New smocker; old smocking

If you lived through the 80s as I did, and your mother was a handsewer, as mine is, you probably wore your share of smocked outfits.  I don’t have any family photos handy, but I went looking for the kind of clothes I remember and came up with these:




A lot of rosebuds were involved, and floral fabrics, and peter pan collars (is that the term?), maybe some cute little animals, and for some reason almost always puffy sleeves.  So I can’t really explain why I signed up for a smocking class that started last weekend.  These are really not design options that appeal to me, for either myself or my children.  I think it was partially to see how smocking is done, but also partially because I just have an instinct that the technique could be used to much more beautiful and – dare I say it – modern ends than these kinds of examples.

Here’s the project we’re working on.  I’m doing the front of a skirt for Nina.  I don’t recommend zooming in on this one, let’s just say it’s one of those works of art that is definitely best appreciated from afar(!).  Some of the stitches are better than others, and I can see they’re better, but I don’t know what I’m doing that causes them to be better.  Anyway, despite my lack of skill I found the smocking part a very soothing activity, and a portable one that’s easy to pick up and put down, which I appreciate.

After finishing my smocking ‘homework’ (we sew up the rest of the skirt in this week’s class) I was curious about where smocking came from.  England, as it turns out, in the Middle Ages, where it was used in the pre-elastic era to gather fabric while allowing it to stretch.  I think the concept of there being a time pre the development of elastic just blew my mind, in itself (I mean, of COURSE there was such a time, I just never considered it, and what it meant for clothing).  Wikipedia also says smocking is ‘unusual among embroidery methods in that it was often worn by laborers’.  That appeals to me enormously, and yet is so far from the prissy childrenswear it’s become associated with now.  I would love to see what those labourers clothes look like.

I also saw a brief reference somewhere that smocking is traditional in Hungarian folk clothing, so I googled up some images of Hungarian smocking, and THERE I feel like I hit the jackpot.  I just KNEW smocking could be used for good and not for evil.  Check these examples out (all from around the 1920s-30s):









These dropped waists and gorgeous shoulders and that bias-cut skirt have made me SO happy tonight.  And the smocking + embroidery combination seems a key element of the Hungarian tradition, and an intriguing one.  All in all, I’m not giving up on smocking just yet!  Watch this space.

Finishing spree

I’m not sure if it wast the last post that had the effect of spurring me on to the Great Finishing Spree of 2017, or some kind of baby-related desire to get things done, or maybe it was the simple act of putting all the half-finished things into one box, but whatever it was, it worked.

I finished Nina’s Geranium Dress and it actually still fits (at least for this month) and she loves it, and has worn it every weekend since.  The snaps were a REVELATION:  after I worked out how to attach them it took all of 3 minutes to finish the dress, and from there I went straight online and ordered snaps in all the colours. (Seriously.  Sixty.)  Obviously I plan to snap all the things, until further notice.

The Pretty Zippy pouch was finished in time for mum’s birthday, and has happily found meaning in life storing crochet hooks.  Speaking of which, I will detour to say:  have a look at THIS thing of beauty – an Etsy impulse buy, a beautifully handmade linen crochet hook case made by Namolio.

It arrived just in time for me to call it a birthday present to myself.  It did occur to me I could have made my own case, but I think one nice thing about being a maker is when you recognise another maker with expertise greater than yours, and are grateful and happy to pay them a fair price for their work.  In that vein, I also have my Etsy eye on this macramé plant holder.  Isn’t it lovely?

Continuing the roll I’m on, I also sewed up a calico insert (with zip! following this excellent tutorial from Melly Sews, my new go-to method) for the French velvet cushion cover – easily my new favourite.

I’ve been looking for an eco-friendly cushion filling, so for this one I splurged and bought some downs wool to stuff it with, which feels perfect.  I just love it.  The floral print is a bit old-fashioned, but then so am I.

