It’s pretty New Yearsy around here. I’ve got all sorts of plans and aspirations for the year ahead. Before the end of 2018 I made myself finish a personal project, I confronted some domestic sewing.
Like you, I wanted to start the New Year with a solid throw pillow situation. It has been kind of a mess for a while, definitely not bringing me joy. I had a bunch of ideas to make it better but they had been lingering on my someday list. For years. Deadlines are awesome. Making the dawn of 2019 the due date got me motivated to churn out some decorative pillows. Once I got going it was fun.
And I made a cover for the seat too, from grain sacks I got in France last summer. They got super soft after I (machine) washed and dried them and I pieced my favorite parts together. They have lots of beautiful mending and I love the colors.
I made the pillow covers from old fabric from friends (including some glorious and ancient things my friend Ching sent me) and more things I picked up at French flea markets last year. By the way there is one spot open in each of my trips to France this summer – click here for June 21-28 and click here for July 1-8. Come to France with me! And then go home and make some throw pillows…
With the couch in happy condition my first official work project of this year was a long overdue re-write of my about page. Especially if you are a new visitor it’s a good place to start.
And also in the New Year’s department I re-committed to my daily painting and drawing project. So far so good. Daily practice is no joke, it’s brutal sometimes but I know I’m better off doing it in lots of important ways. The positive effects on my thinking, creativity, idea generation and focus are huge. I’ll scale back to drawing when traveling probably but if I flake on this again you should yell at me.
The holidays were unusually happy and slow and peaceful for me. I spent a lot of it in pajamas eating cookies with a cat on my lap (I regret some of the cookies). It was pretty nice but I’m happy to be back to business as usual now. How bananas are you? I’m pretty bananas. I require huge amounts of time by myself to think and work and I like routine a lot. I’m luxuriating in time and space and ordinariness now, percolating all sorts of ideas….
There is always something and often someone in my pocket waiting to be stitched. I’d be lost without this sort of thing. When I wander away from it for too long things go badly, when my pace gets too frantic the magic evaporates. It’s the thing that steadies and focuses me, all the tiny sewing. This is a pile of mental health. A little stack of tiny pinafores and nightgowns and satchels and jackets and bloomers.
I’ve been sewing little folks here and there for the past few weeks. I take them with me for the in between times. Some of this little crew is in the shop now and I’ve already started more tiny rag dolls and bloomers and pinafores and tiny satchels to work on over the holidays.
Wear them high, wear them proud lamb friend. The lambs in pants crack me up every single time. Something about those little trousers and how happy he seems to be in them…
If you would like to make a lamb he is made from the mr. socks pattern with these modifications.
Or you can come to Vermont and sit by the fire making lambs in pants with me. Pretty cosy right? A few spots (with fancy single rooms) have been added to the Sugar House Retreat. I’ve got other workshop news too – find that right here.
PS – I wish they sold pine bows all year, it is such a magnificent smell.
The quest for the perfect organic dot fabric for toadstools is never ending, I’m always on the look out for fungal feeling dots, speckles and marks in general and I’m super particular. Shopping in LA a few weeks ago there was lots of nice batik stuff that was close but no cigar. I described my dream fabric to my friend Molly and she said “dude you could totally make that”. That is such a good attitude. Yesterday I experimented a little. And dude, I can totally make that, so can you.
Gather some cotton fabric, bleach, wax paper and tools for mark making. I tried all sorts of things, rubber stamps, pallet knives, brushes, straws, cardboard, spools, on and on. Also put on an apron and some gloves and do this somewhere very well ventilated or outside.
I had one little dish of straight up bleach (you just need a little) and another diluted about 2 parts bleach to one part water. I put wax paper under the fabric and started making marks. My favorite tools ended up being a pencil eraser, putty knife, a stiff bristle brush, a toothbrush for splattering and a little spool that I glued a piece of wool felt to one end of. A cork would have been good too – just thought of it.
The marks take a moment to begin to “develop”. I let most of the fabric sit for about 20 minutes before rinsing. I have googled/pinterested around and there are all sorts of interesting things you can do with this technique and you can get pretty fancy about it. Find a great tutorial here and another here.
We will be playing with this process in my botanical workshop in Kentucky next November (at this moment is is wait list only but if you’d like to go jump on the wait list – stuff happens in a year).
find the mushroom sewing pattern here
I love how they turned out, the bleach prints are so perfect for little fungi.
The little black wool scrap insisted on being a chicken, a french hen. It’s a good day for small cosy projects, for stitching little dolls and boats, pocket size things.
There was nothing I would rather do today, nothing more appealing than meandering my way through some little projects. Some for gifts, some for ornaments and a few little things for the shop in December.
