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In my last blog post I spoke about my intention to learn how to use a thimble. I have mentioned before that I enjoy hand-finishing my sewing projects, such as hand-worked buttonholes, inserting a lining, and even whip stitching seams to stop the edges from ravelling. This is in part because I use an old Singer 201k treadle sewing machine that can only do straight stitches, but it is also because I enjoy the act of hand-stitching.

woollen trousers, hand-picked fly

Woollen trousers with prick-stitched fly and hand-worked buttonhole

Sewing is much quicker than knitting, and many sewers that I know are amazed about the amount of hand-stitching I do, because “it takes forever!” However, compared to knitting, all this hand-stitching is done in a jiffy! Slowly but surely working my way towards having only hand-made clothes, leading to more hand-stitching, has increased my interest in tailoring, and the accompagnying hand-stitching. And even if I might never become an expert in tailoring, I can take away those bits that will work for me. So far, I’ve not used a thimble, but the drawback is that my fingertips are shredded to bits by the sewing needle, so it’s time to learn from tailors, and use a thimble.

Thimbles, needles, beeswax

Thimbles, needles, and beeswax: the traditional tailor’s tools. Shown here are two plain closed-top dressmaker’s thimbles, one closed-top souvenir thimble from Belfast, one open-topped tailor’s thimble, and at the far right, a leather quilter’s thimble

Thimbles come in many shapes, forms, and materials. The traditional tailor’s thimble is made from metal, and has an open top. Dressmakers’ thimbles normally have a closed top. I have not been able to find out why there is a difference, but I think it might have to do with the sewing technique used. The tailor’s thimble goes on your middle finger, the needle is held between thumb and forefinger, and put into the fabric. The needle is then pushed through the fabric with your thimble-covered nail. In order to do this comfortably, your middle finger is actually curled up, sitting right behind the needle. Have a look at these videos by an expert tailor. Keeping your middle finger bent is the most difficult thing when learning to use a thimble the tailor’s way, so an old apprentice trick is to put a tie on your thimble to keep your finger in the right position.

thimble padssashiko thimble

Thimble pads, popular with quilters, and a sashiko thimble

I’m keen to learn to use a tailor’s thimble, but there are many other thimbles to choose from, such as a leather thimble, shown in one of the pictures above, “thimble pads” which are small stickers to stick to your finger, and sashiko thimbles, which are shoved right down your middle finger. The metal plate at the bottom protects the palm, as traditional sashiko uses a long needle which is threaded through the fabric multiple times before pushing it through with your hand, which isn’t much different from a sailor’s or sailmaker’s sewing palm.

the history of needlework tools and accessories book

The History of NEEDLEWORK TOOLS And Accessories, by Sylvia Groves

I will finish this blog post with some background information on thimbles, from Sylvia Groves’s The History of NEEDLEWORK TOOLS And Accessories (Country Life Books, The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Feltham, second impression 1968): the word thimble is derived from the Old English thymel, meaning a thumb stall. It was originally a small bell-shaped cap of leather, made to be worn on the thumb in sewing. She goes on to say that “Although this type of primitive protection continued in use in remote and isolated districts until quite recent times, the metal thimble displaced it in more civilised countries at a very early period.” With this being my only book in my library on needlework tools and accessories, what follows is from a very European-centric viewpoint, showing exactly which countries the author deemed civilised.

Thimbles of bronze have been found on the sites of Greek and Roman cities, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were destroyed in 79 CE. They can be divided into two two types: one heavy, cast, and with the indentations irregularly placed; the other finely made from sheet metal, with indentations more neatly arranged and occasionally having an open top. A cast bronze ring, about a quarter of an inch deep, with three rows of indentations arrachged diamond-wise, served a similar purpose.

thimbles from the history of needlework tools and accessories

A fine collection of thimbles, finger protectors, and thimble cases (click on the picture for a larger image)

There are very few thimbles to found that can be confidently dated to befor the 16th century. Thimbles can be made from all sorts of metal, but in general, thimbles from the 17th and 18th century were often made of brass or steel, or sometimes a combination of the two. An open-topped steel thimble might be lined with brass. Alternatively, a silver thumble with a steel top might be obtained; the top stamped with indentations, was soldered on, and the silver might be engraved, or of open filligree. These thimbles were never intended to withstand the wear and tear of daylong sewing, but were reserved for fine needlework and social occasions.

