Friday, 25 March 2016

The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off : Part 2 : Sewing back in time.

The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off  :
Part 2 : Sewing back in time.

Just to Re-Cap
My choice of project really came down to wanting to make something that  whilst able to stay true to 18th century techniques , threads and stitches, could be understood in a practical way today. The glorious (and somewhat more hygienic) paper tissue have rendered handkerchiefs superfluous and most of the splendid embroidered items of choice from TLM are now rendered outmoded or impractical, much as I would adore to teeter around in embroidered shoes! Some weeks ago I purchased an embroidery book of the 1880’s and thought what a pity it was that so many of its projects had been so diluted over time. Disregarding fashion items, there were fire screens, table covers, mantle covers, chair covers and every impossibly laced and over embellished receptacle possible for the sitting room, parlour, study, nursery and bedroom known to man. In fact you could safely say that no surface was safe from the possibility of being embroidered, beaded or crocheted.

 I decided on a Kissing Ball for a no more intelligent  reason than because its oval segments fitted the patterns I chose from  the embroidered shoes!  Strictly speaking  the zeal of the Puritans between the 16th and 18th centuries eradicated decorations until the somewhat more jovial Victorians resurrected the art of celebratory symbolism that Kissing Balls evoked. Balls of foliage were soon translated into stitch (along with everything else, it seems!) and became wedding trinkets. Formerly made from left over pieces of lace and beads and given to a bride, they are undergoing something of a renaissance today.

Light and Sight

Strip away the front kitchens and back bathrooms of my savagely converted Victorian mansion house, and you reveal the tell-tale signs of a home built before the illumination of electricity.  The majestic open hall and staircase curling upwards, with vast stairway and landing windows would have been doused in light on a day like today (not to mention the long gone stained glass from the front door and hall window coating the walls and tiled floors with colour).The buildings South fa├žade has vast  floor to ceiling bay windows in front  of which both my dogs are currently  reclining in the sun. Although this house was built a little under a century after TLM was in publication, the principle is the same; that before I had undertaken my Kissing Ball, I had taken for granted the limitations of natural day light (especially during the short, gloomy winder days). Having kept the designs to just a little bigger than the original at 3 inches or so, I was ever mindful of how on earth ladies completed their work with merely the aid of a large window or a candle! I would have been utterly bereft without my daylight lamp!

 Developments in optics really didn’t spring to life until The Enlightenment when newspapers were becoming more widespread. Spectacles were handmade and certainly within the reach of our wealthy ladies but yet again the rise of industrial processes meant that by the 1830’s they could be purchased readily form travelling Hawkers and opticians alike. Conversely the female readership of TLM may have been susceptible to the vagaries of fashion and may have preferred to squint! The silk shading technique which I chose to use was regarded at the time as one of the most accomplished of embroidery techniques, and much praised however it was by no means an unusual one or one reserved for professional embroiderers. What’s more plainer White Work or Tambour Work which was also popular at the time was just as hard on the eye and would have required just as much visual clarity. From captivating trips to the Bath Museum of Costume in my home county, hours on-line perusing sewn items of the time and recently revolutionizing my own vision with my first pair of glasses for close work, I find the achievements of 18th century embroiderers frankly astonishing.

Leisure time.

My time spent sewing did not fill long hours of refined leisure. My time was pre-planned, squirreled away from daily commitments of business.  They were not sunny and peaceful hours with the audibility of simply the birds singing in the garden, the wisp of wind through the trees or rain on a window pain or the cheerful voices of (equally refined) companions. Save for the noise of servants or the trot of hooves to blight their peace, the upper class ladies of TLM sat and sewed unencumbered with the time restraints of us 21st century woman and noise of the modern world. I sat sewing to the sound of constant passing traffic, the siren, next doors damn hedge trimmer, overhead aeroplanes, road works , a radio being played too loud. I paused for the text messages, the sales notifications and the people demanding my immediate attention. The Facebook updates, the Twitter updates, the BBC news updates and the Etsy Updates.

