last sleep tight and there they were: a whole grid of diamonds, criss-crossing one another in their abundance. A quilt full of them. A few steps away, a new perspective, and there they were. Diamonds for a little girl, soft and floral and warm.

Stitches

Well, it transpires that there are lots of things you can’t do without stretching your arms forward, particularly if you spend most of your days working with your hands in one way or another. I had a day or two of such discoveries, getting more and more fed up until I started to think about all the things I could do. Things that were not on my immediate list but that I wanted to get done. Frivolous things.

I spent an evening alternately dozing and re-reading The Go-Between. I tapped into Ilse’s enthusiasm for growing flowers and, with her help, arranged the pots on the patio. I delegated, rather a lot. This helped the house to get clean, thank goodness. I baked a huge Victoria sponge, simply oozing raspberry jam and cream, simply because I had the time, and it seemed a nice way to celebrate Friday. I still sat, for several hours across several different sessions, and helped Ben with his revision. It’s dull, doing it all on your own, day after day. I practised my Chopin, and the non-arm-crossing parts of my Debussy. I hoed the garden, standing very upright. I made a new camisole for myself.

And in between all of this, I cross-stitched the label for Ilse’s quilt. Indoors on the Saturday, then outside while drilling Ben on his Latin grammar on Sunday afternoon. It’s done now, although I might add a pretty little border in a darker pink, just to frame the words. It has a snowflake in the middle because it was one I never finished last Christmas. Once I’d stitched the other half of the flake, it seemed silly not to use it. The label is far from perfect – it’s an old linen napkin with a very uneven weave which makes it hard to be neat – but we all rather like it. So much, in fact, that the others would all like one for their quilts too. I’m sure I can oblige. I loved every soothing stitch.

But today I woke up and felt much better, which meant that the onions have had a much-needed hand weeding and I’m planting up some of those pots. Mrs P and I did a huge, ever-so-slightly-urgent wash. I’ll be getting on with lots of those tasks at the top of the list, now that I’m on the mend. I might just slip in a little cross stitch though. It is just the loveliest thing to do at this time of year, in a wicker chair, in the dappled sun. I don’t think I’m altogether healed just yet. Yes, a few more days of stitches might just be in order.

Bound

What a lazy Sunday – not at all the sort I would expect in May. A morning spent knitting a quick and chunky snood in peacock hues, ends woven in and blocked by lunchtime: the fruits of one of my very first attempts at spinning. A spot more spinning while it soaked. And then an afternoon in front of the fire, hand sewing the back of the binding onto Ilse’s quilt while outside continued windy and cold and grey and someone else took care of the supper.

The pace of crafting in this house tells me that it isn’t quite as warm as it ought to be, for May, and we would like a little more sunshine, please. We are still wearing our coats when we go into the garden, only shedding them once this task or that has warmed us up. Mrs. Drummer and I went for an evening of knitting in the pub on Saturday and there was no chance of our sitting outside. She finished a lovely moss stitch scarf and I cast on for my snood, and it didn’t feel unseasonable at all. Very pleasant, in fact, if somewhat oddly autumnal.

So, rather than spending hours in the garden and just enough to keep the quilt ticking over, my time is being spent the other way around, and I don’t think it’ll take me until the end of May after all. There’s been a change of plan, too, which will speed things along just as soon as I unpick what I’ve already done. Having quilted nine of the sixty-three white squares I don’t like the effect at all. They break up the chain effect and make the pattern revert to one of nine-patches and white blocks. Instead, the centre square of each nine-patch will be quilted, emphasising the intersections between the horizontal and vertical rows of diamonds – much more in keeping with the trompe l’oeil. There’s no need to stick slavishly to an original plan and anyway, it’s a good excuse to unpick those wobbly first lines of quilting stitches.

Hopefully it won’t be done by the end of May because that will mean that the weather has turned gorgeously warm and bright and I’ve been unable to resist the charms of the great outdoors. It won’t matter anyway, because Ilse will be far too hot at night to want such a thick and heavy quilt draped over her. But if things stay the same I shan’t mind too much, having something warm and interesting to look at spread over my lap as I stitch.  Either way, it’s bound to by finished by autumn.

Like the wind

After taking so very long to get started, Ilse’s quilt is flying together. This week I sewed the squares into long diagonal rows and then, on Saturday, started putting the rows together. I thought I’d try a couple, to see how the quilt would look, but somehow just one more row turned into a whole quilt top and by half past nine it was spread out on the living room floor, and everyone not yet in bed called in to admire it.

Once it was ironed I hung it on the line to dry the last of the sprinkled water, and stood for some time as it danced in the lively wind. How lovely it is, to see those pieces cut out so long ago finally come together. It looks just as I’d imagined it: blues, greens and pinks against a white background. Look at it closely and you see the nine-patches set on point; squint and there are rows of horizontal and vertical diamonds. With it so close to completion, and with the timely arrival of an old circular tablecloth from Mother, I pieced a back on Sunday and sandwiched one of Ilse’s great-grandfather’s blankets between the two, safety-pinning it all in place.

Now I know that the convention is to quilt it all next, but there were a lot of seams on the edge of this quilt, all sewn on my aged 1916 Singer and prone to pulling apart. The thought of watching them unravel as I worked my way through weeks of hand quilting made me wince. So I took some advice from a highly experienced quilter and machined the binding in place. The apple green sets off all the other greens in the quilt and now, like magic, it is a green and white quilt. It’s funny how that happens. It could have been pink, or even blue, but no, it’s apple green: crisp and fresh.

All that activity left a bare shelf in the landing cupboard to fill with blankets peeled off everyone’s beds. Yesterday’s wind has blown itself out and May has arrived, bright and calm. I’ve given myself the whole month to finish this quilt off: to hand stitch down the binding, cross stitch a little label and quilt a diamond in each of those background squares. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing, now that spring seems here to stay. I’ll carry it onto the lawn on sunny afternoons, and sit under it to work in the still-chilly evenings. It’s still going like the wind, only now it’s just a gentle breeze, soft and mild.