Fitz Stitch… Completed!

In recent news… last month I was quoted in an article on Martha Stewart Living!

I received an email through the blog several weeks ago from one Caroline Biggs, who said she was writing an article for Martha Stewart Living about how to hang a quilt. She said she’d seen my tutorial on How to Hang a Quilt with Command Strips, and could she include it and quote me as an expert? Uh… yes! So she sent me some questions, and I wrote replies, and now I’m in a magazine! Almost a month later, and I’m still amazed.

But, as you might have gathered from the title, the true purpose of this post is to announce that my Fitz Stitch Piece is complete, and submitted!

Here it is, pinned to a piece of cardboard for shipping. The background is a 400 thread-count white cotton, layered on cotton batting and machine quilted.

Once I was finished with the fish, I faced up to my next problem. I’d been planning the whole time to mount the pieces for the design onto the fabric with no visible stitches. I decided to use a technique I’d learned a few years ago from a tutorial on Modern Handcraft for modern hexies. It basically requires folding fabric around a template, steaming it so it holds the shape, popping the template out, and then gently gluing the resulting hexagon onto your background. Of course, this would work with all sorts of shapes, but I wasn’t sure it would give me the sharp edges that I wanted.

There are so many problems with trying to make anything in fabric look three dimensional. You can go full 3-D, which may be effective or may look really weird, or you can try for forced perspective, which again, very difficult to make it look good. I decided that, for this hand, with the techniques I know (which absolutely do not include convincing three-dimensionality), the only thing for it was to do it understated, flat pieces with lines that implied shape, and nice crisp edges so that it would read as a hand from across the room.

And then it occurred to me: what if I made templates for the hand, that didn’t have to come out?

So I made the templates out of heavy-duty fusible interfacing, the kind you use for bags.

I fused the templates to my purple cotton, cut them out with seam allowance, dug out my American Clover iron and my voltage converter, and very carefully folded the edges around each template and glued them down with Glue-Baste-It. (Which is one of my very favorite quilting tools; makes piecing and machine binding so much more precise!) You can see the three fingers that are finished in the picture above.

I did the same thing with the extra pieces of glass that are being re-assembled, and I embroidered a few wrinkles on the purple glove to kind of imply a shape. (Stem stitch, one strand of midnight blue DMC embroidery floss. The stem stitch made the curved lines slightly thicker in the middle, tapered at the ends, which was great.)

But for the fish itself, I wanted it to pop just a little bit more, and seem closer to the viewer than the pieces in the background. So, I added a layer of batting underneath the interfacing. Then, I carefully positioned my pieces on the quilted background (I so did not want to make all these elements all over again!), and glued them down with Fabri-Tac. (It’s a little thick and strings as it starts to dry (which it does really fast), so I might dilute it slightly next time. But it did make a great bond!)

Since the thumb had to rise slightly off the background, and couldn’t be fully glued down, I added a piece of black cotton to the underside, glued on with the edges turned under, just so no raw edges would be exposed. I’m sure no one’s ever going to see it, but I know it’s there.

Once I’d done this much, I knew exactly how much space I had left for my other blue glass pieces. (I confess I never bothered with drawing a complete sketch to life-size, since I knew I was going to handle it this way.) I made some decisions about rounded corners vs. sharp, and whether I felt like making a bit of tail for the fish. And I decided, this time, less is more. Let the original museum piece be the star of this square.

And there we are.

I also added some “distressing” with French gray Prismacolor on the blue pieces, to try and convey a sense of age, and it’s convincing in person, but I found it was all but impossible to photograph. So, that’s the way that goes.

And that wraps up a project that’s been on my mind, one way or another, since June. I’m REALLY pleased with how it turned out. The squares are all being sent to a master quilter to be assembled into a single piece; the Fitzwilliam’s Education Team has said they plan to display the finished quilt sometime next spring, and when I know the official opening date, I’ll pass it on.

For now, my tutoring job has abruptly picked up (now that I’ve been added to the part of the site where I can answer student questions and read essay drafts), and I’ve had kind of a bumpy ride the last few days getting up to speed on their protocols and paperwork, but it seems to be smoothing out. Crafting-wise, I’m planning to resume work on my blackwork patterns, which fell by the wayside when the house purchase started to pick up (which is thankfully going very well, btw). You should see the letter “W” up in my Etsy shop soon, and after that I’ll be adding letters as I complete them. I’ll try to check back in in a week or two.

Thanks for reading!

Fitz Stitch, Re-designed

So I decided a few weeks ago that I needed to re-design my piece for Fitz Stitch. This was motivated by two realizations: first, I wasn’t sure that I could make the broken fish platter as well as I wanted with my current technical skills; second, that I’d maybe wandered too far from the original piece from the museum collection that inspired me.