I paused to take photographs to upload to Social Media within seconds for thousands of people around the world to Twitter about and share on Facebook. From the quiet, solitary pursuit of the 18th century embroiderer, here in the 21st century I am a paradoxical mix of solitary yet social embroiderer with the ability to share my work within huge circles remotely through a mobile phone just a bit bigger than my hand.

I did wonder though if the joy of sewing was the same now as it might have been between the 1770’s and 1830’s? Though wealthy ladies were educated, suitable feminine disciplines were as restricted as dress corsets and leisure was a social status full of the restrictions of rank and good breeding. Sewing may have been seen by more ambitious lady as a sedentary, passive chore. These days, despite having less of it, leisure is roughly speaking associated with time for pleasurable things we choose to undertake. Many relate their experience of embroidery to nostalgic memories of their mothers and grandmothers.

Between the times that TLM was being published, a massive revolution in industry was taking place which made materials such as needles an everyday tool rather than prized gift. By the end of the 1800’s needlework was mainstream for girls who were educated at schools and books and paper were a part of everyday life for the masses. As TLM discontinued, other women’s publications and those dedicated to needlework alone became available to the new and aspiring Middle Classes and continued to become available to every class of woman.

Embroidery is no longer the preserve of the wealthy and leisured and as the success of the Stitch-Off shows, it is as popular as it has ever been. Although so much time and so many advances in industry, technology and social demographics have taken place, the physical act of embroidering has not changed a single bit. Although some techniques such as transferring patterns have adapted over time, frames, threads and materials have hardly changed. Likewise although institutions such as The Royal School of Needlework formalised   their procedure, stitches have remained the same both in colour theory and practice.

Our dress, manners, and surroundings may be very different from the ladies sewing between the 1770’s and 1830’s but essentially the art of embroidery is the manipulation of threads and stitches to transform the plain outline of a pattern into a unique masterpiece and this is as true now for the participants of the Stitch Off as it has been since needle first touched cloth and so it will be for future generations.  

Next Time : The Kissing Ball Workshop : Patterns & How to make

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off : Part 1 : Sewing back in time.

