Archive for August, 2010

Weekword: Begin

This week’s weekword is ‘Begin’. It was chosen by S.E. Minegar – visit for links to the other weekworders this week.

Well, beginning. Where to begin? I was thinking about beginning and starting and newness, and wondering what I would choose to post about. And the very abundance of choice became the focus of my thoughts.

My life is full of things that are new, that are at the start. We have young chickens that we’ve raised from eggs. My two children are under three, and amuse, amaze and delight me with the way they look at the world, and how they constantly help me see things in new ways. I love growing things and seeing the new leaves and blossoms. So far, so uplifting.

Beginnings are exciting. Starting things can be exhilarating, and there is a real buzz in beginning them. The act of beginning conjures a state of optimism, of determination. I know what I’m setting out to do, and that’s great! In my mind’s eye, the thing is finished, the satisfaction is real. So I begin. I cast on, I cut out, I start typing. I empty the cupboard, I start the filing, I start the book that’s been sitting on my shelf. And sooner or later I’m past the beginning stage and then… things change. Not always. Sometimes there’s a momentum to the project that keeps me going. Sometimes there’s an extrinsic motivation, like a deadline. Or Christmas. But other times, I lose interest. Or real life intervenes and by the time I’ve chased it away, I can’t remember who the character in the book is, or I’ve cleared away the sewing machine and it feels like such a hassle to set it up again, or the half finished knitting just feels like a chore.

So sometimes I feel that everywhere I look, I find things that I have started that remain unfinished – piles of filing, cardigans and shawls sitting sadly on their needles, quilting projects, Booker prize winners… And that isn’t so optimistic. The journey of a thousand miles may well start with a single step, but there are lots of steps to go once the journey is begun. Some journeys are pleasant. But others risk becoming dead ends if we don’t just keep plodding on.

This isn’t to say that we can’t stop sometimes. Sometimes a detour or a picnic by the side of the road can make the getting from A to B more pleasant. But sooner or later, if the journey is to end, we need to pick ourselves up and start moving again. Or decide that maybe, that particular finishing point isn’t somewhere we want to go any more.

So I think that I want to move from Beginnings to Endings. Maybe I need to break my addiction to the exhilaration of starting, and immerse myself in the satisfaction of finishing. And maybe, just sometimes, admit that this or that particular thing will never be finished, and all I’m hanging onto is a stick to beat myself with – and get rid of it.

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Last week, I had a lovely day out. I went to the NEC in Birmingham to the Festival of Quilts. I am new to quilting and haven’t done that much sewing lately, but I had heard good things about the Quilt show, so I jumped at the chance to visit.

And my response? Wow.

There were hundreds of quilts on display, in several categories. There were ‘Art Quilts’, which used lots of interesting techniques, as well as the ‘Traditional’ quilts, which were meticulously stitched. There were contemporary quilts, group competitions, categories for under 16s, school competitions and a category for quilted ‘objects’. Many of these creations were just breathtaking – some because the finished result was so startling, others because of the sheer perfection of the work.

I took dozens of photos; what follows is just a small selection. Some of the quilts I couldn’t get good pictures of because the light wasn’t right, or, as in the case of the winning ‘Traditional’ quilt, there were about eighty people standing around it at all times.

This is the winning quilt in the ‘age 12-15’ category, which is pretty mind-blowing. The theme was ‘Cityscapes’ and there were some wonderful entries. I was so impressed.

In the ‘contemporary’ category, this phoenix was the second-prize winner. It’s so striking from a distance, and the level of detail when you get up close is incredible.

There was also this really colourful quilt, which I really liked – the photo doesn’t really do it justice. I loved the unashamed use of rainbow colours and how they ‘popped’ against the subdued backing, and I loved the range of techniques used.

This was a ‘postage stamp’ quilt, in which the pieces were, as the name suggests, no bigger than a postage stamp. I really loved the random placement of colours, which was then unified by the blue stripes and the patch of yellow. I also think the quilting in concentric circles worked really well with all the squares.

I loved the work on this dress – it looks like it could have come out of a museum.

This was probably my favourite of the ‘Art Quilts’. It’s called ‘Winter Reflections’. It was stunning – I love the way the impression of reflection has been conveyed, and the way it seems to radiate light.

It’s made with lots of little triangles:

This was really interesting in its construction – the three-dimensional element was really effective, and there were lots of little details.

The colours in this quilt were amazing – much more vivid than in the photograph. Again, the detail work was beautiful.