So I went back to that piece.

This exquisitely detailed fragment is a piece of Egyptian glass from their Ptolemaic period, when Egypt was ruled by Greek kings. I found two similar fragments in the online galleries of other museums, one of which had measurements attached, which leads me to believe that this piece is only about three inches tall. The intricacy, the brilliance of the colors, the individuality of the fish; I found it arresting.

I still wanted to keep the idea of something broken being put back together by a conservator in the museum. The conservators at the Fitzwilliam use these vivid purple gloves.

So, my re-designed design is the fish piece, in the center, held by a hand in a purple glove, and behind them, more pieces of the blue glass, possibly with another piece of the fish.

I didn’t want to post about the re-design until I’d satisfied myself that I could really do it, which meant, you know, actually doing it.

I had a lot of fun combing through my stash to find color matches to the original piece.

I made templates, cut out pieces for raw-edge appliqué, and fused them to the blue fabric with Mistyfuse. (I might use a thicker fusible in future; the Mistyfuse wasn’t that great at holding down the raw edges.)

And then I started to embroider.

What gave me real trouble was the yellow edges of the scales. I tried embroidering them with the chartreuse thread, but the contrast was too sharp, and I couldn’t get a smooth curve on those unusual shapes.

Then, on a rough day, I was sitting down to fold some fabrics to help myself calm down, and had a brainwave: can you draw with colored pencils on fabric?

It turns out, YOU CAN!

Here it is side by side with the original. I’m so happy with how it’s turned out!

It’s a relief to finally be at a point with this project where I’m confident that I can finish it and it will look how I wanted. Next, I’m cutting out freezer paper templates for the hand, and deciding how 3D I want to try to make it. Probably only a little.

My deadline’s coming up at the end of September, so stay tuned for updates! Thanks for reading!

Sweet September

What’s changed in the last two months? What hasn’t?

Our son is walking. He took his first steps at the beginning of July, and now he toddles all over the place like it’s going out of style.

The two grad students who were staying with us during the lockdown have moved out, one at the beginning of August, and the other yesterday. It’s just the three of us at the house now. We’ll miss the help they provided, and the company, but it’s also nice to have the place to ourselves again.

We’ve started the process of buying the house we’re renting. It’ll be our first home, if we succeed, which after the debacle last year, I’m maintaining an attitude of cautious optimism.

I’ve started designing a line of blackwork patterns, each one a large letter of the alphabet.

I stitched a sample, and I really like how it turned out. Once the other designs are complete, I’ll list them all in my Etsy shop. I’ve stopped making masks for the time being, and I’m taking the shop in a more patterns and quilts direction.

I’ve also completely re-designed my Fitz Stitch piece. On reflection, and after some productive conversations, I decided I’d wandered too far from the prompt, so I took it back to the beginning and designed a new piece more in line with what originally inspired me. I’ll write a new post about that, hopefully in the next few days.

Last, but certainly not least, I just started a new job with an online tutoring firm. It’s my first job since before our son was born. We went through our financials in July, when we had finally had a normal settled month in the UK, and decided it was time for me to go back to work. I wasn’t too excited at first, and it took a while to find the right fit, but I start this week, and it feels good to be able to look forward to a paycheck and teaching again.

As for what I’ve been making…

Blackwork sampler

Mini quilt

Knit Swirl Sweater

From the book “Knit, Swirl!” by Sandra McIver. This has been my mindless knitting that I do in front of the TV, or during Mah Jong, as pictured here. These sweaters have cascade necklines and long lengths, swirling out from neck to knee in one giant hem. They’re knitted in one piece, so you actually start by casting on the giant hem: in this case, 601 stitches. From there you decrease inward, then knit the back, and the sleeves, all the way up to the neck. I’m knitting the sleeves now, so the thing overflows my lap. In a couple weeks, it might actually be done!

So yes, there’s a lot going on in our lives right now, but it’s also a good time. We’ve been living in the same place for six months and don’t expect to have to move for years. We’re still healthy, and building a good life. My quilt guild is starting to have in-person meetings again this month, and I hope I’ll be able to go. We’re even beginning to discuss when our families might be able to visit again; it probably won’t be until January or later, but at least it’s on the horizon.

We’re grateful for some order in the chaos. Here’s hoping things are improving for you too.

I’m Writing! With a toddler…

It kills me that the next round of Marvel movies have all been pushed back, for the trifling reason that people can’t go to movie theatres.* How am I supposed to wait two more years for another “Doctor Strange” movie? And the “Black Panther” sequel? Not to mention finding out how Natalie Portman can possibly be Thor. Sigh.

*Sarcasm, I promise. We’re taking the pandemic very seriously.