For children, nests of thimbles were made fitting one on top of another and increasing gradually in size, to allow for growth. In the early Victorian era, there arose a fashion of ornamenting the sides of thimbles with representations in relief of famous buildings, bridges, and other well-known landmarks; they were sold as souvenirs to tourists who were increasing in number owing to the developments in railway travelling.

There are a very large number of antique thimbles to be found, made from all sorts of materials. Their shape provides little indication of their date: those made during the last three or four centuries may be either short and flat topped, or long, tapering and domed, according the the fashion at the time or the whim of the maker. Mother-of-pearl thimbles came from France; glass from Bohemia or Venice. Wooden thimbles came from Germany and Austria, where they were bought as souvenirs by tourists, but they are by no means common as wood is a soft material unsuitable for practical use in sewing. Complete thimbles without indentations, fashioned from horn, ivory or tortoiseshell, may occasionally be found; they are, in fact, finger guards and were worn on the first fingers of the left hand to protect it from the continual prick of the needle’s point. When these guards were made of metal, part of the top was cut away diagonally, leaving only the rim entire.

Wish me luck in my thimble journey: I think it will take me a while to unlearn my old hand-sewing technique, and learn a new one, but I will persevere and report back, so keep an eye out for my next blog post!

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The last couple of months has been a very productive one. I can’t reveal everything just yet, but it did involve a lot of hand-stitching of fabrics, and re-reading some of my old books on mending and repairing, such as old Dutch lesson plans to teach girls the art of marking and darning.

Merken Stoppen en Mazen, Nuttige Handwerken

The Female Handicrafts for School and Home, and Useful Needlework. Both are lesson plans to teach girls the art of marking and darning

I have written about these books before, but I looked through them again when I was preparing for one of my workshops a little while ago at Hope & Elvis. In particular The Female Handicrafts contains a lot of detail, starting with the very basics.

How to mark household linen

A page from The Female Handicrafts. showing some letters of the alphabet

For instance, the first chapter on marking household linen, starts with the easy letters with lots of vertical elements, such as the letter “I”. It then moves on to those with strong diagonal lines, and finishes on those which have curves. To learn this, it advocates starting with an open-weave plain fabric, such as scrim. Marking your household linen was important, as many people took their washing to the laundry house, and this way you could check whether nothing was missing and that you actually got your own things back.

Darning fabric technique

A page from Useful Needlework

Likewise, Useful Needlework starts with the simple re-inforcing technique of weaving thread through the fabric, again using something like scrim to get a feel for the technique, before moving on to finer work. Needless to say, I’ve stocked up on scrim, and I have my darning threads at the ready!

msm-stoppen-2

Easy start with darning…

darning in pattern, damask darning

…followed by an intermediate step of adding stripes and checks…

msm-stoppen-3

finishing with something altogether more complex

For the aforementioned workshop at Hope & Elvis I got everybody to make a sewing sampler, based on the samplers I’d seen at Goldsmiths earlier this year, as part of  the A Remedy for Rents exhibition.

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Plain sewing samplers from the Whiteland College College

It was my first foray into teaching something sewing-based, and we all made a small sampler using old textiles. The edges were hemmed using four different hemming techniques, then we made three different types of patches. I had selected the different techniques based on practicality, still useful today. They included amongst others: slip stitch hem, herringbone hem, hemming stitch, napery hem stitch, calico or oversewn patch, tailored patch, and flannel patch. For those who wanted more, I also taught how to hand-work a buttonhole. I don’t believe hand-worked buttonholes are any better or stronger than machine-made ones, but I do think they look very nice.

Tailored buttonhole by Annie Hewins 1879, Whitelands College Collection

Hand-worked buttonhole, found on a sampler in the Whitelands College collection

I’ve also spent a lot of time sewing patches onto sturdy linen tea towels (I will share this project in a couple of weeks) and it became apparent pretty soon that I will have to start using a thimble. I enjoy hand-sewing, and whenever I sew, I tend to do a lot of finishing by hand. When sewing woollen trousers, this is quite easily done without a thimble, but it’s a different story with those tea towels. The needles I use are rather fine, so the eye of the needle is almost as sharp as the point! Teaching myself to use a thimble might take some practice and perseverance, but I’ve found an old tailor’s apprentice trick to get me started.

