Monday 6 June 2016

A Patchwork Story

Have you had defining moments of inspiration that set you off down a particular creative path? While much creative inspiration, I'm sure, is absorbed gradually and by a sort of process of subconscious osmosis, sometimes it strikes more like a bolt of lightning and looking back, even over many years, it stands out distinctly and identifiably.

Trying out patchwork was one of these for me, when I was around eight or nine. The source of inspiration was a book - The Milly-Molly-Mandy Omnibus to be precise. Do you know the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories, written and illustrated by Joyce Lankester Brisley? They are very innocent and unsophisticated but happy, sunny tales of a little girl and her doings. Always highly moral and very homely, but utterly charming, they narrate an English childhood idyll that even when they were written in the late 1920s probably bore scant relation to real life. They are, I am glad to see, still available here

Today, they read rather quaintly alongside contemporaneous offerings of modern children's literature and I am not sure that they would hold the attention of today's rather more sophisticated youngsters for long. But I was not a sophisticated child. In fact, quite the reverse and I loved these stories, one in particular. I still remember encountering it and the effect it instantly had on me. The story in question is "Milly-Molly-Mandy Makes a Cosy"

Milly-Molly-Mandy has been invited to tea one afternoon "with Miss Muggins and her little niece Jilly." Miss Muggins, as well as being Jilly's aunt, is the proprietor of a haberdashery shop, of the old-fashioned kind: "Miss Muggins' shop and the passage behind smelt so interesting - like calico and flanelette and brown paper, with whiffs of peppermint and raspberry-drops" - are you hooked yet?! I certainly was, when I first read that description more than forty years ago.

In my mind, I was already in that passage, sniffing the intriguing smells of fabric, paper, lint, furniture polish and sweets and I could see the bales of patterned muslin and plain calico, the glass-fronted drawers containing buttons and wooden reels of ordinary sewing thread and bright, silky skeins of embroidery floss that the shop sold even though the illustration didn't extend far enough to include them. Miss Muggins' job, of selling "cards of linen buttons and black elastic" and cutting gorgeous fabrics from different rolls with a big pair of heavy scissors, seemed, to me then, the acme of career choices. Even today, I find myself, every now and again, toying with the notion of giving up my present job and doing something similar. One day, you never know, it might become reality!

But back to the story. Afternoon tea, of course, was not taken in the shop, but in the "little sitting room at the back". This smelt differently - "of warm buttered scones and sugary cakes, for the table was all laid ready, and Miss Muggins and Jilly were waiting for her. And over the teapot in front of Miss Muggins was a most beautiful cosy, all made of odd-shaped pieces of bright-coloured silks and velvets, with loops of coloured cord on top." 

Milly-Molly-Mandy, (and her young reader all those years ago), were both transfixed by the tea-cosy and "thought how nice it would be to have such a beautiful cosy on the table at home." Informed by Jilly that her aunt had made the cosy herself, and emboldened by the consumption of "two buttered scones" and "a pink sugary cake", Milly-Molly-Mandy asks how it was made. Miss Muggins explains that it was quite straightforward and Milly-Molly-Mandy could easily make one herself. Milly-Molly-Mandy is entranced at the idea and so was I! The story continues with a most delightful account of Milly-Molly-Mandy saving scraps of fabric, ribbon and cord and secretly sewing together a cosy of her own.

Her aunt teaches her how to cut the pieces and join them with embroidered feather-stitching and finally she is proudly able to put the finished patchwork tea-cosy over the cocoa-jug on the supper table, as a surprise for her mother.

Well, it didn't take more than a second or two for the idea of copycatting this project to lodge firmly in my head and fashion my own, rather inexpert, patchwork tea-cosy from oddments of fabric in my mother's piece bag. It was a ham-fisted piece of construction, really, - it was made up of sixteen squares, sewn together by hand in wonky back-stitch. There was a lining - an off-cut of the printed wool fabric from which my mother had made my first long dress - it was the seventies, remember!  - but the bottom edges of said lining remained raw and it was attached to the outer part of the cosy with running stitch in bright green thread, that didn't match any of the fabrics, but was one of only two colours of thread I had of my own, in my sewing-basket. My mother, bless her, was every bit as delighted as Milly-Molly-Mandy's mother in the story and the cosy remains tucked in a drawer, in the kitchen of my parents' house. My mother even occasionally still uses it and despite its wonkiness, lack of skilled sewing and rough and ready design features, it does the job it was meant to. 

More importantly, the whole experience started a happy patchwork journey which has stayed with me ever since. I am not talking about proper patchwork quilting here which is a skilled art-form in its own right that is rather beyond my powers, just simple, homely patchwork - playing with scraps of different left-over fabrics, turning something discarded or otherwise useless into something useful and, ideally, attractive to boot. I don't do it all the time but every now and again I get the urge for a bit of patchwork and it is always a happy and therapeutic activity. As happy as that first Milly-Molly-Mandy-inspired foray.