AND I finished the tote bag, which was immediately put to use holding a fabric selection together for a larger quilt project I’m working on (you didn’t think I was resisting the call of starting something new, did you?).  I love it, and want to use it all the time, instead of my ugly standard-issue “green” bags.  I’d love to make a few more.  I forgot to take a photo of the lining, which is far and away the best part – lining is one of those happy makers’ secrets.

I also wanted to add a photo in here of a chair I reupholstered a few weeks ago in another class at Ministry of Handmade.  Cotton and Steel “Les Fleurs” collection fabric again.  I LOVE this old chair now, so much more than before. (Here’s a ‘before’ shot of what turned out to be the topmost of four ugly, faded layers of fabric and vinyl.)

It’s the desk chair I use for sitting at the computer, and it’s made me appreciate the home office much more than I used to.  (Now I’m wondering what else can I add in there.  I know what you’re thinking:  a macramé wall hanging would be just perfect. You’re so right!)

In knitting news, I also started and finished a birthday beanie for a friend in Sweden.  Whose birthday was…a couple of days ago.  But you know, thought that counts, etc, etc.  It’s officially “in the mail”.  It’s been a long time since I knitted anything at all, and it was a real pleasure.  So lovely and portable, after becoming accustomed to a sewing machine.

Finally, although I obviously didn’t make it myself, I bought and hung this ceramic shield, handmade by Paper Boat Press in Ashgrove.

Rilke means a lot to me (he will be the reason I learn German, one day) and I am so pleased to have this in my home to remind me of something important.

Opening vs. finishing (or, “Look! Shiny!”)

Gretchen Rubin says people tend to be either Openers or Finishers, and at least when it comes to craft projects, my work-in-progress basket(/box/entire spare room) attests to the fact that I am a bona fide Opener.  I can even set projects aside when they’re extremely close to done, if the allure of the shiny new thing is strong enough.  Today I thought I’d take a tour through just a small selection from my half-made pile, and hopefully inspire (or is that shame?!) myself into becoming more of a crafty Finisher.

A Geranium Dress which I cut out in a size 4 for my older daughter, who is almost certainly now a size 5.  So this is a bit sad, since she was excited about choosing the fabric and everything.  I got up to the point of adding buttons, lost my nerve, bought some snaps, and have since not managed to find the time to read the instructions and learn how to insert them.

A Sally Romper in a size 3 for my other daughter.  I love these toucans so much, and I think she is almost definitely not going to fit this one.  She’s been growing faster than I can keep up.  I’ll try not to feel bad – I know quite a lot of other little girls who are coming up to size 3 – and just call it a learning experience instead.

A little Liberty Pretty Zippy pouch I was planning to give my mother as part of her Christmas present – I thought it would be perfect for her crochet hooks or some knitting bits and pieces.  Luckily birthdays always follow Christmas, hey??  I don’t know what happened here.  I think my sewing session got interrupted, as they often do, and I never went back to finish the last few seams off.

A Chopsticks Quilt top, 80% pieced.  My first “real” (traditionally pieced) quilt top.  I was working away at it very happily until the owner of my local quilt shop told me I wouldn’t be able to machine quilt it with the backing fabric I had picked out (one of Anna Maria Horner’s yarn-dyed Loominous range), at least not on my home machine as I had been intending.  I don’t know if she’s right, but either way it dampened my enthusiasm for the project.  I bought 3.5m of the fabric I wanted anyway, because don’t tell me what to do, and because hey, what would she know about quilting (other than possibly way, way more than me).  It doesn’t strike me as a very hand-quilty project, but I guess I could always hand quilt it if I needed to.

This hand quilting panel I made for a cushion is finished (yes!) and just needs to be sewn up into a cushion cover now.  I’ll also need to sew my own cushion insert, as I made it a random size.  I have more to say about what I learned about hand quilting through this project (including the wisdom, or otherwise, of my fabric choice), but I’ll save it for another time.

Speaking of inserts, this beautiful velvet cushion cover I bought in Paris is an odd (long) shape and has also been waiting quite a while for its own cushion insert.  I would love to put this on my couch, so I should get moving.  You know what’s holding me up on these cushion inserts?  The Dreaded Zippers.  Even if I know (low stakes) practice is good for me.