I’ve begun to make progress again toward the third draft of my novel. Oh, haven’t I mentioned that I’m writing my first novel? The seed of the idea first came to me when I was seventeen, and I wrote fragments and thought about it in off-moments for YEARS, and completely re-invented the whole framework about three times, and then in 2014 I finally sat down to write a complete first draft. It took a year.

And then it took another four years to get to a second draft. I finished it (for some definition of “finished”) last August, when my son was seven months old. (I’d only been about a chapter and a half away when he was born, so it didn’t take too long once I had time to put my mind to it.) I gave the second draft, inconsistent and full of holes, to my husband, his sister, and his mother to read. They gave me encouraging feedback, and basically told me that I needed to write more of it. Then a whole lot of life happened, and finally last month I found my hard copy of the second draft, and started to work on the third draft.

I’m reading the second draft straight through and working toward the third draft at the same time. There are some significant structural problems with the second draft, and massive pacing problems, and there’s something essential missing from the middle that I don’t know what is. I made myself crazy for about three weeks trying to figure all this out, and I did make some good lists of questions and fill a corkboard with index cards…

…but after a while I started feeling like I was chasing my tail in five different circles. I just wasn’t ready to figure all these things out yet, certainly not all at once.

Thankfully my mother-in-law got me untangled again. I was telling her about how I felt stuck and something was missing and I wasn’t getting anywhere, and she suggested I should try writing some chapters from other characters’ points of view.

My imagination lit afire. Immediately I could see how Chapter 7 could be better from Augustus’s point of view, how 12 could be better from Finn’s, the prologue from Flora’s. My book has a big cast, and the many perspectives this idea offered might help me to think from different angles, try something new, shake things loose that might help to address the big problems that I couldn’t figure out in the abstract.

My husband and I have recently agreed that I should have a weekly four-hour block when I can work on my book uninterrupted. Things so fell out that last week, I couldn’t find time for it until Friday, and then I had a spasm of trying to figure out all the big abstract problems again, and began chasing my tail. And I was feeling so miserable that it finally hit me. “Enough!” I said to myself. “Just start writing!”

And I sat down and started five different chapters from five different points of view and wrote a total of 2,500 words in less than four hours. I had a blast! It was such a relief to let my imagination go, try out different perspectives and voices, and just to write again.

There are always a million things I want to do, and one of the things that’s difficult about trying to do them with a toddler in the house is that any progress has to be agonizingly slow. It can even feel sometimes like I’ve tried something, and it hasn’t helped me, when all that’s really happened is that I haven’t had time to actually do it yet. My “apparent lack of progress” can be really discouraging, because my sense of what I should be able to accomplish in a given amount of time, bears no relationship to what I actually can fit in around a toddler and a house and life in general. It was really important to realize that my expectations were wildly unrealistic, because then I could cut way down on the stress about not getting very much accomplished.

I’m also trying to remember that this is just one season of my life, when my son is small, and there are aspects that just have to be survived, along with the ones that must be cherished. Right now most of my responsibility is to him, and in some ways that’s a lot harder than I’d expected, but in some ways it’s also better than I’d hoped. He’s getting bigger all the time, and it gives me so much joy that he’s always really happy to see me. I get to be here while he learns, and plays, and can walk but still prefers to crawl. I get to rock him in the chair every night. The truth is, he’s so good at entertaining himself, and usually such a regular napper, I’m lucky to get as much time for my own projects as I do.

I’ve often said about teaching, that a professor’s expectations of their students should be high, but attainable. Is there anything harder than taking your own advice?

Fitz Stitch: Design

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be contributing to Fitz Stitch, a community stitch project organized by the Fitzwilliam Museum, here in Cambridge.  

Several weeks ago the Museum began advertising for 45 stitchers, of any skill level, each to contribute one 25 cm square (just shy of 10 inches) to a quilt, that will be hung in the Museum’s entryway when finished.  Each square should be inspired by something in the Museum’s collection.  For my inspiration, I dug through the Fitzwilliam’s Instagram feed until I found this beautiful plate fragment.

 I was immediately drawn to the idea of an ancient piece of pottery, broken, now being restored so it can be put on display again.  Pieces in museums that have been carefully re-assembled have always spoken to me; there’s so much implied story, and time, and care.  I imagine the person who made it, the accident in which it was broken, the restorers who put it back together.  (And I love the detail on that fish.)

 About a month ago I emailed my idea to the Fitz Stitch organizers, and received word back that I was welcome to contribute (Yay!), and that they’d be having a Zoom meeting to discuss ideas and questions in a couple weeks.  In the two hours before the meeting, I finally sat down and made some sketches so I’d have something to show.  I’d done some digging and found pictures of Roman fish platters (which I’ve always loved in museums; they’re made to serve fish, so they have fish painted on them, and that tickles me), and I’d also done a little thinking about break patterns.  