The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off
Part 1 : Sewing back in time.
At the start of the year I came across a wonderful project at Kent University’s English department being led by Dr. Jennie Batchelor. The Lady’s Magazine (pub 1770-1818) Project, funded for two years by The Leverhulme Trust ,  seeks to index and understand the genre of early women’s periodicals
From this The Great Lady’s Magazine Stitch-Off  was born ; a project I found irresistible to take part in given my passion for women’s history (I read Humanities with the OU and am a ‘MA wannabe’!) and have a personal assortment of historic domestic journals and magazines on subjects from birth control and smoking to letter writing and housekeeping.
Jennie Presented five patterns from 1796 and another three from 1775 were kindly shared by Radio 3 presenter, Penny Gore all ranging from gown and cravat designs to waistcoat, handkerchief and shoe patterns, giving modern day embroiderers the unique opportunity to interpret them as they wished.
Although I wanted to work in traditional materials , rather than actually replicating the 18th Century using a large trestle frame, wearing a corset or working in natural light, I wanted to compare myself sewing under modern day domestic circumstances. Given I can’t time travel, and I am not a proper historian I can only make rough guesses  as to the differences I observed and hope that those more qualified than me will see more obvious analysis that my limited academic knowledge has missed! More than anything this is a needlework blog, and in order to keep things light, I may not be as detailed in my facts or assumptions, so do forgive me if you are one of the interested academics reading this and please do feel free to place your thoughts in the comments below for all to read that I may be redeemed!  I will refer to The Lady’s Magazine throughout as ‘TLM’ for speed!
Where to start?
I chose the shoe patterns and after much chopping and changing, settled on their shapes being perfect to translate into a ‘Kissing Ball’*, having designed and made a similar fabric globe last Christmas.
That  TLM was a magazine for women is obvious however in a pre-industrial age when paper was expensive, transport links limited and literacy only partial, we may correctly assume that it was a publication for the educated, wealthy and cosmopolitan lady with leisure  and cultivation to  dawdle at the piano or take up her needle.  Many original patterns from TLM sadly do not survive and neither can we know how many were actually sewn, or perhaps, given their means, handed over to the professional embroiderer given these patterns were probably disseminated as the fashionable ‘must have’ designs of the moment.
We take it for granted that we are bombarded with print, and our portable hand held devices are jammed with wi-fi printable images every second of the day! One of the very reasons so  few patterns from TLM have not lasted was from the limitation of their ability to be traced or replicated. They were offered as ‘Pull Outs’ which if not easily traceable upon through fine muslin or gauze,  were rendered fragile by using  the  ‘Prick & Pounce’ method, whereby tiny holes were pricked over the outline of the pattern and dried ink, wine or ground Cuttle fish were rubbed into the holes using a roll if felt or soft cloth resulting in the reproduction of the pattern through the holes. By comparison, I printed the patterns from my computer, enlarged them, traced them onto clear acetate with my indelible pen, scanned the patterns on the acetate onto my computer, resized them and printed them off onto tracing paper ready to iron onto my silk! This process took all of 30 minutes and has made the individual trade of pattern copier which existed in the 18th Century long redundant.
Tools of the Trade
Next come the materials. These have changed very little but remember at the time of TLM we are talking pre-Industrial Revolution ; Needles have not strayed in shape but rather than being the prized handmade objects, often given as gifts are now massed produced and cheap to purchase. So too with then precious fabrics such as silk. Although still a luxury fabric, mine was just a couple of pieces screwed up with a pile in a box, totally taken for granted! Mass produced silk from India and China make it an affordable surface upon which to embroider as well as wear.
For the purposes of research I tried to find silk threads locally but not one was to be had! So it was that a hop on my computer, a few clicks in and out of my favourite on-line sewing shop, and a day’s wait secured me some silks although the colour shades  on my screen were not  as precise the ones which turned up and occasioned a moments disappointment! Silk threads however, though can be very cheap if purchased from India, are still quite a luxury and only a few places still sell a large range. These days we have dazzling, cheap Stranded Cottons and amazing silk substitutes which make the use of silk in needlework much scarcer. Together with my French silks I used Pearsall’s silk which started here in the UK in 1795, about midway through TLM publication but sadly no longer with us today.
Rather than working sedately at a large embroidery floor standing frame or Tambour Hoop (round from ‘Tambourine’) on a frame, usual at the time of our publication, I used a frame of four interlocking bars and I attached my silk with drawing pins which sat in my hand.  Here I mention an interesting point about ladylike posture. Large skirts and corsets made feminine  manoeuvrability  pretty limited and to be honest, given I find floor frames quite uncomfortable to get my arm over the top, I wince at the effort  whilst wearing  a laced corset. Ladies of course had to sit nicely to look like models of virtuous modesty and no doubt any  ambitious mama of the time would be utterly appalled at me sprawled out on a bed sporting leggings, a saggy jumper and my partners socks let alone my pajamas at 5pm on a Sunday! However, this is the 21st Century and that is how I roll! they say these days…..

Part 2 : Next Wednesday……..

For more details and to have a go yourself, visit the following link or find the lady's Magazine Project on Twitter and Facebook   


Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Hints & Tips on teaching needlework and craft classes for the nervous!

The very first time I taught a class I was so nervous, I spent most of the hour before sat on the loo! It was 2008 and the downturn had hit and it was a case of ‘do or die’ for my shop. I had done training with my staff in corporate retail but this was different. People were paying to have my knowledge. They were depending on me for an enjoyable time. I had tried to find advice and look for books which might impart any words of wisdom on my plight but none seemed to be there…was there such a thing as an ‘Idiots guide to teaching’?... Consequently with the first 6 willing victims and a whole load of nerves, I launched into what was to become my very favourite part of having a needlework shop. As my self-confidence grew and my loyal following escalated, my courses became a critical source of revenue and pretty much saved the business. So it is, that for any shy retailers, WI & craft groups, craft therapists, or keen exponents of the art this post is for you…….concerning hints and tips on holding a needlework class…….
For the benefit of this piece ‘Pupils’  can be ‘Girls’, ‘Ladies’, ‘Poppets’ , ‘Darlings’ , ‘Chicklets’ or whatever you fancy!!
If you aren’t any of the following ; Don’t take a class!
Patient. One of the phrases you’ll hear the most is ‘I’m really stupid’ or ‘You’ll need loads of patience with me’ . If you don’t want the joy of seeing the least confident person around your table shine, then don’t bother.

