Sunday, 17 May 2015

If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well

My sister Amy and I had an argument last weekend. I was telling my sister-in-law about my week and how I'd stayed up very late on Wednesday night to finish a project – the one you see here in fact. As I also hadn't finished knitting Mum her Mother's Day present (and it was Mother's Day) Amy commented that I was always leaving things until the last minute.
Right then, visions of my first undergraduate years flashed before my eyes. I'd ignored assignments until the last possible moment. I gave them little thought, did the bare minimum of work and was often up late to finish them because I had done nothing since the moment the assignment had been handed out. The effort I put into projects now, whether they're for work, classes or love, could not be more different, so I strongly disagreed with Amy.

These days I think about projects for hours on end. I research, collect inspiration, start months in advance, put huge amounts of time and effort in, and can become, quite literally, obsessed.
I've thought about it a lot this week, and while the end result in terms of project output is vastly different, the toll on my health and wellbeing is exactly the same, in fact, it's probably worse.

My last year of high school and first year or so of university were the anomalies – I think I was burnt out. Normally I'm very driven, and a bit of a perfectionist. That tendency has been exacerbated in my career, but most particularly in my last job, where the mottos were "say yes, and worry about how to do it later" and "bite off more than you can chew and then chew like buggery" – pardon the expression.
It wasn't uncommon for a client to ring up at the end of the day saying he hadn't had time to look at our report but still needed 20 bound, high-resolution, printed copies for an 8am meeting the next day. We'd hang around the office until he'd send through 40-odd pages of corrections at 9pm and away we'd go. We were expected to do the impossible. I think I now expect that of myself.
I'm not really sure how to change this. I understand perfection is the enemy of the good, but I still think, thanks to my grandmothers, that if a job's worth doing it's worth doing well. Maybe being realistic about what I'm taking on would be a start... And also leaving myself some wriggle room for opportunities that come out of the blue, as they always do.

I swore when I left my job last year that I would never fill out timesheets again, so while I recorded hours for a full bodice of embroidery on a Mexican blouse out of interest, I'm really loathe to track how many hours my textile projects take. I want to be able to experiment, change my mind if something's not working, and even put a project away for a while if I need to think about it some more.
Still, these swatches you see here, were the last (bar one) in a conga line of deadlines and commitments that had me locked away from the world, exhausted and living in a pigsty (no time for cleaning). Something does have to change...

Any ideas?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Embroidery through the years

On now at the National Gallery of Victoria is a stunning little exhibition called Exquisite Threads. It traces the role of embroidery in English life from the 1600s through to the 1900s. Split into three sections – education, fashion and home – it traces the changing styles and techniques over the period. It was so interesting to see how stitches became much bigger – moving from tiny, very detailed embroidery to larger wool needlepoint – as women had less time to dedicate to the craft and more mass-produced items became available at a much cheaper cost.
The first section was education, and contained mostly samplers for learning the basic techniques. The sampler below was stitched by a seven-year-old. My niece is seven and I just can't imagine her having the patience for it. Mind you, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have the patience for most of the work in this exhibition. The time it must have taken to stitch them is unimaginable.

Once the students had perfected their samplers – which became ongoing references for techniques and patterns – they were allowed to move onto pictorial works such as bible covers or caskets. The designs were mostly drawn by professional designers and then stitched by the students. Being proficient in needlework was one of the criteria against which young women were judged – along with music and dancing, but it was also a means of self-expression and the designs could widen a woman's discourse beyond her domestic surrounds.
The piece below was one of my absolute favourites. It was a man's waistcoat in the fashion section. Unfortunately the very dull light and position of the glass case made it impossible to get a decent photo of the complete garment. Apparently these expensive pieces were the height of fashion during the 18th century amongst the wealthy. The embroidery was done professionally on flat pieces. These 'patterns', as they were known, would then have been taken to a tailor for assembly according to the client's own measurements. Even the buttons are all hand-embroidered – just beautiful.
The piece below is a 'stomacher' – also in the fashion section. I had no idea these were a separate piece of clothing, but it makes sense when you look at the detail that's gone into stitching it and how it could be worn over and over with multiple dresses. It's the panel that fills in the front opening of a woman's gown.
The pillowcase below was in the home section. It shows the change in embroidery style from the heavy detail of the Jacobean era to the lighter, more open naturalistic style of the early eighteenth century. Still, there's no way I'd be letting anyone sleep on that pillowcase if I'd stitched it! The large pieces in the home section were all done by professional embroiderers and consisted of bedcovers, valances, pelmets and bed curtains.
Below, we're moving into the 1900s and you can see how the needlepoint would have taken much less time to complete. The top item made me laugh. It's a kit you could buy where all the detailed stitching and beadwork was completed for you and all you had to do was fill in the background, in this case the red stitching!
The exhibition runs until mid-July and it's free. There are also two really interesting videos as you walk around, that show the process of conservation but also highlight a few of the techniques that are no longer commonly used.  If you're in Melbourne in the next little while it really is worth visiting.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Latest Mexican blouse gifted this week