The meeting provided a very stimulating discussion; everyone’s ideas were so different, and it was clear from how they talked about implementing their ideas that these were experienced and capable makers, and it made me feel so honored to be counted among them.  

Yesterday, I found some time to start working on full-scale drawings of the final piece.  I checked the final measurements and converted them to inches again (none of my acrylic rulers are in centimeters), drew a square for the finished size on an A3 sketchpad, and pulled out my compass.  I’d originally imagined the platter being an oval, but the Roman fish platters are usually round.  I eyeballed where I wanted the mostly-reassembled plate to be in the frame, and added a border around the rim and the distinctive medallion in the center.  Now I know how much room I actually have to work with to depict the fish.   .

Then I re-drew the square on another page, centered the circle more carefully, re-drew the outer edge and the medallion to the same measurements, and free-handed the break pattern.  

Next I’ll make copies of these two pages, sketch the fish into the complete circle, then trace the break lines from the second drawing, and cut the complete circle apart to make templates for the fabric pieces.  I’m planning to paper-piece the segments of the plate and embroider the fish.  (Have I ever embroidered anything that sophisticated and pictorial before?  Not even close.  Is that going to stop me?  Of course not.)

But, there’s also another exciting wrinkle!  During the Zoom meeting, listening to other contributors talk about bringing ideas together and their diverse approaches to textile art, I was so inspired, and began to think about ways that I could make my idea more relevant.  One obvious connection was kintsugi, the Japanese method of mending broken pottery with gold lacquer: not hiding the cracks, but celebrating the new beauty of the piece in its re-assembled form.  (If you have to put it back together anyway, why not make it prettier?)  

The organizer from the Fitzwilliam thought that was a great idea, so now, I have three questions before me: 1. What color scheme should I choose?  2. How three-dimensional do I want to try and make this?  3. How am I going to work the gold into the seams?

Stay tuned!

Is it really the end of April?

I’m not sure whether to end that question with “already” or “only.”

We are managing over here in our various ways. My hard-working husband (like so many dedicated educators) is having to give his lectures online, in his case four mornings a week, but thankfully only for four weeks. The grad students are doing all their grad-student things, and one of them is making some bold forays into learning how to cook, which is charming but slightly scary, because he’s the same one who woke us all up at five in the morning two days after they moved in by setting off the smoke detectors, because he’d put something in a cardboard tray into the microwave. The baby, blissfully ignorant of global health crises, continues to thrive and get into things and learn to stand on his own and say lots of new words, just as he would if none of this other stuff were happening.

For myself, I am managing variously. Most days I am able to muddle through much as I would normally. Some days I’m overwhelmed by the vastness of what’s happening, and all the loss. Other days I get completely fed up with being confined, not being able to go places and shop and socialize in person. There are days when I’m not good for much of anything. I think it’s safe to assume that that’s true for everyone right now.

I’m making masks and ear-savers for my Etsy shop, and on Tuesday I completed a test version of a kaleidoscope quilt top!

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I’m mostly pleased with this as a first outcome. I made this test version out of fabrics that I was given through my quilt guild in New Jersey some years ago (a donation from Massdrop). I did run into some issues with cutting, and with running out of fabric from simply not having realized how much I would need, but setting that aside, I think there are some clear ways that I can improve this the next time around. (For one thing, I think I’ll make the next one smaller so it doesn’t use quite so much fabric. It ended up a LOT bigger than I was expecting, somehow.)

IMG_20200429_215023

Sadly I don’t remember the name of the quilter whose work originally inspired this; I saw her kaleidoscope quilt several years ago, and broke it down into a template for one-twelfth of it (see below to get an idea), and then it just sat in my files for about six years. Of course, her quilt was much more impressive because her individual segments were intricately pieced, but I just wanted to get an idea, so I chose mostly directional fabrics and went with that.

IMG_20200429_213655

I think I partly had it wrong-way-around in my head. I drew angled lines on my template pieces so that each piece would always be oriented the same way, but I think I was working up from the flat bottom, instead of down from the pointy top, which is the center. The star in the middle is nice, and more or less what I planned.

When I do this again, I’d also like to make the individual segments less obvious, by using some common colors for the background, and creating more secondary patterns to blend the pieces together.

But of course, the great thing about this whole concept is that it’s very forgiving. On some level, absolutely anything looks good when you’ve reflected it around a center twelve times.

I have a great yen to do one of these with a color-changing fabric that I used for the sashing on my son’s baby quilt…

IMG_6855

…but I only have so much of it, so I’ll want to get better at kaleidoscope-thinking first.