All-in-all, this means I have a lesson plan of sorts for myself. I’m going to take it all back to the beginning: teach myself how to use a thimble, and then start marking, darning, and patching according to my Dutch books. I hope that this will lead to new inspiration and new off-shoot projects. I will be sharing my pursuits here, and perhaps you’d like to join in! Therefore I will post not only completed work, but also a heads-up post with what I’m planning to concentrate on next. Keep an eye out for the first post in the next one or two weeks.

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When Rachel Atkinson told me she was working on producing a yarn, using her dad’s flock of Hebridean sheep, I just knew it was going to be something really special. I love the deepest, darkest shade of chocolate brown you get from naturally black sheep, and Rachel’s yarn, aptly named Daughter of a Shepherd, really does the Hebridean sheep justice.

Daughter of a Shepherd Yarn

Rachel’s Daughter of a Shepherd yarn: a luscious, deepest, darkest chocolate brown

Despite the colour, it shows up textured stitches really well, which was a good thing, because my love affair with Cecelia Campochiaro’s Sequence Knitting is still going strong. One type of fabric you can create with sequence knitting is a broken garter stitch (alternating columns of garter stitch from knit stitches, garter stitch from purl stitches,) which give a very strong vertical texture, enhanced by columns of slip stitches, a type of fabric Cecelia calls “boxpleats,” as it has a 3D quality to it.

Sequence Knitting in Boxpleat pattern

Boxpleat pattern from Cecelia Campochiaro’s groundbreaking work, Sequence Knitting

Waiting for the right project to come along, was some of Elizabeth Johnston‘s handspun Shetland yarn, which she made from grey Shetland wool, overdyed with madder. It wasn’t much, but enough to provide a pleasing accent of colour. I took measurements from a French workwear smock, and after swatching, I cast on and mostly made design decisions as I went along.

My good friend Jeni Reid has taken all the pictures following below, and I’m using them with kind permission and they are credited to Jeni Reid/Small Window. You may have spotted her at yarn festivals with a big camera in hand, and being a knitter and spinner herself, she manages to capture goings-on with a knitterly eye.

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

Me looking mighty pleased in my boxpleat jumper

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

Boxpleats for armhole shaping. I love all the movement in the back shoulder area

The armholes are shaped using actual box pleats and I’ve gathered the sleeveheads, so there is volume along the arms to show off the boxpleat fabric, but keeps the shoulder saddles neat and tidy.

The boxpleat pattern is best knitted flat, so the jumper was knitted in pieces, and then seamed together using a three-needle bind-off. I’m a real fan of the three-needle bind-off for seaming. Sure, it takes a while to pick up stitches along each seam edge, but the resulting seam is strong, yet it retains some stretch quality, something that was really important here, as the jumper is very heavy, and therefore I anticipate it will grow longer in wear.

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

The hems are finished with a split

Although knitted in pieces, the over-all shaping is more or less based on the classic Elizabeth Zimmermann seamless saddle shoulder pull-over.

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

I was in a very studious mood…

Last but not least, I used a lot of gradually differing needle sizes. The sleeves start at the cuffs in 2.5mm needles, and by the time I reached the sleevecap, the needle size had increased to 4.5mm. This created a gently shaped sleeve, allowing for the boxpleat pattern to do its pleating at its best. To stop the jumper from flaring at the hems, I knitted them on a slightly smaller needle to gently draw in the fabric. The neck is finished with a funnel neck, highlighting the non-curling quality of the boxpleat pattern.

I thoroughly enjoyed designing and knitting this jumper, and as you can tell from the pictures, I finished it just in time to put it away for summer.

tomofholland boxpleat jumper in daughter of a shepherd yarn

Boxpleat jumper

With special thanks to Rachel Atkinson for letting me buy a few more skeins for this special project, and to Jeni Reid for taking such beautiful pictures, as this jumper provided a photographic challenge, due to the colour.

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Ethel Mairet (1872-1952) was an exceptional weaver and dyer, who’s influence can still be felt today. She was a member of the small but vigorous crafts community in Ditchling, where she established an influential weaving workshop at Gospels, alongside Eric Gill, Edward Johnston and Douglas Pepler. Mairet was greatly interested in demonstrating and educating, teaching weaving at the Brighton School of Art, exhibiting her work widely, publishing a number of books and articles and producing what she referred to as ‘textile portfolios’ with accompanying pamphlets to support teaching.

She has also been an important teacher to and collaborator with other well-known hand-weavers such as Mary Barker, Peter Collingwood, and Marianne Straub.