My second hand quilting project, a pillow top panel I started in Lauriston in my class with Felicia Semple, which seems years ago now.  I’m just making this one up as I go along, and I’ve decided the quilting needs to be denser, spaced at 1 inch intervals rather than 2 as it is at the moment.  So there’s more handwork to do here before this one can fulfil its pillowy destiny.

I have been wanting a dedicated tote bag for carrying fabric or yarn or other things that shouldn’t get dirty.  If I’m taking supplies to a class, for example, or if I should happen to purchase something from a fabric store.  For example.  The pattern in this book looks like a good one to start with.  I think possibly it’s too big for what I want, but I’ll give it a go anyway, and make a smaller one if I like how the pattern works out.  I’ve cut it out already, with the dotted cotton/linen fabric for the outside and yet more Anna Maria Horner for the lining.  I love this teal fabric – it reminds me of book endpapers.

On this Ruby dress I got doubly discouraged:  the binding was driving me nuts (what else is new), and I fell pregnant and changed shape.  Somehow I just KNEW that would happen if I branched out into garment sewing…  Anyway, I do love how this was going – I was so pleased to find a way to feature this beautiful Flores de Coyoacán fabric, which I only had a fat quarter of.  So I should definitely finish this off, and then I can look forward to wearing it when I’m back to normalish shape.

Apart from these there’s also the knitting pile (of course) which has been hibernating since last winter.  And there’s STILL this crochet blanket (of course), which I don’t really want to talk about.  Plus there are (of course) cross stitch and embroidery and tapestry type things mid-progress too, but I don’t worry about them as I find they operate on a different time frame.  Kind of like ice ages.

Anyway, after several long (long) months of nausea and “morning” sickness of the all day variety, I’m feeling more like myself again.  I’m looking forward to seeing the bottom of this pile, and then some.  I think I can do it before July 15, when the new housemate arrives.  And at that point I can do another post about the things I’ve in the meantime started but not finished (ha).

Happiness is a handmade Runaround Bag (and: a month of selfish sewing)

I didn’t like the look of this project right up until the very last bit of the binding was sewn down, and then after that I changed my mind. I like it now. It’s amazing the difference trimming threads and binding can make between “What IS this?” and “It’s a bag!”  I’m starting to think that sewing is a bit like cooking – if you buy good enough ingredients you don’t need to do an awful lot to them, to make them shine.

Having said that, despite following the instructions very very carefully, I’m not sure if I did the binding right. It doesn’t look great. I need to do more research on binding techniques, as well as more practice. This bag is a gift for another friend, and I’m crossing fingers she won’t be inspecting the binding carefully(!).

All in all though, for my first bag, I’m happy. I had so many questions (like, what kind of interfacing am I supposed to use if I can’t find the one that’s listed in the pattern materials? Does interfacing have a grain? And what am I doing wrong with the gathering, if my basting threads keep breaking?) but I decided to push on, and I’m glad I did. I think I was at least partially inspired by a Seth Godin interview I listened to this week, where he mentioned one of his life’s guiding principles was “it costs very little to find out”.  He is so right (as he tends to be) – why do we let fear, and $20 worth of materials, stand in the way of finding something out?

I commented to Kent that I always seem to make time to make things destined for other people, and never get around to making the things I want for myself.  He suggested a month where I only make things for myself. Imagine! So I’m calling November an experimental month of selfish sewing. I’m not sure if I’ll stay the course (Christmas IS coming, after all…) but let’s find out…


Pattern:  Runaround Bag, by Anna Graham at Noodlehead

Outer fabric:  Folk Horse in Coral, part of the Les Fleurs collection by Rifle Paper Co. for Cotton and Steel (leftovers from my ottoman project)

Lining fabric:  I know the lining fabric was one of The Denim Studio fabrics by Art Gallery Fabrics, but I’m not sure which one, as I bought it as part of a half-yard bundle.  I’m guessing Infused Hydrangea (and in that case, I only just realised it was 20% polyester…the horror!)