Hopefully next week I can start some test-swatches to resume work on my Planet Quilts! I also just received my first Knitter magazine in the mail (so exciting!), and a pattern I ordered for a coat. My quilt guild issued a challenge for us to make something with only scraps this year, and I decided I’d like to make something to wear. Being plus-sized, I needed to pick carefully, but very happily discovered this:

McCall's 7485

I’ll start with a muslin mockup, tweak it to fit me beautifully, then make up the panels from my scraps! (May have to cheat a little for the lining…)

But that’s still a ways down in the queue. Next up, some volunteer sewing, and place mats.

“Test, and see that it is good.”

So I haven’t made much progress on my planet quilts lately.  Of course, I’ve been busy, preparing for lockdown, unpacking after our move, keeping our fifteen-month-old from pushing the buttons on the washing machine.  I’ve even listed new things in my Etsy shop: XL face masks in several prints and solid colors, and ear-savers in white and blue.  (Coming soon, hopefully, a new cross-stitch pattern or two.)

But I’ve also, in my leisure time, started working on a test version of a kaleidoscope quilt, which has nothing to do with the planet quilts at all.

And the reason I haven’t been working on the planet quilts is that I’m afraid.  I’m afraid of messing them up.  I’m afraid of making artistic decisions which, if I get them wrong, would mean completely starting over.  And I’m afraid of using new techniques which, if I get them wrong, would mean completely starting over.  This paralysis has held me tight for months.

But recently, in my desire to connect to a larger community, I joined the Community Stitch Challenge at TextileArtist.org.  Every week during the lockdown they’re hosting a video from a different textile artist, talking about their process and philosophy, and providing a small challenge for everyone to do at home.  For Week Four it was Richard McVetis, who emphasizes hand-stitching as a record of time.  I was watching him talk about his process, and show examples of couching, which was his challenge for the week, and he pulled out this big square of linen with small squares, spaced out from each other, each filled with a different stitch experiment.  And it reminded me that I’d seen the same thing on the video for Week One with Sue Stone, and in a video “Behind the Scenes at the Royal School of Needlework” (timestamp 5:13, but the whole video is only eight minutes and totally worth watching).  They were test swatches.  And this finally grounded in my mind something I’ve been on the verge of learning about artistic process.

Working artists don’t just make glorious works of art in a sudden rush of inspiration.  Art takes time, and care, and technique acquired through many hours of practice.  And part of that practice, or working up to any finished piece, is doing tests, trying things out.  Making sketches, and more elaborated sketches, making maquettes or test swatches.  It’s how you know whether something will work before you try it on your final canvas.  It’s how you start to work past the fear that you’re going to irrevocably mess it up.

I’ve done this a few times in my quilting career.  I made a test block for the Challenge Quilt, which was made of three-inch blocks, just to make sure I could actually piece something that small.  (It eventually became Anika’s Micro-Quilt.)

And I did a little test-planet a few months ago, to make sure I wasn’t completely crazy to buy a bunch of supplies and start needle-felting.  IMG_20191203_144705

But mostly I just build my design in exhaustive detail and then start making the thing, pushing through or working around whatever challenges arise as they come.  When I’ve done tests, I’ve usually only done one, to move on to the actual making, and to avoid using up supplies.

But I feel like I’ve come to this stage in my development where I’m ready to level up, in my writing, in my making, and grow as an artist, as a maker.  And there are so many possibilities for the planet quilts that I haven’t explored yet.  And there’s really no reason NOT to do test swatches.  It’s not like anything is wasted.  Test swatches are small, and I have plenty of the fabrics, and a sheet of test squares becomes a thing of beauty in itself.

And there’s also this.  I have to face the fear of failure.  I know this about writing; how many times have I told students that the first draft WILL be bad?  It’s not the first draft’s job to be good; the point of the first draft is to have something that EXISTS, so you can work on it and get to the second draft.  You can’t be afraid of writing badly.  You will write badly.  It WILL happen.  We do it, we get through it, and maybe eventually write well.  Maybe I don’t have the skill yet to achieve what I want for my planet quilts.  There’s only one way to find out.  And if I fail, well, nothing has been wasted.  I will learn.  I will try other things.  I will fail better.  Learn and grow.

So I’ll try some things and hopefully soon have some progress to report.  In the meantime, I have a few homey projects in the queue: placemats, curtains for the kitchen window, and some more ear-savers to crochet.

If you’re craftily-inclined, and want to help out during the ongoing pandemic, there are lots of things people need that can be whipped up at home with basic sewing supplies or a ball of yarn.  These are just a few I’ve heard about:

  • Ear-savers: free pattern on Ravelry by Sarah Berens
  • Masks: free patterns all over the internet
  • Scrub bags: basically just a draw-string bag for nurses to take home contaminated scrubs to wash.  Don’t know if they’re needed in the US, but the NHS wants them in the UK.  Free pattern
  • Scrubs: again, I know they’re wanted in the UK, but check for the US
  • Pairs of hearts: these are made for families who have someone in critical care and can’t visit them.  One of the hearts goes to the patient, the other to the family, to give them something tangible to hold and feel connected.  This is where I heard about it: Appeal for Fabric Hearts.  Check what the requirements are at your local hospital.