Ethel Mairet Weaver and Dyer Sign

The sign for Ethel Mairet’s workshop at Gospels, Ditchling

I’m fascinated by her approach to texture, colour, and fibre, and I had a very enjoyable afternoon with fellow textile appreciators Louise Spong and Jenny Dean, looking at the Mairet collection at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, and seeing some of Mairet’s work up close. Mairet has written a small number of books on weaving and dyeing, and Vegetable Dyes; Being a book of Recipes and other information useful to the Dyer was first published exactly 100 years ago.

Ethel Mairet, Hand-Weaving today; vegetable dyes

My copies of Hand-weaving To-day; Traditions and Changes; and Vegetable Dyes; Being a book of Recipes and other information useful to the Dyer

Talking to natural dye expert Jenny Dean it soon became clear to me that Vegetable Dyes is very much of its time, and a modern-day dyer would perhaps struggle with some of her recipes, and certain mordants used by Mairet, such as chrome, are now no longer in use as they are very poisonous.

Dye Garden at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft

The grounds of the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft contain a dye garden. Jenny is seen inspecting the dyer’s broom

Ethel Mairet Madder Samples

Weave samples using madder-root dyed wool. Wonderful to see these were clearly off-cuts from the sewing room

Ethel Mairet natural colour samples

Mairet also used undyed natural colour wool to great effect

Hand-weaving To-day, on the other hand, shows an acute understanding of hand-weaving and industrial development, and her success at the hand-loom has not, however, prejudiced her against the machine, which can be directed in the service of quality. She was inspired by methods of the French cloth house Rodier, which employed hand-weavers to make highly regarded modern fabrics.

Ethel Mairet Rodier Samples

Samples labelled ‘Rodier’; I’m assuming these were fabric samples from Rodier, to serve as inspiration

Many of Mairet’s fabrics combined different fibre types, natural and dyed yarns, and machine-made and handspun yarns to great effect. On the whole Mairet herself preferred to use simple weaving techniques, and concentrate on colour and combining differenty textured yarns instead, but other weavers in her workshop used more complex weaving techniques to great effect.

Ethel Mairet plaid sample

A typical Ethel Mairet plain weave fabric, combining subtly varying yarn weights, and a certain penchant for combining yellow and grey

Ethel Mairet Textured Sample

Some very bold samples combining colour and texture to great effect. These pieces come from Mairet’s workshop, but are most likely woven by one of her co-workers or students

Ethel Mairet various samples

Fabric scraps showing an exciting combination of fibre types, colour (both natural and dyed) and texture

One thing that really stood by me when I first read Hand-weaving To-day was Mairet’s excitement about synthetic yarns. Although I personally prefer natural fibres, Mairet felt that with developing and producing synthetic fibres ‘…the chief error was the close copying of the natural fibres – and the names ‘artifical silk’, ‘artificial wool’, etc., which suggested to the mind materials of very secondary quality. Instead of creating a quality of its own, a new fabric entirely unknown and unforeseen – a new art of the textile world – so far, all it has done is to copy silk, to copy tweeds, velvets, and other materials. […] Cellophane as used by the great textile artists such as Otti Berger, or Rodier, or some of the Finnish weavers, become textiles of rare beauty, holding their place with the greatest textiles of the world. […] The combination of synthetic materials with natural materials holds great possibilities for the hand-spinner and weaver[.]’ (E Mairet, Hand-weaving To-day, 1938) I was very excited to find some samples showing exactly what she meant:

Ethel Mairet Sample with Cellophane

One example of Mairet’s use of cellophane, giving a subtle glistening quality to the fabric, and, I imagine, it might also impart a light rustling noise when manipulated

Ethel Mairet sample with synthetic yarn

There were no notes with this sample, but the golden weft threads just above the black ones appear to be synthetic

The output of Mairet’s weaving room was not only sold as fabrics, but also made up into clothes and accessories. The weaving room at Gospels served as an informal shop most weekends, and in addition, Mairet sold through some small galleries, and used to have a shop on 68a East Street, Brighton.

Ethel Mairet Silk Scarf

A silk scarf in delicate colours

Ethel Mairet Beret

Scraps from the sewing room were used to make beautiful berets. This particularly fine example shows off the rich colours used in the weaving room

Visiting the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft and seeing their Ethel Mairet collection has allowed me to get a better understanding of her forward-thinking approach to creating textiles, and it remains a constant source of inspiration and motivation for me as I continue to explore and find my way through ‘slow textiles’.