Interfacing:  I wish I’d paid more attention to the interfacing I bought (off the roll at Spotlight, in a last minute decision), as I think it turned out quite well for this project.  I think from the receipt it is called ‘Parlan Fusible Wadding, white’. No mention of the weight.  Let’s hope I can find it again.

Binding fabric:  I bought a few metres of Liberty of London binding from Ava & Neve at the Brisbane Craft and Quilt Fair recently.  I think this print is called ‘Capel’ but they don’t seem to have it listed on their website.

Pocket fabric:  I was please to have an excuse to use a scrap of Anna Maria Horner’s Illuminated Graph in Metallic Rust, from her Loominous collection of yarn dyed fabric.  Loominous seems to sneak in to a lot of things I make.

Snaps:  these heart shaped leather snaps in light brown, from Studio Mio.  Totally in love with these!  No pun intended.

Thread:  various shades of Aurifil 100% cotton thread

Work in progress: Crochet blanket of flowers

A constant companion of mine, these last few months, has been my Modern Blanket of Flowers project. Although I know there are downsides to crochet blankets made from small component pieces (like, ends to weave in, for a start – ask me how I feel about those later), the tradeoff is being able to take a single ball of yarn, a hook, and a pair of scissors, and be happy wherever I go. I only have a few more flowers to make, and I feel like I will actually miss them when they’re not in my handbag any more, and this turns from a take-anywhere project to a need-a-couch project.

As many of my projects are, this one is a gift for a friend. She’s celebrating an important birthday this year, and lives in a cold place, where I hope this brings her warmth.

One of the reasons I like to make things for other people is that the making of them gives me time –in the case of a blanket, a LOT of time – to think about that person I love. I’m not sure if the recipients realise it (non-crafters, for a start, probably couldn’t even guess how much time goes in to the making of something), but it doesn’t matter. My relationship with them has been changed by the act of making. Deepened, considered more fully, appreciated anew by stepping out of the rush of regular time and into the flow-time of making.

I remember hearing a knitting teacher say once that if she is standing in line or something and sees someone in a handknit sweater, she says to that person “Somebody loves you”. It is the truth, the whole and simple truth. And ultimately, it’s all I’m trying to say to this friend of mine, and any friend I make for: I hope this keeps you warm and safe and comfortable, but most of all, I hope you know somebody loves you.


Yarn: Kuka Yarns Magic Wool Deluxe for the flower centres (the colour seems to be listed as ‘Olive Green Camel Burgundy Brown'(!)), and Cascade Yarns Ecological Wool for the borders (colour 8010)

Crochet hook: size J/6mm

Pattern: Modern Blanket of Flowers, by Julie Yeager

Thoughts on solo travel

A few weeks ago I wrote this post about a fear of missing out generally, and a fear of missing one specific hand quilting workshop, in particular.  And after writing that post I spoke to my husband, and we talked about life, and what’s important in it, and what our plans are for the future, and what my life’s been like for the last five years, and the end of all that was the swift, astonishing decision that I would travel to Melbourne, to travel to Lauriston, and go to the workshop with Felicia.

For the first time in almost five years, I left my children and I spent nights away from them.  Two nights.  And for the first time in I honestly can’t remember how long (ten years, perhaps?) I travelled alone.

How do I feel about all that?  Two things: (1) I feel wonderful.  I feel lucky, and delighted, and grateful.  I savoured that trip in a way that I’ve never appreciated a journey before.  And (2) I feel awful, because I very, very much want to do it again, and I don’t know when or how that’s going to be possible.

Oscar Wilde said – and I don’t quite know how he understood the female psyche so completely, but it appears he did – that “every woman is a rebel, and usually in wild revolt against herself”.  I realise that both are a privilege, the feeling of taking one’s bag and leaving, as well as the experience of coming home and being met at the gate (of, yes, an actual white picket fence) by a waggling dog, two ferocious knee-level pre-schooler hugs, and a smiling, tired, true love.