Take care!

Where are we now?

Thanks be to God, three weeks before the pandemic started, we were able to move into a long-term rental house just outside of Cambridge.  Four bedrooms, nice kitchen, paved back yard with two sheds (which we’ve been getting a lot of use out of), and finally enough space to get everything we own out of storage!  I’m typing this from MY CRAFT ROOM on the third floor.

We moved on February 14th, and my mom came to visit shortly thereafter and helped me do the lion’s share of the most urgent unpacking, furniture assembly, etc., getting most of the house functional and ready to use; we made incredible progress in that first week.  The craft room, being the least necessary room at that time, became a repository for lots of boxes that weren’t immediately unpacked, but Mom helped me put together a table in there so I could at least have one useable surface right away.  Ever since I’ve been slowly excavating it and putting it together, and it’s coming along great!  I have two tables now, lots of shelving, my comfy chair, a separate area for writing or slow stitching (in said comfy chair), and I’ve even brought the printer up here.

It was an enormous relief to finally get settled somewhere (renting, but settled), but we had no idea at the time what a huge gift it would turn out to be.  If we’d still been trying to find someplace to live when we found out we were all going to be isolating for weeks or months, I think my head might have imploded.  God provided for us in such a big way.  The house is in a nice quiet neighborhood, lots of families with kids, blossoming trees, pretty places to walk, and, incredibly, the house itself has lots of closet space, which has come in handy not only for stuffing boxes out of sight till I’m ready to unpack them, but for stocking up non-perishables.

I’m starting to sew masks that I’ll shortly be putting up for sale in my Etsy shop, crocheting eggs for Easter, and designing cross-stitch patterns that will hopefully also be for sale soon.  I’m watching Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass on storytelling, learning yoga from Adriene on YouTube, and picking up some needlework that was too challenging for my baby-saturated brain last year.  The baby is almost fifteen months old, pulling up to standing all the time, and will be running around on his own in a few weeks, I’m guessing.  He loves to flip through his board books, watch the clothes in the washing machine, and play his baby xylophone.  My husband continues to do physics from home, and is actually making progress on his always-overflowing email inbox.

Sometimes the isolation under current circumstances is really difficult, and sometimes the whole global crisis rises up and overwhelms me, but for anyone who’s been following our journey, I just want you to know that my little family is okay.  May Easter grant us hope during this dark and difficult time.

What on Earth is single cream?

A brief word about British terms for dairy.

As far as I can tell, it’s like this:

  • Single cream = “light” cream (18% fat)
  • Double cream = cream (36% fat)
    • Heavy whipping cream is different, but is also available
  • Triple cream = alas, does not exist
  • Half ‘n half (10% fat) = also does not exist. Have to make your own.
  • Milk = is readily available in all the usual whole, 1%, and 2% flavors, as well as soy and almond variations.
  • And the cheeses are fairly self-explanatory.

 

Progress on the Planets

So I have to report that, just before Christmas, our house purchase completely fell through.  Yep, that’s right: no house for us this time.  I won’t go into details on the wide-open internet; suffice it to say that it was completely stupid and an obstacle that, as Americans, we never would have seen coming, and, we’ve been told, usually doesn’t occur, so I guess that’s why no one else saw it coming either.  (I’m a little bitter about it.  Just a smidge.)  We’re now planning to rent in Cambridge for a year or two, move in, get our stuff out of storage, and start up our house search again in a few months.

But enough about that!  Let’s talk about my planet quilts!

Because I’m planning to use a lot of different fabrics, layered, appliquéd, felted, and so on, rather than primarily piecing, I decided this was a good project for using a foundation.  It’s like a simpler version of draping a dress on a mannequin; rather than cutting out pieces and sewing them together and trying to make them add up to the right size and shape, I cut nine pieces of muslin to the right size, plus an inch margin around all the edges.  This way I can try things on, move stuff around, pin it down for a while, and then when I’m ready, glue or fuse it on, one section at a time, and build it up however I want.

I cut them to the right size by the simple expedient of laying a sheet of A3 paper on top of the fabric and cutting an inch all around it with an acrylic ruler.  (With the actual thing available to cut around, why do math?)

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I also drew lines on each one around the A3, so I could see exactly what I needed to cover, and marked the 4″ and 11″ points where each landscape needs to connect to the next.

