A small, sustainable wardrobe: we are the grown ups now

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

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My Sharpen Your Pencils dress as modelled by the gorgeous Ella. We got together for a photoshoot in the summer holidays, and she wowed me with how a  woman in her late teens or early twenties might style and wear my clothes. There are more photos to follow of both of us in the patterns. The dress pattern will be available in the coming months.

For some time now, I’ve been mulling over how to present my patterns within the wider context in which they are created. In the end, a series seems the best way forward: a weekly post about clothing and its impact both on us and the world around us.

I have always been interested in the wider world, the health of our planet, and the living conditions of its poorest inhabitants. You don’t grow up in a country like Tanzania in the 1980s and then turn a blind eye to issues like climate change, pollution, poverty, or human rights. Perhaps it seems odd – frivolous even – to approach these issues through the prism of the clothes we wear. Perhaps it is. But we all, without exception, clothe ourselves each day. And when you are conscious of your daily choices in one sphere, this consciousness spills over into other parts of your life, until before you know it, you are buying your loose leaf tea in an old ice cream tub and looking for a car share buddy.

I can distinctly remember learning about climate change at school. I was an early member of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots – a global environmental organisation which started in Tanzania, educating and inspiring children from kindergarten through to university about the change that they can make to the planet and its people. I remember reading Douglas Adam’s wonderful Last Chance to See, and about the rate at which the rainforests were disappearing, and being taught about the importance of educating women in eradicating poverty. So we kids made our changes: we stopped buying aerosols, and ate less meat, and learned to recycle our waste.

And all the time, I trusted the grown ups to sort the big things out.

More than twenty years on, little has changed. If anything, the rate of destruction has increased. We are producing over 300 million tons of plastic every year. Girls all over the world – including developed countries – miss school every month because of lack of sanitary ware. Between 150 and 200 species go extinct every day. Governments make decisions which they know are harmful rather than helpful to the world and its inhabitants. Even Lovelock’s fantastically optimistic Gaia hypothesis has lost its nerve.

We could do nothing. We could weep and wail and feel powerless in the face of big corporations, big government, big natural disasters that heap still more misery onto human misery. Or we could simply accept that we are the grown ups now.

I have money in my pocket, and I can choose where to spend it. I have places to go, and I can choose how to get there. I have children, and I can choose what sort of a role model I wish to be for them. I have friends, and I can choose what to talk about with them. And I have a voice, here on this blog, that I can choose how to use.

Most recently, I had the choice of what to do with the time that has opened up to me as my children grow ever bigger. I put a lot of thought into what I wanted the legacy of this time to be. In the end, I decided to start a business selling dressmaking and knitwear patterns. How, you might think, is that a positive choice? How will that make a difference? How is that being a grown up?

I started making my own clothes when our children were small and, frankly, we had no money for adult clothes shopping. More pertinently, we had nothing like the money required to buy the ethically made garments I really wanted. So as well as shopping second hand and accepting hand-me-downs, I decided to teach myself to make them. Of course, there wasn’t spare cash for patterns either, so I borrowed a book from the library and tried to draft my own.

Over a decade later, I’ve learned a vast amount. Best of all, I’ve taken charge of the choices I make. Knitting and dressmaking can be as sustainable – or otherwise – as you make it. Churning out clothes that you don’t need or don’t even want is no better than going shopping every Saturday. If you are taking clothes to the charity shop, you are still consuming too much.

Instead, I’ve become fascinated by detail, by skill, by versatility and material. I demand a huge amount of my clothes: that they be warm or cool or cross-seasonal, that they be comfortable, that they be attractive, that they fit into a reasonably compatible colour palette, that they have the sort of details that make them not just good enough, but exactly as I want them. One of the things that delighted me most about the reception of my Snow Day jumper was the number of people who commented on the little details. I added an uneven hem because it looks good and keeps my lower back warm. I added a very wide boat neck because I wanted a jumper that was both a little bit sexy but also cosy. The sleeves are ribbed to make them extra warm, because I feel the cold. And these details matter because that is my only jumper. I don’t have another jumper in my wardrobe. It needs to work hard.