I really liked this one – at first glance it was quite ‘modern’ and lots of the techniques were very contemporary:

But then you get close and see these little hexagons, just like the ones on an old-fashioned quilt!

Unfortunately, the lighting at the end of the exhibition housing the ‘Traditional’ quilts was a bit dodgy and made everything look rather yellow. A shame, as there was some beautiful work. Some of my favourites were examples of quilting, rather than patchwork – i.e. intricate designs quilted onto single pieces of plain fabric. Still, here are a couple of the traditional quilts:

And this little box was rather intriguing in its construction:

So much beautiful work. This really was the barest fraction of what was there.

As well as the exhibitions, there were stalls upon stalls of fabric, threads, patterns and gizmos for the dedicated quilter and patchworker. Really, it was quite something. I was very restrained and bought a few skeins of discounted embroidery silk and three fat quarters.

In one of the shops, I had a chance encounter with one of my all time heroes. Yes, I had a long conversation (mainly about knitting) with Kaffe Fassett, who was charming. Really, what a totally lovely man. We talked about his latest project (and he showed me how he was doing it) and how he translates swatches into designs – all sorts of things. For someone who is such a legend, he’s very modest about his skills and gives real credit to the people who work with him, which is not something that everyone in his position does. It was so nice to meet someone I’ve admired for a long time and discover that he was so absolutely lovely. I came away quite starstruck!

I’m already making plans for going again next year…

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This week’s word, chosen by Christine is nostalgia. There are links to all the nostalgia posts on her blog. What an interesting word – and I wondered what to do with it. And then, as luck would have it, we found out on Wednesday that it was the annual village show; a lovely afternoon and quite a nostalgic one. There are vintage tractors, sheep competitions (the sheepdog trials were held a couple of weeks ago) and a gymkhana. There is the visit of the ice cream van, greeted with glee by all the village children.

This may be a small village show, but the judging is very serious – the sheep were washed and brushed and gleaming, and the judge very thorough:

There is a dog show, with several classes and categories, and our collie was judged to be the best sheepdog – and very smart he looked with his rosette!

Then the produce tent was opened and we could see the entries. In the ‘Farm Produce’ section, there were categories for best bale of hay, best square foot of turf (none of your fancy metric here) and tallest thistle. And then there were the rows of perfect vegetables, the longest, straightest runner beans:

There were preserves and cakes and scones and pies:

And there were turned bowls and knitted matinee jackets and hand crafted shepherd’s crooks and displays of flowers in work boots. (I couldn’t get pictures of all these – that end of the tent was too crowded!).

So all in all, a good day, and one that is probably almost unchanged – in essence – since the 1950s. I wonder if they had a ‘men only’ baking class then? (This year it was shortbread – the best shortbread baker will decide what the men will bake next year!). And next year, I shall be prepared. I now know which classes I shall be having a go at…

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is being able to go into the garden and cut flowers for the house. In this case, sweet peas, which I love and adore and grow every year, and roses. These are ‘The Generous Gardener’ by David Austin, and look wonderful cut, or on the bush, where they grow in fat clusters.

The smell in that corner of my living room is heaven.

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This week’s Weekword, chosen by Elisabeth is ‘Collection’.

It was a good word and got me thinking (as, I suppose, was the intention). My house and my life is filled with groups of objects that could be termed collections. I have a formidable stash of yarn (often alluded to in this blog) and a smaller – but expanding – collection of fabric. I am gradually accumulating buttons (it’s my ambition to have a button tin that my children beg to be allowed to play with).

I have always collected something – at various times in my life this has been stickers, china cats, art postcards, perfume adverts, things with ladybirds on. For the last few years, my collection has been cups and saucers, and to stop myself filling the house with them, I have had to set rules to make it harder for myself. Firstly, they have to be singles, so no pairs or sets. They have to be a cup and a saucer, no ‘trios’ with cake plates. And thirdly, they can cost no more than £10. Even with these constraints, I have accumulated a wonderful collection.

All that aside, the collection I’m choosing to focus on is my collection of words and pictures. Since May 1997, I have kept a ‘commonplace book’ – a notebook where I copy and stick things I want to be able to find again – quotations, recipes, poems, wedding invitations, amusing or illuminating newspaper cuttings or magazine articles. I’m now into my third book, and it’s interesting to look back and see how my choices and preoccupations have changed over the years. There are things in the first book (a wirebound notebook with a Matisse print on the front, which I bought when I was twenty in the stationery department of James Thin’s in Edinburgh) that I wouldn’t choose to write in my book now because my tastes have changed so much since then. And then there are some things that I would – including a rather startling love poem written by my boyfriend at the time.