Most recently, I got it in my head to make a patchwork sun-hat out of Liberty lawn fabric scraps really too small to keep but too pretty to throw away. (I think every stitcher has a bag of such scraps.) I found the idea here and I used the same pattern - you can download it for free here. It's beautifully designed - the instructions are clear and easy to follow and the shape of the hat is just right, I think.

The lining is cut from a larger piece of Liberty lawn of which there was enough to cut all the pieces. It contrasts nicely with the patchy outside, I think. If you omit the ties you could of course treat the hat as reversible.

All in all, it's been a totally delightful project. If you fancy giving a similar idea a go, yourself, here are a few tips that you might find helpful.

1 Cut out the pattern pieces that you want to apply patchwork to in a neutral, plain fabric to act as a base for the patchwork and stay-stitch around the edges before you apply any patchwork at all, so that with all the stitching, they don't stretch. (I used some unbleached calico left over from backing some cushions which was perfect. You want something with a bit of substance, especially if the patchwork fabrics you are using are on the thin side like Liberty lawn. Old sheeting or a piece of lining fabric could also work well.)

2 Make sure you allow enough fabric in each patch to ensure that all exposed raw edges can be turned in ie when you lay them out to plot your design, make sure there is plenty of overlap. Otherwise when you turn the edges in, unwelcome gaps, showing the base fabric, irritatingly pop up.

3 Once you are happy with your patchwork layout, pin the pieces more accurately in position, turning under any visible raw edges. Then tack each one in place, by hand. This is especially important if you are using crazy patchwork with odd shapes. I rather like this part of the process. If you find it tedious, you can speed things up by using a glue stick suitable for fabric but I prefer the old-fashioned tacking method with a needle and thread.

4 Now machine-stitch close to the folded over edge on each piece making sure there are no unsecured edges. I used a straight stitch, set at a slightly shorter stitch length than usual but you can also use a close-set zigzag stitch which works well too and is good if you want the stitching to stand out, as a bit of a feature. I notice the construction seam in the pic below stands out for lacking the top-stitching of the patches. I should have thought of that and stitched along the edge of the finished seam for a more uniform look but I didn't and now it's too late so, too bad!

5 Once you have finished all the patchwork seams, stitch a 1/4" seam around the outside of each patchworked piece, trimming off any overlap and then you can treat your pieces just as if they were each a single piece of fabric and proceed with the construction of the hat, (or whatever you are making), as per the pattern.

6 If you want to attach a tie so that there is some means of securing the hat and preventing it flying off in the wind, like me, this is what I did. I made a thin tube of fabric (1.25" wide, 28" long bias strip, folded lengthways, right sides together, and stitched with a 1/8" seam allowance) This I turned right side out out, using one of these turning gizmos - I used the narrowest one. Have you used these workers of magic? They are something of a revelation.

Having said that, I found that it was absolutely impossible to persuade the fabric to go down the inside of the tube as per the instructions. Worked fine with a wider fabric tube for the larger plastic tubes but not the very narrow one. Don't despair however, because all you need to do is use the narrow tube to hold the fabric tube apart, as you get it started and then discard it. Bit by bit, you can push the sealed end down inside the fabric tube alone with the metal rod provided. Fiddly, but not impossible-fiddly, and there was certainly no way I'd have got that tube turned out without the help of the plastic tube to begin with. Apologies if what I'm saying is as clear as mud. It makes sense, I think, alongside the instructions for the gizmo. I inserted the two ends of the tie in the seam that joins the crown and rim of the lining, making sure it was not twisted and that the positions were equidistant apart. 

Alternatively you can make two separate ties that can be tied in a bow or use a piece of elastic or nothing at all - depends on how you want to use the hat. I want to wear it while out walking or gardening or fruit-picking when a hat suddenly flying off in the breeze is a nuisance, especially if your hands are covered in blackberry juice or mud. The tie also means that you can hang the hat up easily which is quite convenient.

7 To adjust the fit I attached one of those spring-loaded spherical cord stoppers to the loop of the tie. You can get these spring-loaded cord stoppers very cheaply from Ebay - 99p for 2 -and they come in lots of colours. Or you might be able to cannibalise one from an old camera strap or cagoule.

 Today it is beautifully warm and sunny after a long spell of cold, grey murkiness so I have christened my little patchwork hat while sewing and drinking tea in the garden keeping H company over his history revision. I am pleased to report that it works beautifully - light and comfortable to wear and the brim is just deep enough to shade out the sun from the eyes.

As you can see, my teapot does not run to a patchwork cosy (yet!) but is wearing a bunch of cosy hooky nasturtium flowers instead.

Wishing you a happy and sunny day, wherever you are.

Apologies for my rather long absence from blogging - I haven't abandoned Mrs Tittlemouse's pages - there's just been too much to juggle in the rest of life, I am afraid, but hopefully I shall be back a bit more frequently over the summer.

E x