I had intended to just sew for an hour or two early in the morning but I could not put it down today and there was no real reason to. I remained happily lost in the little details and all of a sudden the sun was going down.
And while my hands were busy I felt a steady simmer in my mind, curiosity about miss thistle and the world she lives in, ideas and images floating to the surface, little glimmers of a house in the forest…
It is time to make all the little things, the little gift and ornament things. It is officially time. For those of you less procrastinatey than me it is way past time, I know you are out there, you organized types who start in June. Maybe I’ll turn over a new leaf this year, I would love to be done making my Christmas stuff by Thanksgiving.
Today I’m making very little squirrels, and thoughtful whales. This squirrel is just the right size for somebody’s pocket. He looks very happy in there.
He is a relentlessly happy little fellow.
For most of my small creatures I make the eyes the same way, a disorganized little cluster of stitches (you can see how I hide my knots here). On wool I use embroidery thread so it shows but on cotton I like the subtlety of sewing thread. And I find the less I think about the placement of the stitches the better, the more expressive the eyes turn out. This little whale has things on his mind.
I stuff all the little folks and creatures with the loveliest wool stuffing. I spend a lot of time stuffing things, getting it just right and almost always fine tune the shape from the outside with a big needle.
Have you tried wool stuffing? it is all I use and I’ve added it to the shop in 4 ounce packs – that’s enough wool for lots of little creatures.
Are you sewing for the holidays? What’s on your worktable?
Owls and I go way back and they have always been mythic and magical creatures to me. One of the great legends of my childhood was my mother’s encounter with a great gray owl. If you had known my mother none of the things I make would surprise you at all. Sometimes I feel like I’m barely involved, as though they have been simmering in me all along and just waiting for their opportunity to appear. I think everybody has things like that in them.
And the very first film I saw when I was 5 or so was The Royal Ballet’s Tales of Beatrix Potter. I think Potter’s Old Mr. Brown character figures heavily in the owls that have turned up in my stitching.
The first owl to appear was Ian (named for Ian McShane whom I love). He is made from scraps and has flinty metal button eyes.
Owls continued on in the Mr. Brown vein with earthy tones and scrappy textures for some time until someone much darker appeared all of a sudden.
Chillingworth was made from a single garment, a victorian bodice, one of the first really old garments I acquired. It had all sorts of textures and interesting stitching and mends, most of them found their way into Chillingworth. I love how absolutely dastardly he is, glowering at you with his perfectly mismatched eyes. I’m not sure I have ever achieved that level of malevolence since. But there have been a lot of seriously bad tempered and surly candidates.
Hundreds of owls and 10 or so years later I’m preparing to share the pattern. I’m working on it as we speak. The pattern templates are finished and tested. In fact I’m teaching an owl workshop in Los Angeles right now. Most of the photography is done so it is just a matter of formatting and editing now. I’m hoping to have it complete by mid November.
*post update December 2019 – find the pattern here – cotton, linen, and wools with a variety of textures will work well for a dastardly beast.
Labor Day Weekend, the unofficial start of the holiday season. Just kidding. Mostly. It does have a shifting feel to it though, everything starting back up again. It’s going to be a sewing weekend for me. Fun sewing, amulets and mushrooms and Monday devoted entirely to experimenting. I’ll give you the full report on that next week.
I’m still having a good time making amulets, small thoughts, and they are generating all sorts of color and composition ideas for larger or more involved things. They have become morning work for me, hand sewing with coffee before I’m quite awake yet. I love having a little stack ready to go and waiting for me.
Do you pick up handwork first thing? What are you making? Can you give yourself a day or an hour or 20 minutes to play and experiment this weekend?
These are the things I want to know.
Update : find the owl sewing pattern here
The bodies are piling up as the owl shape is getting fine tuned. I’m preparing for owl workshops (PS – 2 spots have opened up in the 10/20-21 class) and ultimately a print and pdf owl pattern so every detail and dastardly proportion is being examined. I’ve started with the body shape. There are two construction methods I use for making owls, I created two patterns that produce slightly different shapes, one more rubenesque and another more sculptural and a bit more realistic. I might be the only one who can tell the difference. I tried to choose one to work on but ended up with a hybrid.
The next step is to test and revise again and again until only what is essential is left, the shape is expressive, the pattern pieces assemble perfectly and any fussiness is removed. After each prototype I adjust and resew and if the adjustment is successful it is further refined in Adobe Illustrator.
I arrived at the body shape that feels just right yesterday. And the body pattern pieces feel good too, it snaps together like nobody’s business. Even with difficult fabric like this odd tweedy stuff from mrs. brown’s skirt. I’ve been making things from that turn of the century skirt for 8 years and I’m sorry it’s is almost gone now. It has made lots of wonderful owls and rats and spiders but the weave is loose, thick, ravely and a little slippery, super hard to sew.
