This week Lily, my god-daughter, came to make papier mâché. As we only had an afternoon, I realised that the drying times were going to need to be speeded up. I discovered that wallpaper paste dries beautifully in a low oven (Gas ¼) cutting the time from several hours to about thirty minutes. Research revealed that it isn’t possibly to dry acrylic paint the same way as it bakes rather than dries. A slow speed on a hairdryer works here, drying the paint in minutes.
As we also had to fit lunch, chatting and afternoon tea into the time, her box only got its first layer of paper but it has joined the ranks of my half-made pieces to be finished at a later date. I sewed (and ate scones) while she pasted and the sewing room / studio felt like a gentle hive of creative activity – apart from Matilda who spent the entire afternoon asleep in the only comfortable chair.
As a child I loved playing shops with Mum’s sewing basket. As this was a ‘basket’ which actually consisted of a basket, an old wooden chest and two huge wicker hampers full of fabric, a cabinet of cotton reels and an extensive button box, there was plenty of scope for stock. I would set everything out on the table and then solemnly ‘sell’ her whatever she needed. Transactions were carried out with buttons as currency so, while it may have been the deciding factor in my spending much of my life working in shops (a fabric shop as well as all the book shops), it didn’t make me rich.
When I moved on from playing shops, Mum taught me to sew. She made most of my clothes and, more importantly for me, clothes for Dodie and Betsy, two rabbits who were called after my god mother and her twin, and accompanied me everywhere. I passed them on to my god daughter and recently got them back as she had (long since) outgrown playing with rabbits. Here they are modelling summer and winter dresses, everyday coats and party coats. Dodie, the favoured rabbit also had a ‘Little Grey Rabbit’ dress, and a velvet party frock but she also had to undergo an operation to have her tummy fur replaced when I wore it out with too much affection. Betsy had a simple summer frock. Aged four, it is easy to see the importance of child and rabbits wearing matching dresses.
Mum sewed beautifully and was adamant that the back of any project should always look as neat as the front. I couldn’t see the point of this; after all, the back was nearly always hidden. It was only when I started quilting that I realised the importance of her lessons. I have finally finished quilting the patchworks I made during the summer – yes, I have been eating off a half-made tablecloth and sleeping somewhat precariously under a quilt held together with pins rather than stitches. While the backs are not quite as neat as the fronts, they aren’t bad. And now I can leap in and out of bed without the risk of impaling myself on a pin.
I went away last week and I wanted a portable project to take with me – and the papier mâché boats are not portable. It’s a great palaver just to move them to the garden as every stage involves lots of bits. I wasn’t sure how keen my friend would be if I arrived with masses of ripped-up newspaper and a bowl of wallpaper paste. Also she has four very large, extremely inquisitive cats. Matilda has at least established that the boats are boring and best ignored.
The little patchworks were the perfect project to take. The hexagons don’t quite come out at 6×8 inches but I’ll worry about that later, once I’ve worked out what I’m going to do with the mini quilts.
Originally patchwork quilts were an economical way of keeping warm. Old scraps of fabric were used and often the paper templates were left in for additional insulation. My fabric cupboard is testament to the fact that, for me at least, patchworks are not an economy. I don’t think I’ve ever made a quilt without buying some fabric, in most cases far too much. Rather than run out at a crucial stage, I buy ‘a bit extra’ and every time I go into a fabric shop I am seduced by a something. Often by several patterns, which then form the basis for a patchwork to be made at some unspecified point in the future. At the end of every patchwork there are always bits of fabric left, often too small to be of much use but far too precious to just throw away, which are pushed back into the cabinet. I’m not complaining, far from it, I love my fabric cupboard but every so often it needs a bit of a clear-out.
I am now making little patchworks. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with them as I don’t know that many miniature people (they’d need to be about 8-10 inches tall) but they are using up the scraps brilliantly and are also an unexpectedly good way to experiment. Each pattern is 6×8 inches with a 1 inch border. So far, I haven’t bought any extra fabric for them.
A couple of weeks ago Ann Wood had a free tutorial for applique bats with very pointy wings. I’ve been fiddling with pointy boat sails so I read it with interest (thank you Ann for the tutorial – it was great). Stage 1 specified ‘freezer paper’. Being a Brit I had no idea what this was. Frozen baking paper? Waxed paper of some sort? A little research revealed that it is paper that is plastic coated on one side and that Empress Mills stock it. The problem is that Empress Mills’ website is very well laid-out and full of all sorts of enticing fabrics, some of which were even in the sale. Of course I bought more than the freezer paper.
The wavy lined fabric will be perfect for the sea, the green stripes for sails and the boats were in the sale and looked useful. The blue and white pattern, complete with beach huts and a light house was too charming to leave.
There are now three patchwork boats, two new ones and a slightly improved original. My plan is to experiment with sail shapes whilst sticking to the 6 by 8 inches overall. I don’t think I’ll be able to fit a three masted galleon but I fancy at least one ship having a crow’s nest.
Boat-wise I’m now constructing 41-52. Thanks to a suggestion from Sarah, my neighbour, they are going to hang in the bathroom; bunting stretching from the corners with mobiles hanging from the central light. The bathroom has odd indents and cupboards so there will be five or six strings of boats and, at a rough count, I’ll need about fifty. For the remainder of the hundred I’m going to branch out and make model and patchwork boats.
Many years ago I used to make stripey patchwork quilts from old shirts. A kindly contact in Jermyn Street gave me bags and bags of offcuts – beautiful cottons in an array of wonderful stripes. I have stopped making the stripey quilts but I still have masses of fabric, waiting for the perfect project. It is ideal for boat sails. The plainer blues also make excellent sky. Each panel will be 6×8 inches so they’ll fit together easily. I’m not sure yet what I’ll make with them but a flotilla of fabric boats seems like a good idea. Unlike most patchwork they are not particularly portable as they need pinning and ironing to get reasonably sharp corners but that doesn’t matter; I can sit on my now-comfortable garden seat (see the Garden Bench Patchwork here) and sew.
Again, this was stuff done at Heatherley’s worked at very high speed on A1 cartridge.
The top one, in charcoal and rubbing out with a few lines of compressed charcoal for emphasis was done more to get some sense of depth through overlapping and recession than any attempt at realism, although the right hand figure is definitely the best of the three.
The lower one was intentionally very foreshortened with its enormous left arm and hand. Any success it achieved was due to the combination of red ink applied at will first, followed white opaque acrylic bleeding into it where it was used to correct and firm up the charcoal outline, and charcoal tone again supplemented with rather random rubbing out. In other words it wasn’t quite accidental but there was certainly an element of happy accident involved.
Six bright boats ready for a regatta.
Herewith a couple of drawings using printing ink and collaged newspaper as well as charcoals and coloured chalks to add a bit more life to Maria, standing patiently with one foot on a stack of chairs. Nothing special, but they all added to our experience of life drawing and even thinking what a picture might be about.