In my wardrobe there is a fairly stable number of items, though of course it fluctuates a little. At the moment I have three pairs of shoes, three coats or jackets, one jumper and two cardigans, three dresses, three tops and four bottoms. Actually, I only have two bottoms, because I’m waiting to test the printed version of a couple of patterns. But there will be four, soon. I make my clothes exactly the way I want them, and then I wear them over and over again. Eventually they wear out, and I cut them up and make them into other things: quilts and potholders and so on, to give as gifts or use around the house. It works out that I generally need to replace one of each category each year. That means that I make one new knit, one dress, one top and one or two bottoms a year. I buy new shoes, coats and underwear as I need them, usually secondhand or from ethical companies.

Of course, having a tiny wardrobe isn’t going to save the world. But it was one of my first steps to making a significant difference. And I do believe that I make a significant difference. Every time I refuse to buy wrapped cheese, every time I log onto The Life You Can Save, every time I get on a train instead of an airplane. Spending less on shopping means that I have more money to donate or spend with trusted companies. Making my own clothes, and making them precisely as I want them, ironically means that I spend less time thinking about my clothes and more time thinking about things that matter. Each night I put away the few things that have needed to be washed. Each morning I put on whatever is clean and suitable for the demands of the day. I might wear the same things over and over again, but I couldn’t care less. I love all of my clothes and feel fabulous in them.

If you wanted to, you could work through all the patterns with me and, at the end of three years, we’d have sibling wardrobes. In different colours, no doubt, and different patterns and materials, but essentially the same. That would be fun. Equally, I’d be happy if people made just one of my patterns, so that they had that one great dress, or sweater, or pair of socks, and stopped buying more and more and more. Because the world just can’t take it any longer.

In my messy, imperfect life, making my own clothes is one of many things that I do to try to make a difference. I make mistakes all the time (though not in my patterns, I hope!), but I keep on trying. The internet is full of inspirational people sharing their personal passions. This is my offering: make the world the way you want it to be, from the clothes on your back to the cares in your head. Be conscious. Most of all, know that the choices you make do matter. We might not all be politicians or aid workers or company bosses. But we are the grown ups now.

Madeleine

Do you buy lots of clothes, in the search for the ‘perfect’ this or that? Do you make any of your own? What would your ideal wardrobe look like, in order to work for you and the world around you?

Small pleasures

First, there is pleasure in giving. Fliss has been asking for a waxed fabric sandwich wrap all summer, and I finally made her one on Sunday evening. The best part was letting her choose whatever she wanted out of my fabric stash. She chose what is also my favourite: this beautiful vintage floral green, and I know it brings her as much pleasure every lunchtime as it would me. We are neither of us fans of the cumbersome, and a simple wrap-come-tablecloth that folds away into nothing beats a lunchbox any day.

Then there is also pleasure in deliberating. I don’t have much of a stash, as a rule, but I did a bit of shopping while we were in London to make up new pattern samples. The teal linen, which is heavy and rich with drape, was to be a new Sharpen Your Pencils dress, only now I’m dreaming of a new lined A-line skirt in it instead. The floral viscose was to be a Beat the Blues Blouse, but wouldn’t it make the most satisfying of secretly-lovely linings for my skirt? Extravagant, yes. But I think I might be persuaded.

On the more frugal side of things, plans for my scraps are evolving. This little heap of 2 1/2″ squares were to be a postage stamp quilt, and maybe they still will. Or perhaps they’ll be an English Paper Piecing project, instead. I’m thinking of a tea cosy constructed of tiny hexagons, nestled together to keep the pot warm. It is the sort of long slow project that I would like to reserve for weekend afternoons, before the sun slips away behind the hen house.

Speaking of hens, our little flock of chicks is not quite old enough to join the ladies in the big house, but it won’t be long. For now, they are taking it in turns to enjoy the garden. They set out with such determination, arguing over fallen apples and particularly satisfying scratching spots, before ending up in the inevitable chicken cuddle under a tree. Even when the grown girls are out and the little ones are safely in their run, the hens nestle up to the wire. Perhaps we could let them all out together, but I think the small ones aren’t quite big enough to deal with the jostling yet. Sorting out the pecking order can be a stressful business. Everyone is happy, just now, so we’ll keep it this way for a while yet.

