Monday, 27 July 2015

Stitching and Patching in Greece.

Anyone following my Facebook page lately will have noticed that I am a bit obsessed with the Greek Islands! This Spring I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks in total on the beautiful Ionian Islands of Kefalonia and Zakynthos  This was my second visit to both islands, in fact my husband and I were married at the theatre in Argostoli, Kefalonia in 2005 so it was wonderful to return.

Since I have become interested in exploring the themes of strength through repair in my work, I really felt that I wanted to start on a project themed around the effects of the 1953 earthquakes on the Ionian Islands.   It took no time at all to find inspiration just from opening my eyes to the tiny details left on the landscape from ruined buildings and olive terraces that still sit amongst the indestructible trees.  Early in our stay on Kefalonia we took some lovely donkeys up into the hills above Sami  from the village of Grizata  guided by Katharina, owner of Donkey TrekkingKefalonia. Katharina's in laws are from Grizata and she showed us the remains of her Mother in Law's house and the white lilies she'd planted still growing in the garden there. I saw several more gardens with the same lilies as we explored over the fortnight, sad but beautiful reminders of the way of life that was lost.

Many of the themes I already explore in my work were fed here .  I try to express fragmentation and Sometimes letting the repair remain visible reminds us that the thing was fragile but will be much harder to break next time. This is true both physically and socially here, not only did the buildings shatter and fall but the people scattered too, out into the world to make the money to send back to the tiny remaining population so that they could rebuild their lives. Fragmented in one sense, but pulling so hard together in another.reassembly through my patchwork pieces and the comfort that results from putting something that was broken back together again. Things gain strength when they are repaired, like broken bones that thicken as they mend.

Post earthquake buildings on the Ionian Islands are now squat and resilient, no more than three storeys high and with deep foundations. Hunkered down and ready to take whatever nature throws at them, if they fall they will get back up. Duplications of the originals, repaired, rendered, painted and brand new again. I have every confidence that the Greek people will do the same in the aftermath of the current crisis they face as they have done so many times before.

So the work I am producing is once again utilising patchwork and I'm using colours and textures I've collected on my travels. The old is buttery cream walls, crumbling, bleached by the sun and revealing stone and render underneath.  Shutters and doors were green, now all peeling and faded to reveal  hardened grey wood under the paint.  Roofs were barrel tiled using traditional handmade, curved tiles rumoured to be shaped on the thigh of the maker...but probably not! Arranged first up then down and with a yellow ochre shade to them that would have been so bright once.  Grander buildings in the Venetian style remain preserved at Fiskardo and show off fancy iron balconies and shuttered windows floor to ceiling.

The new is smooth, plastered, and the colours are bright and warm.  Shades like the fruits on the market, mangos and peaches! Roof tiles now terracotta and in the imbrex and teqular roman style, doors and Windows now white and plastic.  Not so romantic, but durable and in keeping with the prefabricated, repetitive nature of building that has put these islands back together so successfully and provided their population with the opportunity to accommodate mass tourism and continue the ongoing process of repair.

The colours that are constant on the islands no matter what happens are and white, sea and sky. The exquisite blue lake at Melissani rediscovered in 1951 was revealed when the earthquake caused the roof to fall and allow the sun to stream in, like a big, blue eye opening from under the rocks.   The other constant that I am keen to thread through my work is the skills of the people, in particular the women of the islands.  Economics and progress drive away traditional craft from places everywhere in the world, so connecting myself to the needlewomen of the old life on the islands is really important. 

In Argostoli can be found The Harokopio Foundation, established in 1911 by Panagis Harokopos.   Regarded as unique in Greece,  the foundation began as a non profit organisation providing education and vocational training for unemployed women. The foundation is still active and concentrates on the preservation of the embroidery, lace and needlework tradition in Greece and more specific in Kefalonia through workshops and exhibitions.    

Unfortunately I discovered the Harokopio Foundation too late in my stay to actually visit but it’s first on my list for next time.  The Corgialeneion Historical and Folk Art Museum at Argostoli is a treasure trove of lace and needlework and several pieces of traditional cross stitch have really appealed  to me.   I have recreated the patterns and am including section in my patchwork pieces.

It's cold and damp in the UK today and I reckon some work inspired by the Ionian Islands might bring a bit of Greek sunshine to my afternoon while I wait for my next opportunity to return. 

