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Sunday, 10 November 2013

Learning from a master – Folk Fibers' camp

I’m back! And what a whirlwind the last few weeks have been. I came back from the trip with a small trolley-bag full of purchased yarn and fabric (which I’ll write about another time), but the highlight of the holiday, from a textile perspective, was absolutely the Angela Ritchie Ace Camp with Maura from Folk Fibers – what a treat!

We stayed in a big, old southern house in Austin, Texas – all floorboards and windows out onto the cool of the garden. It was the perfect spot for the workshop, as even though we only ventured away from the house for one evening, you never felt cramped or shut in.
The Austin house at sunset.
It was such an honour to spend three days with Maura, to learn from her and to hear all about her work and her business. I really admire that she has such strong vision and commitment to her process. My first introduction to Maura was when she arrived to set up on the first day. I was the only one of the camp guests up and about, and in my pyjamas no less – lovely!

On the first morning Maura went through our aim for the camp. There were six of us staying at the house, and another seven women who came in each day to do the course. Maura explained that the thirteen of us would be cutting, piecing and quilting a log-cabin quilt over the three days. No small feat when we ranged in skill-level from a few who had never sewn before, up to an experienced fashion-industry seamstress. We wanted to be able to auction the quilt at the end so we could donate the proceeds to a children’s charity – probably with the aim of sending a kid to camp.

The first step in the Folk Fibers’ process is dyeing the fabric. Maura has recently moved to a farm outside Austin so she can grow most of the natural dyes she uses, including indigo, madder root and onion skins. Maura had made us an indigo dye-bath and we all took turns at dyeing a piece of fabric. Maura explained that she heats her dye-bath to reactivate it and will then spend a period dyeing until it is exhausted again. To get consistent colour she only dyes fabric lengths of up to a few yards, always using natural fibres. While we were going to be using fabrics that Maura had dyed previously, or vintage and recycled pieces, it was good to experience how the whole process would normally work.
Main photo: Our indigo-dyed samples. Inset: The dye bath.
In the afternoon, we started piecing. Each log cabin block started with the same 2.25” navy square and then we improvised from there. We were working with roughly 2.25" strips, but beyond that there were no rules. There was one group set up with their machines inside the house and another outside in the shade of the trees. We ranged in age from early 20s to early 50s – a little over half the group were from the US, the rest from Canada, and me from Australia. Sitting sewing all afternoon was a lovely way to get to know everyone – the reasons people had come to the camp, the quilting traditions of their families and the goings-on in their everyday lives. A number of women, like me, were looking for a change of direction in their careers and wanting to get back to something simpler and more creative.
The outside gang.
We sewed until the early evening and then had the most fantastic dinner. The food in general was amazing. Prepared by the lovely Mary from Ace Camps, we had the breakfast table spread out each morning with everything you could possibly need to start the day (and then some). Lunches were on the lawn where we picnicked on salads, cold meats, cheese platters, fruit, breads and pudding. And then a two-course dinner each evening. I ate so well, I was terrified I’d step on the scales when I got back and see an extra 10kg sitting there. It must have been all the walking in New York that took care of most of it.

On the second day we finished off the last of the blocks to get the right number to make the quilt; trimmed all the blocks to size; sewed them together – pausing to pat ourselves on the back and take photos of the finished top – pinned the quilt with wadding and backing; and got it on the frame. Along the way Maura talked about her process and showed us her beautiful dye book that contains all her dye samples on different fabrics using various mordants.

The final day was spent quilting – a real old-fashioned quilting bee. The frame was a large, square wooden one that could sit four of us around it to start, then as we moved out from the centre and made the frame larger, more of us could fit around it. Maura normally just quilts on a table, rather than the frame, but for so many of us, the frame was ideal. We went pretty hard at it, but even at its largest we could only fit eight of us around the quilt at any one time. We didn’t quite make it, but Maura said she’ll finish it off and bind it. I suspect she'll be doing quite a bit of unpicking and re-quilting too!

I was really hoping we’d get to use the sashiko thread that Maura uses for most of her quilts – I really like the effect of it, but apparently it gets tangled quite easily, and as none of us were hand-quilters she thought a standard quilting thread would be best. We did at least get to try the sashiko thread out on a test piece and I’m busting to try it on something larger. I bought some when I was in New York for a project I’ve been working on, so I’ll let you know how I go with that.
Maura teaching us how to hand-quilt.
The last evening was spent at Maura's place where her lovely husband Chap cooked us a BBQ. Afterwards he encouraged us all to speak about our favourite parts of the trip – getting to meet Maura and learn from someone we've all admired from afar; watching how everyone's blocks came together so differently; the easy chatting over hours of quilting; the new sewer feeling the generosity of spirit from being helped by a more experienced sewer to get her blocks finished – then Laura, one of the women on the camp, got out her guitar and sang us folk songs as the sun set – a perfect end to our time together.

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