Generally, one or the other of us keeps an eye on the chicks while they’re free-ranging, because there are a lot of foxes about just now. We can see them from the kitchen window, but Seb is quite happy in the hammock with a blanket and a book, and John has been sanding this chair on the patio. Spotted for sale in a front garden, I brought it home in early July and put it in the garage. It sat there, untouched, until I lost the ability to see past the dark varnish and faded seat and began to regret the purchase. It was on its way to the St Leonard’s Hospice shop to earn its second lot for charity in two months when I found John halfway through the project. I’m so glad he didn’t ask, and just got started, because I’ve fallen for it all over again. A new seat cover will take no time at all, so once he’s finished with the mouldings and fed the wood with beeswax, we’ll have a new chair for our bedroom.

I am under no illusions that either of us will actually sit on it. No, it’ll be where I lay my clothes out for the following morning. Old habits die hard, it seems, and it is so much easier to ease yourself out from under the covers if no thought is required. Besides, a pile of clothes you made yourself is always a little thrill. This morning’s selection was particularly pretty, in my eyes. Soon it’ll be too cold for my chambray peg trousers, so I’ve a pair planned in chocolate tweed as a second sample and winter alternative. The only question is which floral to use for the inner waistband and pockets.

First, though, I have another Snow Day jumper to knit. I let Fliss choose the wool, as it will be for her. This grey-pink is a little too lilac for my taste, but she loves it and I love knitting for her, so all is well. If you need me, I’ll be in my studio, knitting and taking tutorial photographs. Probably with a tea tray and a drama on the radio. Now that is a pleasure, and not a small one. I am looking forward to those hours.

Yet what might not come across in this post of crafting highlights is the hustle and bustle of our surrounding life. I got up at some ridiculous hour yesterday to take John to the station to catch a flight to Sweden, before a full day of work then home to children (who I love) and homework and dinner and packed lunches and laundry and ironing and washing up (which I don’t) and trying very hard to stay awake until it was time to collect them from Scouts (which I managed, only just). In between all of those things, nestled a row here and a row there of my Lionberry shawl, begun at the weekend and continued, all too briefly, in bed after my morning-taxi-driver run. I’ll be putting it aside now, until the sample jumper is gauge-swatched, knitted and blocked. But it’s there, coiled in the base of my basket, waiting for a moment when I need just five minutes of the small pleasure of wrapping wool around a needle and watching what emerges.

Madeleine

What’s bringing you pleasure at the moment?

This way for free patterns

Last week the children went back to school, so I picked a bunch of the prettiest double-click cosmos to take to work with me in my little studio upstairs. It’s a tiny room, just big enough for a desk, a chair, and my spinning wheel tucked into a gap at the end. Nestled between two bedrooms at the front of the house, it’s the space above the porch, and I can look out of the tall sash window at passers-by while the sun streams in and fills the room with warmth. In fact, it’s the cosiest room in the house, which is perfect for wintry days when I’m the only one at home. With the door shut, a cup of tea and perhaps a hot water bottle on my lap, I can settle in for hours. Or that’s the hope. It’s only been mine since the spring.

Normally, at this time of year, I do a little stocktake of my wardrobe and plan the things I’d like to fill the gaps with. Not one to enjoy excess, I keep a smallish wardrobe of under 40 items, including tights and wellies and suchlike. I know that limiting options is not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy the challenge of creating a versatile collection. All of my clothes can be dressed up and down and mixed and matched, and so three dresses and tops and bottoms and jumpers and shoes result in a surprising variety of looks. And if you happen to feel that the sartorial more is the merrier, my clothes give you all the more options to play with.

Inevitably, I find that I need to replace one thing from each category: a new dress, a new top, and new bottom of some sort, and a new jumper (sweater). That’s the way I’ve structured the patterns for this year: one of each, with a few essential accessories like knickers and Fairisle wrist warmers. The plan is to release one a month, to match what I like to make as the autumn shifts towards winter and, blissfully, spring. I know I’m not alone in considering the autumn to be knitting weather, so the first pattern will be my new jumper.

I’ve explained before that the patterns are aimed at new or newish makers, and the knitting patterns are no exception. One of the hardest things about learning to knit is learning to read a pattern. We can all make the stitches long before we can decipher that secret code. So my knitting patterns have the standard pattern written in bold, then a detailed set of jargon-free instructions and photographs beneath. They are clear enough for anyone who can cast on, knit and purl to follow.