The second book (a gift from my friend Ruth for, I think, my twenty-third birthday) contains things that are much more recognisably ‘me’. There is little in this book I’d not choose to keep now, and it’s also much tidier, with fewer scrappy bits.

The third and current book is going to last me a good while. It was bought in the shop at the Doge’s Palace in Venice during my class trip in 2000, and still has the (considerable) price pencilled in the front in lire. (Rather alarmingly, many Venetians used the £ sign for lire as both words came from the same root, which has led to some raised eyebrows…) It has probably hundreds of pages, and glorious thick, cream paper which makes me want to write neatly.

I love this little collection – I know I can find things easily if I want to read them again, and because it’s like an unfolding time capsule of my life, my passions and my preoccupations.

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Please excuse the gratuitous Flashdance reference, but I have just come back from a wonderful holiday. Mr SowandSew and I, along with the Little Girl and the Little Boy, have been camping in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. Barely an hour and a half from home, but for 12 days it was another world. We went to Dance Camp Wales – my first time at such an event – and in our various ways, we all had a ball – pun intended. There was a creche for the kids and music and space to run about. There were people for Mr SowandSew to talk to and social things to do. There were dozens of talented musicians about and wonderful performances in the cafe at night. There were classes in crafts and things. There were lovely spaces to hang out in. There were several hundred interesting, amusing and lovely people. And we were camping in a really beautiful spot.

And for me the main attraction was pretty straightforward. I love dancing and these days I get few opportunities to do it outside my own kitchen. I do miss the days when I would be dancing three or four nights of the week, at a mixture of dance classes, ceilidhs and club nights. And here there would be dancing. Lots of dancing. There was a ceilidh early on and I dived right in, feeling right at home. I did some ‘free expression’ type sessions. I had a go at African dance, which was a great energy raiser and enormous fun. I did some belly dance, which I’d tried years before and had a brilliant time – this was ‘Tribal’ bellydance, with much more ‘attitude’ and really deliberate movements. And I also had a go at Bollywood, which was an absolute blast – not least because it was taught by one of the loveliest, warmest, funniest women on the face of the earth. I have a repertoire of cheesy Bollywood expressions that I can fall back on now, plus some very cool new dance moves. There was also circle dancing, which I didn’t do much of, but which took place near our tent so I tended to watch it while making dinner, making occasional forays out to reclaim the Little Boy who would toddle off to watch the musicians.

And then I went to salsa. Salsa has always intrigued me because it looks so wonderful, and because the music is, frankly, addictive. I would hear the music and want to move, and see the dancers and want to move like that. But – and here’s the difficult bit for someone as given to control freakery as me – you don’t just ‘learn’ partner dances like that if you’re in the traditional ladies’ role. You can’t plan. You don’t know what’s coming next. There’s no ‘next step’ to hold in your head. Nobody helpfully pointing or telling you what’s coming. Nobody you can covertly watch to pick up where you’re meant to be going next. There’s no sequence to learn, no nice safe progression to take you to second place to start again – there’s just music, and a partner. And I was terrified. I found myself freezing up, counting frantically, looking at my feet. But then I got the basic step and felt the first inkling of what it was like to move like that. And then after what felt like several hundred attempts I managed a turn which had me facing the right way and on the correct foot at the right time – and that was it. I was going to do this thing. Five days later I danced Cuban Wheel Salsa (or La Rueda – if you ever get a chance to do this, grab it with both hands because it is fantastic) actually in front of real live people. And I made mistakes and instead of worrying, I laughed, picked up the step and carried on. I was dancing like that.

All this demonstrates two things – that not doing something because you’re scared of not being in control is illogical. Fear is the ultimate lack of control. And second, that a good teacher, who is sharing something they genuinely love, can teach far more than what they’re ostensibly there to teach. In my case, a brilliant dance teacher gently but persistently taught me that making mistakes is OK. That not being responsible for what happens can actually be really good fun. And that this doesn’t just apply to dancing. So now I am wondering whether the other things that I’m avoiding doing are actually opportunities like this one.

If you have Spotify, by the way, here is the track that I will always see as the background music to one of the most glorious and liberating weeks of my life.

So I met wonderful people, learned a huge amount (and not just about dancing), laughed until I cried, danced African-style around a bonfire with flames painted on my chest and arms, enjoyed wonderful music and came away having swapped fear and inhibition for a CD of salsa music, new friends, happy memories, a touch of sunburn, some new muscles in my legs and about ten loads of washing. And all without leaving Wales.

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