Paula x

PS Many MANY thanks and more later about Karen Fozzard of Down the Rabbit Hole who has been a wonderful help in finding the museums of Argostoli and giving me a wonderful insight into how a lass from Wakefield is running a wonderful handmade business in Greece.  Thanks for the inspiration ♥ px

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Small Stitches

I started sewing when I was about six or seven years old, my mom used to give me the left over scraps from her dressmaking and I would wrap them tightly around my dolls' unrealistic torsos and stitch them horrendously at the back to make tops and skirts.  My mum noticed my interest and taught me embroidery and how to use the sewing machine and I did a bit of dressmaking at school (badly!) but I never really lost the urge to use up all these little bits of fabric that got left over.  I began doing English Paper Pieced Patchwork in about 1992 and I honestly can't remember why, something to do one Winter when the telly was on the blink or something I guess! 

Patchwork and hand-embroidery aren't techniques I ever really considered using in handmade items for sale as they are such a time consuming practices so it's always been something I've picked up and put down at intervals and done simply for pleasure.  Early in my business, a sewing machine meant I could work faster, produce more work and make more money - or so I thought.  My kids were young, everything was rushed and I grabbed chunks of work time whenever I could and looking at my old product photographs with my current eyes, I can see actually SEE the stress in some of my earlier work!  I found the noise of the machine, the breakdowns, the wonky tension, the lack of complete control and the urgent pace of the work really rather stressful and It's all right there in the stitching! 

I obsessed that I NEEDED to produce quantity to make money - pretty much in the same way that  I NEEDED  a microwave -except I I didn't at all did I?! I realised eventually that my actual oven or a pan of hot water are way more efficient that the box that goes 'ping' and felt rather silly for not getting rid of the infernal thing earlier.   I hand stitch the lace to my pincushions with gold thread instead of using glue it because it feels right to do it that way.  Glue would make me feel rubbish and charge less for my pieces, in fact I wouldn't even feel that they were handmade at if I hadn't stitched them so what would be the point?

I know that I sound like I just had an epiphany about all this hand-stitching business but I haven't really, I've always known that slow is the way to go and have been TRYING to say so with my work but I really think I need to speak up a bit!  What I really want to say is, I love sewing, I love the feel of it, the slow pace and the attention to detail and I want you to love it too!  If I print the words 'Sewing Mends the Soul' on a pincushion then I really really mean it and it is printed on a pincushion that I carefully made by hand. But I have made a hundred of them and may well have forgotten to mend my own soul while I was doing it!  By embroidering the words - on just a few, by stitching some teeny tiny patchwork then I can do just that.

So I now have some teeny, tiny patchwork and embroidered wearable pincushions emerging from my sewing
box for sale but all the images in this blog are of two commission pieces that I have made for the lovely Kate Bowles.  Kate is an valuable mentor and her phrase 'I think you need to go smaller' will now stick with me forever!!  Kate really liked the 'Antique Quilt' pincushion that I made in the embroidery hoop and wanted me to make a miniature version on a ring for her.  She also wanted to replace the pincushion on her vintage spool holder with one made of hexagon patchwork from her own fabrics, all of which were special to her in some way.  It's Kate's birthday today too - Happy Birthday Kate!!  Paula xxxxx

Thursday, 10 July 2014


After the little antique quilt project in my last post, I realised that one of the things I enjoyed the most was the actual unpicking of the fabric.  Discovering what was going on within the seams where the cloth was unchanged by light but still had the wear and tear of repeated washing and drying.  The old cotton had become very crisp and it was possible to even notice the different levels of wear on the warp and weft ... the warp lasts longer it seems.

I also really loved working with a finite amount of material and with someone else's stitches.  The quilt was long gone and the rest of it may well be in other projects scattered far and wide, but what I had was a little framed snapshot of the original seamstress's work.  This made me work consciously with more care and reverence than I would've done with a new fat quarter.  I followed the fabric's lead as I worked,  if it tore, I mended it and that became part of the piece.  I didn't discard worn cloth and incorporated seams and damage into my own, tiny patchwork.

I don't know why I find using up the last scrap of something so delightfully comforting, It's something I've done all my life. I hate waste but if I reuse or 'upcycle' something I've never really allowed the object's previous life to show before,  believing that it should be a miraculous transformation...something new, especially with fabric.  So I would cut around the buttonholes and discard the seams and my eyes would automatically seek out the big areas of fabric in a garment that could be recut and look like new.  Oh I'll tell people that I made a range of pincushions from a charity shop skirt because upcycling is cool right? BUT I don't want people to be able to tell that from looking, so I only pick the best bits of cloth and chuck out the worn bits so the skirt someone once made, loved and wore is now gone forever.