As it’ll be the first pattern to be released, it’ll be available completely free through this blog for a limited period of time. So if you fancy making a comfy, boxy knitted jumper with (or without) popcorn bobbles on the front and super-warm ribbed sleeves (I’m thinking that it’ll go perfectly with a cosy body-warmer when out and about), stick around. There will be photos of the finished jumper and more details about it next week. It’s probably a good idea to sign up for email notifications so that you don’t miss either that post or the pattern when it comes out, as it won’t be free forever. (You’ll find the sign-up under ‘Join our community’, in the sidebar.)

If, on the other hand, knitting is not your thing, don’t despair. There’s a rather lovely but very simple lined A-line skirt coming out in October – perfect to pair with your new jumper or any others in your collection. This, too, will be a free first pattern for a limited time, so that you can see just how I’ve constructed and written it to make it completely accessible to anyone who can work a machine (or is willing to sew all those seams by hand). Again, sign up for email notifications so that you don’t miss out.

There are lots of other plans in the offing: other pattern giveaways, FAQ pages, tutorials, a photo gallery of your finished projects and link up parties to your posts about the patterns. There will be a toe-up stripy sock pattern – aimed squarely at beginners – as well as a gorgeously flattering pencil dress, an embroidered tee, the blousiest summer blouse… All of which makes me think that I really ought to be getting back to it. I’ll be upstairs in my studio, if anyone needs me. (Those words still send a little thrill down my spine.) It’s going to be such an exciting year, I just can’t wait for it all to begin.

Madeleine

PS – Are you a knitter or a sewer or both? Or are you just starting out in your me-made wardrobe journey? What’s in the pipeline for you, this season?

Thoughts from the mill

2 September 1933

Months ago, when spring was late and it wouldn’t stop raining, my good friend Mrs Bow and I planned a trip to Quarry Bank. Ever since reading Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, I’ve longed to visit a northern cotton mill, see the machinery in action and learn more about the workers’ lives. Fliss read the novel this summer and fell in love with the unromantic town of Milton (as well as, I suspect, the very romantic Mr Thornton), and Seb, Ilse and Mandy Bow will all be learning about the industrial revolution in their history lessons soon. More than any of that though, Mrs Bow and I decided that we were in need of a good day out, and so plotted this little field trip for the end of the summer holidays.

Of course, the mill is still a working factory, but on Tuesday some of the longer-standing members of the workforce were holding demonstrations of cotton processing through the ages. Although the children seemed to find the cottager hand-carding and -spinning the raw fibres a little mundane (apparently spinning is so everyday) I had to resist climbing over the baskets and having a go myself. Cotton must be more difficult to spin than wool, and the woman was using a small version of a great wheel, which she spun from while seated. Most wheels nowadays have a treadle to drive the mechanism, which leaves both hands free to draft and spin the fibres. On a great wheel, you use one hand to turn the wheel and the other to draw the fibres back as the twist runs into them. The woman was quite skilful, and I was impressed by the fineness and evenness of the thread she produced.

If I’m honest, there wasn’t much about the cottage industries of carding, spinning or even weaving that we didn’t already know, as we’ve read a lot about this over the past couple of years. Nor was the operation of the spinning mules a mystery; we saw some in action in Wales last year. What I didn’t know was how cotton was spun nowadays, and when I asked I was sent up to the top floor where the modern machines were in action.

It turns out that the iconic spinning mules, with children crawling forwards and backwards to clear and reuse the waste cotton beneath, were superseded fairly quickly by the American invention of the ring spinner. Yet because British mills had already invested in expensive mules – of such quality that they are still in operation today – works such as Quarry Bank have only invested in ring spinners in the past fifteen to twenty years. The quality of the cotton produced is much the same, but the ring spinner is much faster and, more importantly, requires far fewer people to operate. Suddenly we have a machine which, despite rising standards of living for the workers, is still cheaper to produce than it was last century. No wonder cloth is more easily available than ever.