Organised. In deed and thought. I’ll talk more about physical organisation later, but you must be mentally organised and keep your pupils on track with the task amid conversation.

Unshockable. If you are too sensitive to listen to conversation about sex, the menopause, men, and the best brand of vibrator, then stop reading now.

Observant. Of those who lack confidence and of uncomfortable conversations.

Discrete. What get said in class stays in class.

Planning Your Class.
  • Keep it simple!
  • Keep it achievable within the time. It is all about expectations, value for money and making  your pupils feel as if they have achieved something solid.  If the quicker s pupils finish, they can buy another kit /materials and start another!
  • Make sure you provide nice clear instructions
  • Plan and time your class
  • Make sure your pupils have a list of things to bring or extra materials on their booking form.
First Off – Get Organised.
First of all organise yourself and your table. I used to do this the night before. At each place at the table I would place:
  • 8 inch hoops that clamp to the table.
  • A bookstand for instructions/kit to stand on.
  • A tray made of the top of an ice cream tub, inlayed with velvet which is perfect for beads and needles and keeps threads etc. tidy.
  • I would keep spare scissors & unpickers  in a jar in the middle of the table and all materials were within the kits which I would prop on the book stand.
  • Wet Wipes ; really handy to keep hands clean.
  • On Stand By you should have: A bin, clip on magnifiers and good daylight lamps. A safe ironing board and iron. Remember of course you’ll need relevant extension leads and sockets. A book of stitches for Left Handers is also great, as is a stash of reference books relevant to the subject being taught.
  • Your own notes & timings
Before a class.
  • Before a class, arrive early and get some ‘you’ time. Have a good breakfast and go over your notes. It doesn’t matter what else you don’t know, know your stuff for what your pupils are paying for!
  • Set up your teas and coffees. The biggest asset for me were thermal jugs; Just fill ‘em and leave ‘em. Have a notepad & pen to the ready to take milk and sugar details. This will save you loads of messing around and you can keep them for lunch and tea time.
  • Double check your table for items missing.
  • Have a timed plan to the ready and make sure everyone has a coffee, lunch and tea break to rest eyes.
  • It is really great if you can have a docile spouse or easily bribed teenager to help out during the day to do the washing up in between! Keep your help designated and don’t be tempted to take any help from your group. It makes things crowded, pulls you off track and gives the appearance of having favourites.
As your pupils arrive…
  • Be there to greet them and take coats. Some will be nervous! A hug never hurts if they are the huggable type!
  • A nice cup of coffee always helps to break the ice and if you aren’t good at remembering names, get stickers! Introduce your pupils to each other and if you have any newbies, let other newbies know they aren’t the only one!
  • Introduce yourself if you need to but don’t go into your life history! They are there already and you don’t need to prove anything other than you can teach them what they are there to learn!
  • Say what your pupils will be doing, give a timeframe and describe the materials you will be using and what you want to aim to have done buy the end of the day.
  • Most of all SMILE, and you can get away with anything!...

Tips to having a Smashing day
  • Manage Expectations and do not expect perfection. Remember why your pupils are there. All will be there to learn, but they are also there to get away from the kids or the annoying husband. Some are there because they are single and look forward to the social interaction with likeminded people more than the learning. They all have different backgrounds, different demands placed on them and you must be able to manage feelings with care. Remember you are providing so much more than a sewing class. You are providing a safe haven for a few hours where your pupils can have a bit of ‘me’ time.
  • Keep conversation light and upbeat, don’t let a single person dominate it (unless they are amusing and clearly adored by the rest!) and be prepared to Butt In! Sometimes confidences will be disclosed and you may hear some quite sad stories, but remember too, you are not a therapist either and you are not there to take responsibility for the woes of the world ; just make them better for a while. Try and Keep control of conversation so that it is not to the detriment of the teaching and if topics of death or illness or you see others are not comfortable with a subject, then change it!!
  • Keep moving around the table and stay on your feet! You should be able to judge those who are experienced and confident and those who aren’t and so give more time to the slower pupils without neglecting the others. This is absolutely essential as once behind, they feel stupid, pressured and suddenly their day can unravel very quickly!! Always praise and encourage every second! ‘No you are not stupid; I’m here to teach you!
  • Don’t over-praise those who are confident and talented to the detriment of the newbies! At the end of the day you can say how gorgeous their work was.
  • If someone finds a way of doing something easier than you have shown them, then that’s fine! If the results are the same and they are happy, that’s great!
  • If you are asked a question and you don’t know it, don’t blag it!! Openly ask if anyone else knows the answer and go and look it up! I would always photocopy/print off the page where I’d found the answer to the query  and hand it to the enquirer. You’ve learned something new and you’ve shown you value their questions!