I finished another blouse this week. It was a birthday present for an old friend – not that she's old, just that we've been friends for a long time.

It's been good timing as I'm in the middle of teaching a class on how to make them, so it means I'm reminding myself of techniques and re-reading my notes as I go, to make sure they still all make sense.
The above pic is where the blouse was at last time you saw it at the beginning of the month.
I drew the bodice design to be much simpler this time, as the stitching is the most time-consuming part of making. I'll definitely use this design again, as it was a lot faster to embroider than the full bodice, while still having the all-over effect.
Once again I've gone with the different fabrics for the bodice, body and sleeves. It's not a traditional Mexican thing, but I seem to prefer it. Maybe if I was going to embroider the sleeves and sections of the body I'd stick to one fabric, but I think this gives a similar effect without going through all that extra embroidery work.

Every time I make a blouse I still see little things I want to improve. I think it's about 90 per cent right, but there are measurements to the sleeve area I want to tweak again, and the neckline needs a bit of work.
For now though, as we head into winter, I'm going to put the blouses aside for the knitting needles. I've got a pair of socks and a cardigan on the needles at the moment, with two other cardigans for my nieces waiting in the queue.

Are you a seasonal maker, or do you just stick to the one thing year round? Or do you make whatever inspires you at the time?

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Who made your clothes?

This week commemorates two years since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. More than 1,000 people were killed and more than 2,500 injured in the accident, mostly CMT (cut, make and trim) garment workers. Only the day before, structural cracks were noticed in the building and the ground floor retail stores were closed. The garment factories on the upper floors were notified of the situation but they forced their workers to return to work the following day, and hours later the building collapsed.

Have you ever wondered how you can buy a T-shirt for $5 – by the time the cotton is grown, processed, dyed, cut and sewn into a garment and then shipped to its destination? We are so conscious about the food we eat. We want to know who grows it, where and how it was grown, what additives it might contain and how far it's travelled to get to us, yet for our clothing – one of life's other necessities – we know next to nothing. In fact, it's estimated that even
90 per cent of clothing brands have no idea where their raw materials come from.

The Rana Plaza disaster has started a worldwide movement to demand transparency from the companies that make our clothing. What information that's out there doesn't make for comfortable reading. Every step of the way is filled with stories of environmental or social exploitation.
So, over the next few months I'm going to take a look inside my own wardrobe and I'll share the stories I come across in the process. I'm starting with a clothes audit that I'm only part way through, but already that is proving to be pretty surprising.

In the meantime, if you want to know where your clothes come from, join in the Fashion Revolution on April 24 by taking a photo of yourself wearing your favourite clothing label inside out, post it on social media, and ask the brand "who made my clothes?".

Or, for those in Australia, an organisation highlighting the issues around the Rana Plaza collapse is Baptist World Aid, who have just released their second report on the Australian fashion industry titled 'Behind the Barcode'. This report ranks each brand from A to F in terms of their traceability, monitoring and payment of living wages across the raw materials, textile production and cut/make/trim processes that go into their garments. Click on the image below to be taken to the report.
And finally, if you want to do some wider reading on the issues surrounding our culture of fast fashion, I'd highly recommend Lucy Siegle's 'To Die For – Is Fashion Wearing out the World', which is a more UK-centric look at the situation, or 'Overdressed – The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion' by Elizabeth L. Cline, for US readers.

Until next time...

Sunday, 12 April 2015

San Antonino Castillo Velasco

I've been going back through some old posts this week and realised that twice now I've promised to talk about the second half of my residency in Mexico and still haven't done it. I got quite sick in my fifth week there, which meant I had to work really hard during the last week to get everything finished, leaving very little time for blogging.