As the Ditchling Museum is only small, there is necessarily not much on display; so if you wish to see the Ethel Mairet collection, then you can find more information here to make an appointment.

If you wish to learn more about Ethel Mairet, then I can highly recommend A Weaver’s Life, Ethel Mairet1872-1952, by Margot Coatts, published by Crafts Study Centre, Bath, 1983.

Note: unless otherwise stated, all pictures are taken at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft, with their kind permission.

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If a dear friend asks you to contribute to a new book, then it’s hard to say no. And if that new book is by Kate Davies, with contributions by some of the most exciting and innovative knitwear designers currently around, then you know it’s going to be an exciting publication! Kate’s new book is called The Book of Haps, and is now available to pre-order; shipping will start as soon as the books have returned from the printers, see details at the end of this post.

Kate’s new book is a collection of essays about haps, which were shawls knitted by Shetland women as everyday items, as opposed to the fancy lace wedding ring shawls that are perhaps better known today. In addition, Kate has asked twelve designers to come up with their own interpretation of a hap, including myself.

Please note: all images in this post are by Tom Barr, ©Kate Davies Designs, and used with kind permission

Hexa Hap Shawl

We chatted about my design, the Hexa Hap, a little while ago and I think you’d love to hear more about it. So here is Kate’s interview with me (also published on Kate’s blog this morning):

Kate Davies: One of the many things I enjoy about your work is the way you use the deeply technical aspects of fabric creation or manipulation to produce really innovative designs. Can you tell us about how Cecelia Campochiaro’s Sequence Knitting inspired your Hexa Hap?

Tom: Campochiaro’s book on Sequence Knitting, which described very simple methods to create complex textured fabrics, is a ground-breaking work. The book is littered with many beautiful photographs: although every method is illustrated with swatches in grey yarn, sequence knitting lends itself well for using colour, as evidenced by many of the projects in the book. However, that’s not what I wanted to concentrate on with the Hexa Hap. What struck me is that all of the stitch patterns are reversible in some way: some are identical on both right side and wrong side, others are just aesthetically reversible (right side and wrong side are completely different, but both present a pleasing texture), some fall in between. I found this reversibility a very attractive quality for a shawl as you can wear it every which way; preserving this reversibility was the main driver for the techniques and patterns I’ve used. This goes for the lace edging (Campochiaro’s Sequence Knitting is knits and purls only) and the reversible intarsia twist technique I “unvented.” In addition, some of the sequence techniques involve decreasing at the end of every row, creating triangles, and this led me to brush off my books on modular knitting. . .

tom4 copy


Kate: Can you tell us a little about the process of designing your Hexa Hap? Where did you begin? Did everything turn out the way that you expected, or were there any surprises?

Tom: The idea for a modular shawl or blanket (originally without lace edging) came to me soon after seeing the triangular swatches inSequence Knitting. Not being a shawl wearer myself, and not in need of yet another blanket, I squirreled away the idea. But every time I opened Sequence Knitting, the idea developed a bit further in my head. So by the time you asked me to contribute to your own book, I had an almost fully formed design in my head. It was then a question of finding the right stitch pattern for the lace edging, and working out some of the reversibility challenges. Swatching soon confirmed that my ideas would work, and the only real surprise for me was the swirl that gets formed in the centre of the shawl. I had expected to have straight lines separating the triangles. The only thing I wasn’t sure about was the lace edging, which I wanted to be in a different colour from the centre. I tried out a few things before settling on the intarsia technique and knit the whole thing in one go. Again, the driver here was reversibility. Picking up stitches along the edge of the centre, or knitting on an edge, wasn’t quite so reversible in a DK weight yarn.

tom8 copy


Kate: Your pattern includes options to knit full, half or 2/3 hexa haps, because of the design’s modular construction. Can you explain a little more about this?

Tom: The Hexa Hap is constructed by knitting a triangle with a lace edging on one of its edges. When the first triangle is complete, you pick up stitches along another edge, and knit another triangle. You continue adding more triangles until you have three, four, or six triangles. The Half Hexa Hap and the 2/3 Hexa Hap are quite easy to finish, as they require a knitted on i-cord edging. The full-sized Hexa Hap has a sting in its tail, as there is a seam to be closed, attaching the selvedge of the last triangle to the base of the first one. In order to preserve the reversibility, the seam is grafted closed in pattern. Once this is completed, it has proven to be rather difficult to work out the construction of the shawl, and some of the people who have seen it assumed it was knitted from the centre outwards on circular needles. I first came across the technique I’ve used for grafting in pattern on Fleegle’s blog . In her blog post she describes how she uses waste yarn to knit the row that will be grafted. The waste yarn will be removed once the grafting is finished. Despite my large reference library, Fleegle’s blog is all I could find about it, so I’ve made a video tutorial to help knitters along the way, in case the written instructions require some additional illustration. (Note that this video tutorial illustrates grafting in pattern in the context of the Hexa Hap design only!)

tom schematic


Kate: your reversible intarsia twist is a technique that you’ve “unvented” for this design. Can you describe what it involves and why its useful for this design?