With the memory of the Great War still fresh in our minds, we are in little danger of taking cheap cloth for granted. Clothes are still too expensive, whether ready made or home sewn, for people to discard them on a whim. Most people I know will still make things over, and mend them, rather than buy new. But the bolts of bright cottons in the shops in York are very tempting, and we are well enough off for me to indulge the girls when they ask very nicely for a new summer frock even if they haven’t quite outgrown their old ones. Looking at the whole process under one roof, from the bales of fluff shipped in from around the globe, to the smooth and colourful finished article, makes it seem like an awful lot of resource to spend on something new to wear. Never mind the historical human cost: the children scrambling to get away from the heavy iron in time, the fluff on the lungs, the Indians who lost their fingers to the cruel British stranglehold on the industry – there must be other human costs that we don’t or won’t see even today.

All in all, our visit to the mill left me better educated and resolved to stick to my self-imposed rules about fabric. As someone who sews, it would be so easy to have a whole cupboard full of lovely prints and textures at my disposal. Instead, I try my hardest to buy new only when I really need to, and from a trusted source, and to make every purchase something so beautiful and so special that I’ll treasure it until the last scrap has been sewn into the most kaleidoscopic of quilts. Having said that though, I did buy a little pack of their fabrics to sew into the quilt I have planned for this winter. If nothing else, it’ll remind me of our visit to the mill and what I came away thinking.

Cecily

Photo shoot

Every so often, this blog forces me to do something miles out of my comfort zone. This week, it was the photo shoots for the sewing patterns I’ve been developing.

If I’m entirely honest, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t think about this part of the process when I decided to start selling my patterns. I knew, in a vague sort of way, that there would have to be photographs of some sort, but as long as it remained a hazy and unspecified prospect that was fine by me. Finally, though, my hand was forced by the fact that I’d made an appointment with a very talented young woman and that my photographer is due to go back to university soon. Given the choice of now or never, I went for now.

All I can say is: do not underestimate the amount of skill and confidence it takes to style an outfit and then be photographed in it. My friend’s daughter, Ella, arrived at our house with two suitcases of clothes and accessories and proceeded to throw on my clothes with such style and ease that absolutely everything looked right. Ben, our photographer for the day, had the privilege of clicking the shutter at someone who knew how to stand or sit, and had only to focus on the lighting and framing of the shot. My friend and I quickly left them to it, busying ourselves with folding and ironing and many cups of tea. It was one of the most inspiring and fun days I’ve had on this project, and the photographs are better than I had dreamed of.

I loved seeing a seventeen year old wear my clothes with such flair and inventiveness. She could have gone on and on, creating different looks for different occasions. I keep a very small wardrobe, relying on my clothes to be versatile enough to be dressed up for work or a wedding or down for gardening – there’s little I wouldn’t do in any of them. I tend to do simple shifts in formality: swapping heels for Chelsea boots or a knit for a tailored coat. Ella’s outfits were far more inventive and striking, and left my girls in awe. I can’t wait to share her photographs with you.

At the same time though, I love to see clothes on the person who made them. There is something symbiotic about the relationship between conception, execution and the physical reality that ensues. When I design, I think about who I want to be in a particular item: sharp and stylish, patterned and a little bit vintage, or just someone who is off to dig the parsnips. I love it when bloggers post photos of themselves in their creations, but never fully appreciated the effort until it was my turn.

Suffice to say that I have a lot to learn, and that Ben is very patient. The end result is a series of very honest photos: these are the clothes that I have designed and made and that I wear on a daily basis. They show how I wear them, and what they look like in use. I’m so pleased that we persevered with the shoot, because now we have photos of the clothes styled and modelled in two very different ways, but on two ordinary people, using the contents of their own wardrobes, on a slightly overcast day, in and around my house and garden, photographed by a novice. None of us had ever done anything like this before, and, although some of us were better at it than others, we all worked together to achieve an end product to be proud of. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

So, in the spirit of this week’s photo shoots, I leave you with the first up-to-date photograph of me published on this blog. It was another overcast day and I was hoping the sun would come out – and then it did.

Introducing my sewing pattern project

Over the past decade or so, I’ve been learning to make my own patterns. It all started when Seb and Ilse were tiny and I was at home, looking after the children full time. I’d bought a sewing machine to make some curtains for our new home and thought I may as well have a go at making myself some clothes as well.