My embroidery teacher was Miriam, and thankfully she spoke English (because my Spanish is appalling). In fact Miriam was one impressive woman. She had a degree in chemical engineering, a masters in urban development, she embroiders for well-known artists and high-end Mexican fashion designers and teaches a bit of embroidery in her spare time! Miriam is from San Antonino Castillo Velasco, which is the town known for its embroidered floral blouses, and all the women in her family are embroiderers. She works in Oaxaca though, and does a 3-hour round trip each day to get to work and back.
I made two trips out to her town to see what it is was like, take some photos and visit the blouse shops owned by her mother and her aunt. On the first trip I was still a bit wobbly, so the only pic I took was the one above of the church dome. It reminded me a little of the one at Téotitlan del Valle, but more colourful. It was definitely my favourite one in Oaxaca.

We took a local bus out to Ocotlán from Oaxaca, and then an auto-moto to San Antonino Castillo Velasco. These would have once been separate villages, but the latter is really just an outer suburb of the former now. My second visit out there was probably the only time I felt nervous on my whole trip. Two hours away by bus from Oaxaca, me with very little Spanish and no way of contacting anyone, and only one other person – my remaining fellow resident – who knew where I was. I needn't have worried – the day went without a hitch.
Auto-moto in San Antonino.
I really noticed the difference between rich and poor in Oaxaca. There are some obviously very well-off people living there with beautiful houses, clothes and well-paid jobs, but there is also extreme poverty. As you get out into the countryside though, to places like San Antonino, there is much less of a gap. People live very simply and without all the excess we take for granted here. Life also seems slower. There aren't many cars, people have time to chat in the marketplace and they're not rushing around to get from place to place. I don't mean to make it sound idyllic though, it would be a very hard life for many.

But back to my blouse... Neither Miriam nor I happened to have fabric scissors with us, so at my first lesson Miriam took a few basic measurements and then proceeded to rip the blouse pieces from my fabric. I had my doubts about this turning into a blouse.
From left, two sleeves, the body and the bodice.
Miriam then showed me how to draw all the floral motifs. I've spent quite a bit of time practising these since, but as we needed to get going with the stitching, Miriam drew me a small motif that I could embroider onto each side of the blouse. I was a bit disappointed we weren't going to do something with more flowers on it, but now that I know how long that takes, I can see she was quite right to start with something small.

Miriam drew this motif in about two minutes. She said she's been drawing them since she was three, so I guess she's had a lot of practice.
While I kept going with the stitching outside class, Miriam started me on the drawn threadwork during the lessons. This took even longer than the stitching, and it's something I've not worked on again since I got back. I'd really love to design a blouse with a stretch of drawn threadwork across the front, but it hasn't even made it onto the 'to do' list yet.
Drawn threadwork beginnings.
It took me a lot of hours to complete the bodice. I lost almost a week being sick so I remember thinking there was no way I was going to get the blouse done before it was time to fly home. We still had something called 'make me if you can' left to do and that didn't sound very easy to me. At this point I probably had two lessons to go and with the lighting in our studio not being great, I had to do most of it during daylight hours. Thankfully I had done a lot of exploring in my first weeks in Oaxaca, because it was head down, bum up during this last week to get the blouse finished.
It was a relief to find that the hazme si puedes or 'make me if you can' wasn't that difficult. Miriam did show me some more complex examples, especially the little people motifs which are very popular. You can see a sample of the beginnings of that pattern below.

During this last week I was also madly crocheting around every edge, as that's the way they finish their hems without having to sew them. I don't do a ton of crochet, and what I have done has been on normal-sized needles. I tell you what though, after getting around this blouse I'm a demon with a 1.5mm crochet needle now!
Finally the last day of class dawned – two days before I was to fly home. Miriam arrived and we spent the session sewing the blouse together. It was done on a tiny little machine she'd brought with her on the bus! It was so small it was almost battery-powered, but it was perfect for the very limited amount of machine sewing I needed to do. I still wasn't quite the way around the bottom of the blouse crochet, but I promised Miriam I'd finish it before I left Oaxaca and send her pictures. I was getting a little concerned that I might also run out of the crochet thread, but I made it with less than a metre to go.