Tom: With intarsia you twist the two colours around each other at the “seam” and with regular intarsia this shows on the wrong side of the work. As I was hell-bent on keeping the Hexa Hap completely reversible, I played around with the intarsia technique until I came up with something that would make it look the same on both sides. It’s a very simple variation, where you cross the old colour underneath the new colour, and then bring the old colour between the needles to the front of the work. The yarns now twist around each other inside the fabric, so to speak, rather than at the back.

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tom1 copy

Kate: I think there is something fundamentally pleasing about hexagonal shapes, and I love naturally occurring hexagon patterns from bees honeycomb to tortoise shells. Do you feel a similar hexagonal affinity? And do you enjoy exploring the structure of other geometric shapes in your knitting and other work?

Tom: Hexagonal affinity; what a great term! I don’t think I have a particular affinity with hexagonal shapes, but I do like geometry and repetitions in general. In particular I like it when repetitions go slightly askew. So to have the swirl appear in the shawl is, to me, a beautiful coincidence. In addition, I’m interested in texture, another reason why I find Campochiaro’s book so stimulating.

tom7 copy

Kate: I really enjoyed styling and modelling your hexa hap, and found it very wearable, in much the same manner as a Shetland hap. Like a Shetland hap, I also think it would make a wonderful blanket for a baby. I also found myself wearing one of the mini-hexa haps you made as a kerchief to keep my neck warm when I was helping Tom out on our Shetland photoshoots. It’s such a versatile design! I love the sample so much I don’t really want to send it back, but I wondered how you intended to wear or use it when I did?

tom12 copy

Tom: Thank you very much, I’m so pleased to hear you like it so much! As I don’t wear shawls myself, it was a bit of a leap of faith to design one. I could see myself wearing a mini half Hexa Hap as a kerchief (thanks for the idea), but the full-sized one I would use as a blanket. There’s nothing more I enjoy of a winter’s evening than to cuddle up under a warm woolly blanket.

tom11 copy

Kate: yes, I think it would make a wonderful baby blanket or lap blanket – and I was very hap-py to be happed up in it!

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These photographs were taken at Da Brigs near Vementry in Shetland – a very special place.

tom5 copy


Thankyou so much, Tom, for creating your fabulously innovative Hexa Hap!

The Book of Haps is now available to pre-order. You can see all of the designs as they appear each day on Ravelry and be sure to pop over to Jen’s blog tomorrow when the next hap will be revealed!Hexa Hap Shawl

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Recently, I was invited to deliver the keynote speech at Cultures of Repair: Past and Present, a one-day conference to conclude A Remedy for Rents, an exhibition of darning samplers from the Whitelands College Collection.

Curated by Vivienne Richmond, head of Goldsmiths History Department, A Remedy for Rents showcased a rare collection of exceptionally fine needlework by working-class women in the last quarter of the 19th century. As students at Whitelands College, the first all-female teacher training college, now part of the University of Roehampton, the women were training to teach in elementary schools for working-class children and their needlework focused on the production and repair of simple garments and household textiles.

Remedy for Rents offered a rare opportunity to see needlework by non-elite Victorian women, but illuminates also the history of working-class dress, female education and gendered roles, experiences and expectations in 19th-century Britain and beyond. If you missed this exhibition, then you will have a second chance to catch it again, see details at the end of this post.

Photography credit: all the images I’m showing here were taken by David Ramkalawon, and all items belong to the Whitelands College Collection, University of Roehampton, and are used with kind permission.

Note: simply click on an image to get a closer view of the exquisite needlework

Specimens of Needlework Whitelands College

Specimens of Needle Work, Whitelands College K.S. 1902. This unassuming leatherbound book contains a stunning collection of extraordinary needlework

The items on display are of an an amazingly high quality, and provide me with a lot of inspiration, and something to aspire to. The book shown above holds page after page of darning samplers and plain sewing samplers, each and every one of them showing the very best needlework.