Maybe it's an age thing but the processes of wear and tear, mending and keeping are becoming more valuable to me the older I get. I've been unpicked and put back together more times than I can count and I absolutely did not emerge as a crisp,  fresh new me every time! (I wish! ).  I'm stuck with all my metaphorical expanded seams,  darned tears, stitch holes and fancily embroidered patches and they are actually alk Ok! 
This in mind, I'll most likely be exploring and musing on about my wrinkles,  emotional scars, stretch marks and cellulite through the metaphor of old cloth for a goodly while yet...that might well be a trigger warning for some of us but let's try and muscle past it!

This is a piece of loosely woven cotton that came from a second hand, commercially made blouse.  The blouse only had embroidery around the bottom and the actual garment got cut down into Dick Turpin's big shirt for my son last Halloween.  This left me with an eight inch band of cloth, white with a floral design couched on to it in the bottom of my sewing box.  I have actually no idea yet where the rest of the big lady's shirt will end up yet but here's what happened to it so far!  

Hem, seams and embroidery all unpicked over a fab couple of hours in the garden, darned and half tea dyed.  I love the patterns of holes left by the unpicking that all but disappeared on the piece that went into the tea bath. This may well embroider beautifully under a magnifier as a teeny sampler or pincushion. about ...

"As ye rip, So shall ye sew"?

Paula xxx

Wednesday, 2 July 2014


Recently, I have become a member of a secret underground coven of like-minded women whose main aims are to rid the world of holes, rips, worn areas, oh... and gin!  The holes are dispatched by mending and the gin in a different way!

We have taken to meeting up at undisclosed locations (each other's houses mainly!) imbibing gin and practicing the art of stitching things by hand in a million different ways.  Mending, darning, patching, embroidering and generally celebrating the happiness that ensues from making something not only whole again but more beautiful in the process. 

A while ago - quite a while actually, I bought a piece of an antique quilt at a vintage fair to make into a cushion for my daughter, for some reason I never got around to it and just left it in one of my fabric trays.  Not only has the cushion finally appeared but I've used up the extra scraps too! I've made a fabric button necklace (as I tend to do with tiny bits of fabric) , but I've also made some tiny patchwork from the torn scraps of disintegrating old cotton.  I've mended some of the hexagons while they were still separate on the papers and others once I had pieced them all together, I've done yet more mending on top once I'd appliqued the patches on to a piece of hand embroidery I did reading 'Sewing Mends the Soul'.    The whole thing has now become a pincushion in a 3" embroidery hoop which will hang rather nicely on the wall! 

You can find more joyous mending in the following places :

Happy stitching!  pxxxxx

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Put a lid on it.

A word about bottle caps - the plastic ones that is.  If you are familiar with my work then you'll know that a good proportion of my pincushions contain recycled caps from soft drinks bottles and milk cartons.   I generally obtain these from my own excessive consumption of artificially sweetened, unhealthy fizzy pop or from shady handovers of plastic bags in the school playground.

Well recently, just before I went on my holiday, a very good friend of mine gave me a 'gift' of a black bin liner filled to the brim with every size and shape of lid you could imagine!  Apparently they had come to her via an elderly gentleman who had been collecting them for a charity drive at our local social club.  He hadn't realised that the drive had finished and no one had the heart to tell him so my friend hoped I could use at least some of the massive amount he had collected so his work wouldn't be wasted.

Well after a day of sorting, disinfecting and drying I managed to set all but two carrier bags of the plastic stuff aside for use in pincushions, but what on earth was going on for this gent to collect so many (often from bins and just from litter collecting I was told) and what could I do with what I had left?   Well it seems that plastic recycing facilities differ from region to region but the majority of councils that recycle plastic bottles require the caps to be removed.  This is a shame as many caps can be granulated into a raw material and used in all sorts of procucts BUT they need to be sorted which is costly and you need millions of the tiny things to get any real weight worth collecting or recycling.

I use plastic regularly in small quantites in my practice and even 100 caps really doesn't look like much but to see such a large amount in one place was quite alarming and got me thinking about how much there must be in the world!   Since I now possess every bottle cap in my village, enough to make pincushions for about the next ten years, what can my playground suppliers do with their bottle caps?  Well here are a few ideas but sadly there aren't many areas of the UK covered by these schemes  so please let me know if you know of any in your area.