And that’s as far as I got before Christmas, our flight to California, a week at my wonderful in-laws’, a week’s trip to Hawaii with said in-laws (during which we all cycled through a 24-hour stomach bug), our return to CA, a few days at the in-laws’, driving down to Santa Barbara, and a weekend at my husband’s grandparents’ for the baby’s first birthday!

So now we pick up again in Santa Barbara, where I bought a roll of painter’s tape* and taped up all my muslin foundations on the wall.  (In order, of course, and labeled.)  (*Painter’s tape is great for a cheap design wall when you’re renting or in a hotel because it’s designed not to take off any paint that’s underneath it.  It makes a strong enough bond to hold up fabric, but doesn’t damage the wall.  Also great for quilt-basting; holds the backing taut on a table top so you don’t baste in any wrinkles.)

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Just before all the travel craziness, I’d cut out pieces of the black waxed cotton to serve as sky for the planets/moons that have little or no atmosphere.  I picked it because it’s very matte, has no gloss or sheen at all.  I also cut pieces of the two blue fabrics that will become Uranus and Neptune.

Once I had all the panels up on the wall, I pulled out my piles of fabrics and started making decisions about what would be used for each planet.

Since our trip to Goldhawk Road in London, and my decision to add needle-felted elements to the quilts, I’d ordered and picked up some more fabrics: felts, cotton batiks, and Northcott Stone fabrics in a few colors.  (First I made sure that it’s possible to needle-felt onto cotton.  It absolutely is; also linen and denim.)  I started with the fabric choices I’d already made, verifying that some things I’d gotten to go together actually did, and continued trying things out from there.

Below is a fabric palette I designed for Pluto (which to me is always going to be the ninth planet; that’s just how it is).

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And this is the palette for Venus, except for the bright yellow organza; I’ll use the same fabrics with the organza overlaid for Saturn’s moon Titan, which has an opaque yellow atmosphere.  (Though I am planning to fudge that “opaque” bit a little so you can see Saturn through it.)

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As I went, I cut swatches where I could and pinned them up on the relevant panel to remind myself.  (That orange swatch on Mercury is to help me decide whether to use that glorious dupioni silk to represent the sun.  Right now I’m thinking “Yes!”)

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I ended up satisfied with all my choices, except for Mars.  The felts I ordered for Mars turned out to be much too red, shades of dark crusty blood-red, and Mars should really be more orange-and-rust-colored.  My husband and I are planning to hit Roxanne’s and Joann’s over the weekend to see what we can find.  (It’s always meant a lot to me how supportive he is of my endeavors.  And his color-sense is so good, which is a big help.)

So, that done, I decided to get to work on Earth (which is why it’s missing in the above picture).  I figured I had the best idea what I wanted to do with the Earth panel, and had almost everything for it, and if I was only going to finish one, it should be Earth.

Here’s what I have so far.

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I probably spent half an hour choosing the exact right section from each of those two blue batiks.  The one for the sky shades all the way from a very light turquoise into a brilliant lilac, and the one for the sea goes through several shades of teal, including some that are nearly black.  I was concerned it was actually too green, but when I put the blue organza over it again I just loved how that looked.

The gold shimmery stuff is going to be the sand of a beach, and I’m hoping I can layer the blue and a brighter blue turquoise over it to look like the shallows, and maybe embroider some white froth on the edge of a wave or two?  Then in the foreground, there’s going to be a light brown Northcott Stone (you can see a strip of it pinned into that bundle in the top right corner) to be some dirt on the top of the bluffs, and two green chambrays, which I plan to felt and embroider over to be those crazy beach succulents that grow in Santa Barbara and look like they should be populating an alien planet.

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I was originally planning my landscape to be the beach bluffs at Santa Barbara, where my husband and I often walked when we were first married, and when I’d decided to do the planet quilts and had to choose just one of many hugely varied environments to represent our weird and wonderful planet, an ocean view still seemed profoundly appropriate.  After all, the oceans of liquid water are one of the things that set Earth apart.

I’ll keep working on Earth for a while, maybe finalize my arrangement of the elements.  I’ll wait until later to figure out how I want to add the sun and the moon to the sky.

At every step of this process I’m confronted by the fact that I’ve never tried anything like this before.  (Do I use French knots of white thread to represent the stars, or crystals?  Can I really create a reasonable approximation of sea foam?  Should I piece Jupiter, or just plan to needle-felt it?)  That’s what it makes it exciting and scary!

And as we know, to me a thing’s just not worth doing unless it’s almost too hard.

Thanks for reading!

Should I learn to knit or crochet first?

The eternal question for the would-be yarn-crafter.  I daresay there’s more than one point of view (there always is), but as someone who’s learned to do both, I have to come down unequivocally on the side of crochet: learn to crochet first!