Sampler by Annie Hewins 1879

Sampler made by Annie Hewins, 1879. It shows a combination of darns, damask darns, patching, decorative borders and buttonholes. All made by hand

Tailored buttonhole by Annie Hewins 1879, Whitelands College Collection

Close-up of one of the buttonholes from the sampler shown above

Whereas most of the darning and embroidery samplers I’ve seen from the late 19th century are no longer of the finest quality displayed in work from earlier centuries, the work displayed by the teachers in training at Whitelands College is an exception, and it’s almost inconceivable that they were all made by hand. I’m particularly fond of the many fancy handworked buttonholes; I’ll be giving them a go when the opportunity arises.

I’ll share more images from the needlework on display throughout this post, but I’d also like to share with you the one-day conference. Vivienne Richmond talked about past cultures of repair. Needlework was a respectable way for a woman to earn some money, both teaching it, or providing needlework as a service to other households. Obviously, learning needlework is a very hands-on approach, and the Whitelands College Collection is a prime example of the students’ work. If you want to know a bit more about this, then I can recommend the blog posts I wrote about darning samplers from the Fries Museum (parts 1, 2, and 3). She also touched on the Make Do and Mend campaign of World War 2, and all those middle-class women who, with the very best intentions, wanted to teach working class women on how to mend their clothes and to be careful with resources. Needless to say their reception was rather mixed, as for working class women making do and mending was already part and parcel of their lives.

Sleeve with darning detail, Whitelands College Collection

One of the many practice pieces: a sleeve with cuff, ruffle, patching, darning, and stitching

After learning about repair in the past, we moved on to a number of artists and makers who use repair as part of their practice:

Lizzie Cannon has a background in geography and as a result her artwork reflects her keen sense of space and place. She gathers discarded items which get augmented by adding other elements, often using embroidery techniques. Her ongoing project Mended Leaves investigates how mending reflects, and sometimes accelerates, decay of delicate structures. The threads used to mend the holes in the leaves are carefully matched with the leaf is still fresh, but later contrasts with the changed colour once the leaf has dried.

Katherine May works as a designer, researcher and facilitator tracing the threads that weave together textiles and society. Through research and making she explores the origins of materials and the story of techniques. Her projects often reflect specific social contexts and emphasise participation through the dressing or inhabiting of these spaces, that she uses as a platform to engage people in an imaginative and sensory relationship with cloth. This was seen in Water – Colour a site specific installation where a ritual of practice evolved through indigo dyeing on site over 2 months. With her work she aims to expose the relational aspects of textiles and subvert prevailing processes of value production.

Ruby Hoette  works independently as a designer/curator/researcher exploring fashion in context through the intersection of theory and practice. Her projects reveal patterns of use and often investigate the construction of value and meaning in fashion. The WORN_RELICS project was launched in 2008. It is an interactive online archive in which the stories and memories attached to garments can be collected and shared. The project explores the idea that clothing acquires value over time through being worn. It is a platform for the communication of the creativity and innovation that can be found in the diverse ways we interact with clothing in everyday life.

Miniature Knitted Sock, Whitelands College Collection

Many items were made on a miniature scale. They’re easily confused with dolls clothes, but their main purpose was to learn all the different sewing techniques and construction of all manner of garments. This lace sock measures no more than 4.5cm (less than 2in) in height. I guesstimate it has about 60 stitches in the round.

Those of you who have been following my blog, may have noticed that many of the other artists and makers’ themes and interests are reflected in my own practice, so my keynote speech tied it all nicely together. I spoke about my love of old sewing and needlework books; my issues with using the phrase ‘make do and mend’ in the 21st century, when many people make the choice between replacing or repairing; aspects of Japanese crafts such as boro and sashiko, but at the same time trying to bring things back to local culture; learning from studying samplers (see links to Fries Museum above); and my bottomless mending basket at home.

Detail of sampler made by Witteridge, Whitelands College Collection

A darn made to emulate a jersey (machine knitted) fabric, which is made by stem stitching over foundation threads that go across the hole

I also discussed my shift in focus, or end point, of a garment. If I aim to wear clothes for a long time, than I will have to acknowledge that they will need some repairs at some point. With that in mind, when I make my own clothes, a garment isn’t really finished when I cast off that last stitch, or sew in some ends. I know there is more work to be done down the line. So those finishing touches are not final, but merely one of the stops on the journey of the garment’s life. To me, making and repairing are no longer discrete activities, they belong together, and the boundaries between the two are blurred: repairing is making.