Dealing with ‘Tricky’people!
A negative or disruptive person can RUIN the day, not only for you, but for the rest of your pupils and it is really important to know how to deal with them.  If I sound harsh, remember I write this from the point of view of a business woman whose first priority is to those who have paid good money to learn and have a nice day.
Negative pupils can induce mutiny and will generally try to pass their pessimism on to the less confident pupils. Those who moan about being  ill can make everyone else around them feel bad or worried for them and know-all’s who pick holes in everything you are doing  take time away from the others in the class and make for a bad atmosphere.
This has happened to me about twice and my experience is that my pupils have been nothing but supportive and sympathetic and you usually find that stronger personalities within a group will often sort out the situation for you! However remember!....
This is YOUR course and YOU call the shots! You are perfectly entitled to suggest that they might like to go home or that they may be ‘a bit too advanced’ for your course. There are wonderful things called Cabs.
At the end of the day…get out the cake!
By the end of the day, eyes are getting tired so try and aim the finish for about 3.30 or 4pm. A lovely way to finish the day is with everyone tidying away their things and placing their completed work on the table to photograph. Get the tea and cake out so that everyone can wind down and have a group discussion about what each pupil has learned and what they will take away from the course.
Don’t be offended if they have just come to socialise – If everyone leaves happy, then you’ve done your job well!
Most of all HOME TIME IS HOME TIME!!!!! Much as you don’t want to be rude, once the course has officially finished, it is time for you to wind down, tidy up, and take some notes about the day. Think about what went well and perhaps what didn’t go so well and learn from it next time.
There is nothing quite like the feeling of saying goodbye to a crew of cheerful ladies who have sewn, laughed, eaten cake and learned a new skill. And for all those who ever said ‘Well she’s not formally trained, you know’, I can honestly say that at least I brought the joy of needlework to many, and a bit of esteem and self-belief  to those who needed it.

My Love Affair with Wilcox & Gibbs

Step aside ’50 Shades of Grey’ ; this is the real thing… my love affair with myWilcox & Gibbs sewing machine.

The other day I was quiet enough to treat myself to a spot of dressmaking and decided to reacquaint myself with my electric sewing machine. There was no particular intention for this other than the fact that my beloved 12 year old niece can operate one better than me and I felt that I really ought to keep up. I spent the morning diligently combing every page of the hand book belonging to my c.1980 Frister & Rossmann Cub 7 and having mastered various Feet and practiced with mediocre results with the Button Holer, I felt ready to negotiate a pair of pyjama bottoms to be constructed from a pretty floral sprigged mid weight cord material saved from my late grandmothers Stash.

Having cut out and pinned I was ready to go!....or so I thought!...The first 15 minutes were spent messing around with the Tension. The top stitching was great….oh….now the Back Stitching was loose……..the back is fine!... Ahh! Got It!....Off I went, table shaking, both hands white knuckled gripping the fabric, Bloody Hell I was even keeping a straight line!.....Then the thread snapped……Fine!...Re-thread!.....Looks fine! Off I Go!!!......Hang On! It is skipping stitches…..More tension fiddling……All is well in Electric Machine Land! Back on the peddle and on with the electrical whirr......until 3 layers of fabric halts the thing altogether, by which time I am fed up but philosophical. I plod on not to be thwarted  but by the waist band I had well and truly had enough! …..Sod this for a game of Soldiers!; There is nothing for it but to retreat back to My Darling and beg forgiveness…. For I had thrown over my adored Wilcox and Gibbs in favour of this Toy Boy over 100 years his junior….My! How I missed you! How unfaithful I had been! ……My beloved Wilcox and Gibbs ; I will never leave you again!!!....Please have me back and Play Nice!....