First, crochet is much easier to do. You have one implement, a single hook, as opposed to two needles. The hook will pretty reliably pull yarn through even for a beginner, while pulling a loop through another loop with the tip of a knitting needle takes practice.  (Images borrowed from Heart Hook Home and Pom Pom Quarterly.)

Secondly, crochet is more difficult to screw up.  At any given time, the only open stitch you have to worry about is the one you’re currently working; all the other stitches are closed off.  This means that in crochet, it’s impossible to “drop a stitch,” which can happen to the most experienced knitter.  In knitting, all your active stitches (the whole row you’re working on) are held on the needles while you work, and if you drop one (if it literally falls off the end of your needle), it can start to unravel, all the way down to the first row.  In crochet, it’s also much easier to unravel and do part of the work over; you just pull on the yarn, and your most recent stitches will unravel leaving the earlier ones untouched and unimperiled, whereas in knitting, if you want to backtrack, you have to either painstakingly undo each stitch while keeping the loop from the previous row on one of the needles, or be very bold and PULL THE NEEDLES OUT, unravel the work back to the point before your mistake, and then very carefully thread the stitches back onto the needles.  (Without dropping any.)  (I usually do this if I need to unravel more than one row, but I’m known for being crazy in this respect.)

Third, crochet will give you an excellent grounding in what to do with your left hand (or right, if you’re a leftie), which is exactly the same for knitting as it is for crochet.  With your non-dominant hand, you hold the working yarn twisted around a couple of your fingers to maintain the all-important tension.  You can’t just knit or crochet from loose yarn without holding onto it somehow to make it taut, and to hold the working yarn in place where your hook or needle can reach it.  If you could, your work would be loose and sloppy, which is a look, but not what you want for most things.  So it’s important, when learning either knitting or crochet, to learn how to hold an even tension, not too loose, not too tight, and always pretty much the same, so that your stitches will be the same as each other.  You can learn this just as well with crochet, which is easy, and then learn the two-needle mechanics of knitting later.

Fourth, crochet is considerably easier to learn, and not just because, as I mentioned before, it’s easier to do.  I learned to knit about six or eight times before it actually took.  I started going to a knitting group, learned to cast on and knit and purl, went home, didn’t practice, and came back the next week only to find I’d completely forgotten it.

Repeat for three weeks.

I’m not the only person who’s had this experience.  Every person I’ve taught to knit has done the same.  Ask anyone who’s learned to knit as an adult: if you don’t practice EVERY DAY until it’s solidly engrained in your muscle memory, it will completely fall out of your head inside a week.  Why?  My theory is that knitting is just deeply counter-intuitive.  It’s not like anything else you have ever learned to do: making a fabric by pulling loop after loop through another loop, row by row, back and forth and having to turn your work, and going right to left?

My mother-in-law, on the other hand, taught me to crochet in half an hour, and I was off like a rocket.

You might be wondering at this point whether you should even bother learning to knit.  If knitting is so difficult, and weird, why try it?

Knitting is difficult to learn, but deeply logical in its own weird way.  There are only two stitches (which can be combined in many ways to create divers effects), and knitting behaves very predictably.  Just keep going back and forth, you make a rectangle.  Make four increases at the right places, you make a triangle.  Knit round and around a circular needle, you make a tube!  Not to mention, knitting is quite soothing to do once you’re in practice.  You can learn a basic pattern, like seed stitch or ribbing, and do that mindlessly in front of the television, just to keep your hands busy, and still do it right.  (I thought I would find the repetition maddening, but it’s really therapeutic.)

Also, knitting and crochet are good for different things.  Crochet creates a more rigid, solid fabric, with very little stretch, while knitting creates a pliable, drapey, stretchy fabric, even if the yarn you’re using is not stretchy at all.  This makes crochet excellent for anything you want to be stiff and hold its shape, like amigurumi (crochet animals and mini models and so on), or a bag, or certain kinds of hats.  Knitting is better for anything you want to be soft and draping, like shawls and other garments, or stretchy for hats and gloves.  Crochet is also better for making round things or anything with fine details, like a flower for a hat, or a Christmas ornament, or stuffed animals, while knitting is great for making things with straight lines and big geometric panels.  And cables.  Knitting is infinitely better for making anything with cables.  (I finally came to terms with knitting by making a cabled tea-cozy.  I ♥ cables.)

One last note if you’re planning to take up either one: get someone to teach you.  Once you’re comfortable with knitting or crochet, it’s really easy to pick up new tricks from YouTube tutorials (or even books!), but when you’re getting started, you really need someone sitting there to show you exactly how to hold the yarn, and tell you what you’re doing wrong as you make your first few stitches.  Invest in an hour or two with someone who really knows their stuff, and you’ll save yourself weeks of aggravation.

I hope this has helped to clear up some of the differences between knitting and crochet.  Any questions are welcome in the comments!