And there you have it finally! My first, but definitely not my last, Mexican blouse and the end of my textile residency.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Spoonflower Crayon Crazy Easter skirts

During one of the art sessions I had with my two older nieces, they drew some fun circles with crayon and watercolour that I thought would look great turned into a fabric repeat. It took a while for me to get to it – what with house-moving and study – but I did finally manage it and was super-happy with the way it turned out. You may need sunglasses for the post from here on in – this fabric is pretty bright!
Now, a length of fabric wasn't much use to the nieces, so it had to be turned into skirts. I purposely had the fabric printed at Spoonflower (available now for sale) on an organic cotton knit so I could use some Alabama Chanin techniques in putting the them together. I did toy with the idea of creating my own pattern as well, but that all got a bit too hard once I'd committed to an Easter deadline.
As you can see in the skirt pattern I chose, there is a strip of contrasting fabric around the bottom. To allow for this I just cut each of the girl's skirts the length of one a size up. So Olivia, who is seven, got a skirt length for a girl aged eight. The pattern piece was for a quarter of the skirt that you would normally cut on the fold, but because I wanted a seam at the front, back and each side, I cut four single pieces from the pattern. The pattern allowed for a seam, so I included that and then added half a centimetre (one quarter of an inch) to the inside edge.
Each seam was sewn together with running stitch using two strands of embroidery thread, folded to one side and then stitched down with more embroidery thread. The two older girls got full ruffles on their skirts done in a plain jersey. These were pinned down first and then attached with cross-stitch. The gathering thread was pulled out at the end.
The smallest girl got random ruffles, again made with plain jersey, in the colours from each of the older girls' skirts.
And then they were done! I struggled to believe that the smallest one would fit. Honestly, each of the pieces of the skirt were the size of a pocket on my jeans.
These girls rarely stand still, so I snapped this shot just after they'd opened the presents. They put them on immediately, crooked in one case, and over whatever else they already had on, but at least I got a pic! Olivia did wear hers the next day with a bright red and white striped top and it looked great. They were definitely pretty chuffed with skirts made from fabric they'd designed themselves. Happy Easter everyone!

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Loving Indigo – the Japanese quilts of Shigeko Asada

Last weekend Mum and I went to Ballan, a little town of about 2,500 people, just outside Melbourne. We were going to see an exhibition of Japanese quilts by Shigeko Asada.

Shigeko died in 2005 after eight years fighting cancer. To help her cope and give her strength, she made a series of 50 quilts, many that were on display for the first time outside Japan in this small Victorian town. Most of the quilts were hand pieced and often hand quilted and they contained the most beautiful details – sashiko embroidery, old bed sheets that had been plant-dyed and used to create embroidered cherry blossoms and hand stitched Buddhist sayings.
No.3 Mother Sea – raising life (early works).
The majority of the quilts in the exhibition were made with kasuri. Kasuri is a Japanese form of ikat, where the cotton threads are indigo-dyed before being woven. The pattern in the cloth often bleeds a little where the threads don't quite match up to the intended design. I find this technique quite astonishing that they can get it to match up at all! Shigeko tells the story that kasuri were created by women during the winter or the evenings when there was no farm work. The finished pieces were given to daughters to take with them when they left the family home as brides. For Shigeko, the smell of indigo is the smell of her mother.
Quilts from left to right: No.6 I am content with what I have, No. 5 Indigo | Love | Connection,
No. 4 Memories of Childhood (early works).
Apparently Shigeko was particularly keen to have the quilts shown in Australia, as her home had been affected by the tsunami and Australia had sent a lot of help through the Red Cross and Rotary. Showing the quilts was her way of giving thanks. I'll just show you a few more of my favourites while you're here...

The quilt below was made to highlight the Japanese art of sashiko – the beautiful stitch patterns that were used to strengthen and mend materials. The pieces of kasuri in this quilt are nenneko, which was a special style of padded kimino used while carrying a baby to keep it warm. Traditionally these types of kimino were used to make nappies once they wore out. No waste in those days.
No. 9 Sashiko stitching and kasuri – traditional sashiko patterns being forgotten.
This next quilt contained some of my favourite details – appliqué trees and hills, with sky and moutains in the distance – and just look at those dragonflies. This quilt represents Shigeko's village from her childhood, before the war. She names some of the houses and notes there are lights going on in the early evening – some happy-looking houses, some lonely-looking houses.
No. 8 Dusk falls gently.
This last one was really just a quilt of textile play – patching pieces of indigo that vary slightly in colour. This is only one half of it, but I think it has such beautiful rhythm and composition.
No. 7 Playing with indigo-dyed cloth.
One touching little detail was the origami crane sitting in front of each quilt atop the descriptive plaque.
There were so many stunning quilts and you can see all 50 on the Millrose Cottage Facebook page – they did such a good job of displaying and hosting the event. You can still also buy the little booklet with the stories of each of the quilts, with money going to Red Cross.

Such a beautiful legacy from what must have been a very difficult time.