Green Oil actually reuse bottle caps from soft drinks on their product bottle and pay real money which could be donated to charity.
Waste Connect has detailed information about how Lush cosmetics collect and recycle plastic lids including how you should prepare the lids (free from foil, rubber or paper, washed and sorted)
G.H.S. Recycling Ltd in Portsmouth currently collect milk bottle tops in the South of England and are looking for companies in the rest of the UK to receive bottle caps in other areas for them.  The caps they granulate go into children's garden toys or more bottle tops!
The Green Centre in Brighton gets top eco-marks for taking any quantity of caps which can be dropped off in the bin outside the centre!
Make stuff!  Collect and upcycle caps yourself, there are loads of fab ideas on this Pinterest board from Betsy Roman and I love that rainbow chair!

Unfortunately, the Wychbury Designs Recycling Centre will have to be closed for a while as I have something of a surplus but I promise I will work as fast as I can to use them all up!

Paula xxx

Saturday, 12 April 2014


Over the years my work has got smaller and smaller.  I don’t know why this is but I could speculate that the clutter I was creating in a small space with vast swathes of velvet when I made bags stressed me out or that I hate machine sewing and would rather sit curled up with a needle and thread.  There is the fact that I just love miniature things, the blankets I made for my daughter’s dolls house for instance, tiny sewing kits and bottle cap pincushions.  Whatever the reason my work is now tiny – my smallest pincushion design is 20mm in diameter!

Recently, I have had to rethink my attitude to size when a lovely customer received their mini pincushion and needlebook set and said that even though they had read the measurements in the description that they had envisaged the set to be bigger!  They were not the first person to mention this and a couple of previous customers had also mentioned that my idea of a normal size for a needle book might not measure up to everyone else’s!   As a result I had retitled all my listings online as ‘miniature’ to clarify things but for my latest customer as a leather worker with big needles, she really wanted a bigger set to use.
My biggest problem with upsizing my work apart from my attitude is the raw materials, one of the reasons that my mini pincushions are 40mm in diameter is that that’s how big milk bottle tops are and that’s what I use for the bases as there are loads of them about.  I’m not a bookbinder by any stretch and I make one size of needlebook and one size only and I got all my grey board cut in advance by a man on Ebay to 7 x 5.5 cm.  If I want to make a needlebook necklace I trim some off but I can’t make the card any bigger!

Luckily, lots of people at my kids’ school save their plastic bottle caps for me and I often do shady handovers of suspicious looking bags in the playground!  Sometimes odd sizes creep in to the bags and I put them to one side to see if they inspire any one off projects  and I had a feeling that a couple of caps from kids’ vitamin bottles might work here for my customer’s pincushion.

 As for the needle book challenge,  I don’t know why I didn’t just go to a craft shop and buy some grey board, I really don’t – I’d already removed all the backs from my old spiral notebooks and sketchpads for random things and lack of inspiration and fear of upsizing just led to procrastination and delay!  Then, from nowhere whilst sitting in the pub one tea time with my husband, came the answer!  I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before since my amazing bookbinding teacher and guru Kate Bowles often uses this exact same material but I had to wait until it was under my drink before it dawned on me!  I would like to apologise to The Busfeild Arms in East Morton for the theft of four of their beer mats but I can assure them that it was in a good cause!

Some wider lace,  a slightly different approach to the findings on the latch fastening and some tiny beads on the pincushion because the lace pattern was begging for them and here are the results!  I don’t think that I will be regularly making normally proportioned sewing equipment but for a one off it’s been rather nice to see a jumbo set and a mini set side by side!
Paula xxx  

Monday, 7 April 2014

Quiet work.

It's been one of those running-to-stand-still months when you feel a bit like a hamster on a wheel.  I've got behind with a few of my orders and that's bringing me down a bit.  After a slovenly Winter working everywhere and anywhere it was warm, it was time last week to put the clocks forward and get back up into the loft where my workroom is.  So with my husband's help we've cleared the desks (and the floor) and I've got on with some really productive work at last. 

Still not feeling tip top though, I really don't like to make things when I'm not feeling good so have been recharging with some quiet, enjoyable jobs.  At Yarndale last year on my birthday I bought a big bag of 3mt lengths of the cotton lace I use on most of my pincushions and needle books but all in white and cream, the reason for this was that the day before I had taken part in a natural dyeing workshop with the amazing Claire Wellesley-Smith at Clarabella and thought I would have a go at colouring it myself. 

I've generally just been using stuff I had in the house but have got some great subtle colours so far with tea, coffee and left over mulled wine from Christmas!  In the first pic the dark brown at the top of the card is the commercially dyed caramel lace in the background that's been over-dyed in a pan of mulled wine - it's a strange smell to have in the house in April but not an altogether unpleasant one!
  My next job is to sow all of the dye plant seeds that I bought enthusiastically after the workshop and be a little more adventurous! Paula x