Whitelands College Collection Sample Garment

A miniature undershirt as a way of learning all aspects of technique and construction of undershirts

If you want to catch Remedy for Rents at Roehampton, then please know that they don’t have a webpage for the exhibition yet, but in the meantime people are welcome to contact Gilly King: Gilly.King@roehampton.ac.uk for further information. The exhibition is opening there on 14 May, 2016 and running to July (actual closing date tbc).

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During a paper I gave at In the Loop 4, I mentioned a blurring of boundaries: when does a garment start, and when does it end? Musings about Taking time, Woolly Comrade Felicity ‘Felix’ Ford’s Slow Wardrobe project, and having conversations with other friends who make clothes to last, have culminated into my own thoughts about a Slow Wardrobe.

Brioche Sweater and grafitti

My Brioche Sweater: a recently completed garment. Or is it?

Since I started repairing with purpose, I’m slowly but surely drifting away from the idea that once the last loose end has been woven in, a garment is finished. Over time, clothes start to develop signs of wear, of having been washed, of having been used. Inevitably, an edge starts to fray, a seat wears thin, or a hole appears, and the time comes I’ll be getting out my darning needle. By making my mends visible, I continue adding to the garment. A beautiful mend can be worn as a badge of honour, and in my view, augments and alters the garment repaired.

Flanelette Plaid shirt darning by tomofholland

Darning the threadbare yoke seam of a flannelette shirt

A shift of focus from trying to keep things looking new and perfect to favouring the old and imperfect, means I’ve stopped looking at repair as a chore, but as a creative challenge in its own right. Instead of fixing something that is broken, which implies the item was finished, I now continue working on something that wasn’t complete yet. This idea is perhaps easier to embrace where it concerns clothes I made myself, but I now extend it to the clothes I buy. I frequently purchase secondhand clothes, and they already show signs of wear, and the time to repair something usually comes along sooner.

Tom spinning a yarn

Spinning a yarn

Conversely, making my own clothes has made me question at what point a garment starts. When you buy something, you could be led to believe that your garment’s life starts when you’ve handed over your cash. But this, of course, isn’t true. Somebody somewhere has laid out cloth, cut it up, seamed it, pressed it. Most likely different people were involved in different stages and many things are now mechanised.

When making your own clothes, you get to choose the fabric or yarn, the pattern, the buttons, and put it all together into a garment. You could argue that the item starts its life when you clapped your eyes on that beautiful tweed, or when you dreamt up that Christmas jumper and you started looking for the right yarn. Now that I also spin, even if as yet I haven’t spun enough of one yarn to make a whole jumper, my boundary has shifted even further back: it is possible to make a garment-specific fibre, so really, its life starts there. In fact, we can take it back right to the beginning: wool, linen, silk, and cotton are all fibres that theoretically I could grow or farm myself.

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill

Roger from Diamond Fibre Mill spinning a yarn or two

So even if I’m not personally involved in all the process steps from farming to harvesting to processing of fibres, and subsequently turning the resulting cloth or yarn into a garment, I’m aware that all these steps are part of the story. If you want to get an understanding of some of the issues around the fashion industry, then there’s no better way than trying to make something yourself. When you wash your raw fleece, you’ll notice how much water you use. When you spin a yarn, you understand how difficult it can be to get something just right. When you sew a shirt, you get a feel for how complicated sewing can be. Try and imagine any of these processes on an industrial scale, and soon all sorts of questions pop up: how can we grow/farm fibres in huge quantities? What happens with waste water from processing fibres and dyeing it? What happens to by-products and waste from the spinning process? How can somebody sew 50 shirts a day? How are prices of clothing set on the High Street?

These are just a few questions, and answering them is difficult, and fixing things that appear to be a problem is also very complicated. So what can I do about it myself? Talking to people such as Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective, or reading John-Paul Flintoff’s book Sew Your Own, made me realise that there will be things I personally cannot influence, but there are other things I can do something about. I can run workshops, I can volunteer, I can decide what goes into my wardrobe, and I can share my experiences in this blog.

A follow-up post is in the making, in which I want to share with you my thoughts about my Slow Wardrobe: what does it mean to me? Sewing and knitting my own clothes, making things that last, repairing things, and thinking about long-term style, not short-term fashion.

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