I struggle to feel grateful for both – the home and the away – without  desiring the balance to be different.  And there is, it seems, no balance in parenting.  (As I am fond of saying, it would be the best job in the world – if only you got the weekend off…).  Perhaps over the course of a lifetime, you obtain a balance between being swamped by the fact and presence of your children, and being far enough away from them to miss them, but in the first, say, fifteen years that balance leans heavily towards the former.


At the beginning of the workshop we had the opportunity to introduce ourselves.  My first sentence was something like “My name is Kelly, I have two young children, and I feel like making things with my hands is one of the only things that keeps me from going completely insane.”  I didn’t overthink that sentence; perhaps if I’d reflected more I might not have chosen those words as my opening gambit to a room of strangers, but I’m so glad I did:  there was an overwhelming chorus of “I’ve been there!”, “I remember those days…”, “Me TOO”.  It was a pleasure to spend the day in the presence of others who understand.  I went to Melbourne alone, and I found a place where I belong. 

Work in progress: Hand quilted pillow front

So I did, I really did, start my first hand quilting project.  And (of course) now that I’ve begun I have no idea what took me so long.

It’s an interesting thing to do, if you have embroidered before.  It feels so DIFFICULT – like fighting a battle with the fabric – compared to the relative ease of embroidery or cross-stitch.  I was surprised how much like hard work it felt to my right hand, with all that pushing and pulling.  I want to experiment with different needles, as I imagine the width of the needle makes a big difference to the force required.

I am also using perle 8 cotton, so there are a few other options I can try (perle 12, for a start, or Aurifil 12 weight, which should be similar to the perle 12).  Unfortunately, given my existing thumb and wrist problems, I need to minimise the force I’m exerting with my right hand, as much as possible.

But oh, it’s so pretty, the end result.  I like the look of the back almost more than the front, so far, which is good news for an actual quilt (rather than this cushion, which will have the reverse side hidden inside, of course).  I love the look, and the feel, now I just have to work out how to do it without hurting myself.

Regarding my fear of starting, it’s surprising how much fear comes into craft, or I think making art of any kind.  I’ve been listening (and loving) my way through Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons Podcast, and after a while you realise it’s generally the one same thing holding people back:  fear.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard her say that it’s “almost never not fear”.  This morning’s episode involved an advertising executive who wants to be a storyteller, and Liz’s question to her was “Why are the things that bring us joy more frightening than the things that bring us drudgery?”.  Now THERE’S a question.

I wish I knew the answer.  I do feel, somehow, that the older I get, the less time I am willing to devote to trying to impress other people, or make them happy (can anyone really make someone else happy?).  In recent years a few things have happened to make me realise, in my bones, how brief our time here is, and how unpredictable the elements that we think we can control.

When I painted and sketched (that would be in the distant past B.C. – Before Children!) I remember saying to my husband that nothing terrified me as much as a blank sheet of watercolour paper.  Because it’s expensive – it costs, you know, $6!  And I didn’t want to ruin it.  But in some ways a blank sheet of paper that costs 2 cents, or is even free, is just as terrifying.  Somehow the blankness, the whiteness, is perfect, in a way that anything I draw (or that any human draws) just isn’t.  It’s this tug-of-war that plays out between the blank page, the fabric still on the bolt, the raw ingredients, and the deeply flawed and deeply human things we might do with those materials that makes art and craft (and dare I say, life) so interesting.



Fabric:  Maureen Cracknell’s Sun Tracks in Earth, from Wild and Free (Art Gallery Fabrics)

Thread:  Anchor perle 8 cotton in colours 186 (turquoise), 308 (golden brown), 341 (rusty red), 11 (salmon), DMC perle 8 cotton in colours 503 (light turquoise), 353 (pale pink), 782 (781) (light brown).

Needle: Olympus sashiko needles

Batting: The Warm Company’s Warm & Natural needled cotton batting

Backing:  Kona Cotton in Snow