I had first set eyes on a Wilcox & Gibbs sewing machine in a magazine where some Avant Garde textile artist had a class of students using them to play with the Chain Stitch it produces. It was Love. I knew I had to have one and after several months stalking Ebay, I was bought a lovely one by my now Ex Husband (here I do him due credit by stating it was the only truly useful thing he ever did for me for which I am eternally grateful). The first thing you notice is its strikingly bijou beauty. Indeed as I found out later, it is often mistaken for a miniature machine. It is shaped in the round of a ‘G’ for ‘Gibbs’ and the black paint is overlaid with trailing vines and grapes. ‘Wilcox and Gibbs’ was once glorified on the front arm but I deduce that given its shape makes for a handy handle by which to lift it, this must be the reason why, sadly my example is but a shadow. It sits on a base of radiant seasoned wood (I don’t know what type).

First produced in the 1850’s, the Wilcox and Gibbs epitomises everything wonderful about Victorian enterprise and engineering. I think we can assume James Wilcox’s wife, Catherine was not a seamstress as I’m convinced she would have said (in an American accent) ‘I’m sure as heck fed up with winding shuttles ; can’t you invent a better way?’….instead poor James found out by sheer luck. Having suffered misfortunes with the family business James Gibbs started fiddling around with the chain Stitch mechanism but didn’t actually realise he had struck upon a genuinely original idea until he saw the Singer machines of the day used shuttles. Thankfully he was still very young so for those of you who like a happy ending, he patented it, bumped into an enthusiastic partner called James  Wilcox and ended up producing the best-selling Chain Stitch sewing machine ever

Invented and made shit loads of cash.  And you see here’s my point – It doesn’t use a bobbin! So no buggering about with Bobbin Winders or running out of thread on a tricky piece you’ve just removed all the pins from! Yippeee! The only down side is that there is no ‘Reverse’ and you have to remember to finish with the needle up and leave the footer down to prevent the stitches from unravelling ; and the unravelling can be a bit of a Bummer…..

Thankfully it came complete with its fragile book and I was able to decipher the threading which goes from the spool, through the main arm and doubles back on itself, anti-clockwise around a tensioner before heading towards the front of the machine and the needle itself. (At this point I try and refrain from sending you to sleep eulogising  over the handle wheels having been made separately here in the UK away  from its New York production base.) Once threaded, the handle is turned and I’m not sure where the biggest joy comes from at this point; the perfectly formed, dainty Chain Stitches, or the machines complete silence upon which it was marketed. When I say it makes no noise, I mean it makes no noise!

Since that first meeting I have lavished gifts upon my Wilcox. I have collected various devices which make the most sublime pin tucks, ruffles and gathers, reunited him with his original price lists and paid an obscene amount of money for the original metal oil can. I have lovingly run up dresses, trousers, curtains and blinds and he has rewarded me with not a missed stitch, or stubbornness to sew over any thickness of fabric. Never again will I err or stray from him…my bastion of reliability, beauty and timelessness who will be working in another 100 years………oh….and he’s great in a power cut.

If you want to read more about all the geeky intricacies and history of the Wilcox and Gibbs sewing machine then Alex Askaroff  is an enthusiast and collector  and incredibly knowledgeable. Check out his link, where you will in turn also find his links to YouTube videos.


My attempts at Blogging thus far have been pretty sporadic but at long last I have the contents of my studio in one place and am able to blag the use of Broadband which make things much less painless. I am also a technical idiot and thus far my efforts have been thwarted by blundering  through confusing formatting and wasting time just changing font colours or positioning photographs.

Thankfully I have managed to save some of my past favorite articles and I'll kick off with these to get into the swing of things before I start making things pretty!