I did use a couple of commercial patterns, early on, but not many. They were never quite what I wanted. I’d have an idea of what I wanted to make and then spend ages poring over the catalogues, unable to find the matching pattern. So I stuck to simple shapes: A-line skirts and sundresses that I drafted for myself and made out of old sheets and charity shop finds. Sewing quickly turned into an inexpensive hobby for me, perfect for filling wintry nap-times. I could have been so bored during those three years at home, but learning a new skill helped to keep my mind active and engaged. (In fact, I also relearned how to knit during those years, and drafted two novels, and started growing vegetables. Apparently I like to be doing…)

The lightbulb moment came in York Central Library (as it was) one sunny June day. I adore libraries. The fact that anyone – anyone! – can just walk in and immerse themselves in books is one of the most wonderful gifts society can give its members. There I was, browsing the craft section, when I came across an old edition of Winifred Aldrich’s Metric Pattern Cutting for Women’s Wear. I’d never heard of it – I am entirely self-taught and my degree in Philosophy was a million miles from this new enthusiasm. But as I flicked through its pages, something clicked, and I suddenly realised that here, in my hands, was the key to making anything I wanted.

Having seen me renew the book umpteen times, John bought me a copy for Christmas, and I’ve not bought a pattern since. That’s probably not the most sensible thing to tell you, given that I’m hoping to sell my patterns through this space. But I know that those who will want to draft their own patterns will do just that, whatever I say, and those who don’t, won’t. Not everyone likes the maths and the technical drawings, the measuring and imagining of three-dimensional alterations to a block. I really do. I love the puzzle of it, working out how to translate the item in my head into a two dimensional diagram, then back again. It’s just another form of problem-solving, made all the more fun by fabric and print and finishes.

So over the past few weeks I’ve been taking some of my oldest and simplest patterns, and recreating them for sale. Without exception, they have been chosen because they fulfil two criteria. First, they are items that I’ve made over and again, because they are good-looking and easy to wear. Secondly, they are simple enough for the novice or returning dressmaker to create. Over the years, I’ve made several more complex patterns, but the ones I’m going to release first are the simple ones.

I thought it might be interesting for people to have an idea of what the process of creating a sewing pattern is like, so I’ve taken some pictures along the way. Of course, I’ve tested and worn all of these garments, so what I’m really doing at the moment isn’t creating new patterns, but just formalising and grading some of my old favourites.

The first thing I do is create a size 12 (US size 10, European size 40) block. This is the basic shape of a type of garment – a tailored skirt, for instance. You use a chart of standard measurements and follow a series of instructions to get a life size block in that size. The reason you start with a size 12 block for graded patterns is that it is the middle size (for my patterns, anyway) so that there is greater accuracy as you grade up and down from it.

Next, you trace the block off and manipulate it until it stops being a generic shape and takes on the form of the garment you want to create. Here, you can see that I’ve cut the tracing open to introduce more flare into the skirt, and moved the darts. You then trace this onto pattern paper. If you were making the pattern in just one size, you would stop here.

However, I’m making the patterns available in five sizes, which means grading them up and down from the size 12. There are several ways to do this. I use the cut and spread method, which means cutting up your pattern along certain lines and spreading it out before sticking it down and tracing it off again. For example, a size 14 waist is 4 cm larger than a size 12, so I have to work out how much to spread each of the vertical lines on the pattern to make the overall garment 4 cm bigger in that direction. It is both incredibly simple and breathtakingly effective.

 

Finally, you have to mark the pattern pieces with their names, grainline, position of pleats or buttons and so forth, before writing up a set of instructions to accompany it. In this form, the pattern can be used as it is. However, I’m going to release one each month from September (starting with a couple of free ones) and create video tutorials and photographs to help people along. I’m also going to host a Q&A page and a link up for everyone to share their finished garments, and will of course answer emails from anyone who needs a little extra help.

The truth is that garment making is one of those things that baffles lots of people for no good reason. It’s just a skill, like anything else. People used to make their own clothes all the time – it wasn’t seen as anything special. What I really want to do, more than anything, is demystify the process and, over the course of a few years, enable others to make the same journey that I did, from complete beginner to someone who sees an item of clothing and can go home and make one for themselves.

Madeleine

PS – Of course, this is just the process for the sewing patterns. Writing knitting  patterns is different, but equally satisfying. Can you knit and/ or sew? Do you make garments for yourself? If not, what would encourage you to get started?

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.