I’m ready to move on to the feathers, feet and features. As I finish my little pile of owly bodies I’ll experiment with those details until each is transformed into a teachable technique and or pattern piece that produces reliable results.
And the silly bug club! Thanks so much to everybody who showed up for the challenge. I drew a name from a hat and the winner of the mosquito rag doll is @bonniecapaulgallery ! I’ll message you on instagram for address etc. I hope you keep making and posting silly bugs, this was fun and I’ll offer you another challenge soon. Have a beautiful weekend and I’ll leave you with a few highlights from the posts and you can check out all the silly bugs here.
A great way to get past the musts and shoulds and assumptions that can limit you creatively is to shift your approach. Even temporarily adopt a perspective that helps you follow impulses and bypass reasons not to, shake things up. Try starting with silly. Silly tricks you into trying stuff that might not work which is what it is to be creative. That is also how you get somewhere new. Ask yourself silly questions, mess around, be absurd. Absurdity is rich ground. Just sayin’.
You might end up somewhere unexpected, making a connection that you had not before. It might wake something up in you or push you past a block. Your creative muscle grows and you can apply that strength to all your work.
I spent time playing with the idea of silly bug dolls this week. I’m getting my imagination in shape to teach again in September in New Hampshire. Silly helps me unclench my thinking. I got pretty silly.
Play is creative. Clenching down hard on trying to make something awesome often isn’t and is not usually effective at bringing your personal magic into the world. Nobody is more creative than you. And absolutely nobody has what you have inside you. I’m a firm believer in exercising your mind to develop skills to get to all that. As much as you can. Play is an important part of that.
So I offer you this challenge, make a silly bug in the next week. Why bugs? Because they are a rich place to experiment, the huge variety of weird anatomies can inspire all sorts of possibilities. There are lots of places to start and they are ideal for improvisational thinking.
So buggy in here!
If you feel like sharing post your silly bug on instagram with this tag: #sillybugclub.
And you don’t have to sew your silly bug. You can, but you don’t have to, it can be anything. Make it out of post-it notes and paper clips if you like, that would be great, the less you have to work with the more creative you have to be and that is what we are concerned with.
Do it! Get the benefit of a mini assignment, spend some time playing and trying stuff. There ended up being a lot of joy in making silly bugs for me. That’s nothing to sneeze at either.
Life rewards action, give it a chance and it will show up with happy accidents. The minute you do something, take some action, a feedback loop begins. You get information. Begin, listen and respond. This week I accidentally made some necklaces or amulets or talismans or charms or pendants, I’m not sure what to call them yet. I know I like making them and I like how they feel, I like looking at them and putting them on and I’m sure they are lucky. And I know that continents and centuries collide in these saved and assembled scraps. They are a happy accident in lots of ways.
I did not start with the intention to make something to wear and historically speaking I never wear anything extra, anything purely decorative, but as I experimented that idea crept in and they began to remind me of scapulars. If you were educated by nuns you know what those are.
This was also perfect road sewing, they don’t require a lot of stuff so they are easy to travel with. It continues to be far too hot so I did the only reasonable thing and fled NYC. Sewing amulets by the pool was just right.
Plus there was sweet and thorough help, he checked everything. A lot.
I’m making more little experiments and they continue to be an excellent place for letting ideas percolate and surface, they are a good thinking tool. I’m thinking about paintings and preparing for my next workshop at squam which is very much concerned with idea generation and experimenting.
I’ll leave you with my favorite shot of the pool, I like my pools a little moody, a little melancholy. This image makes me think of one of my most favorite films “The Swimmer”. I think I’ll watch it for the millionth time tonight.
Part of the day today was devoted to waking up the experimenter in me. It needs some encouragement so I gave it an assignment, an easy assignment. I’ve been filled with reasons why I can’t do things lately so it’s a baby steps approach: make something small, make something fun, start without knowing.
One thing leads to another, if you let it. But first you need to start. Sometimes without knowing where you are going. If the experimenter in you needs some encouragement too please join me in the little assignment.
Start by gathering things, inspiration, things to think about and things to work with. Arrange and rearrange and look for happy accidents.
(P S – the fossil above is an ammonite. It was a gift and I love it.)
And then try something, listen for the whisper of an idea, pick up the thread and follow it. Follow it around corners and into shadows and back into the light. Keep following and keep responding and noticing. Be curious.
There are no mistakes, only information, a yes and, why not, lets see what happens process.
I like what turned up today, my little stitch experiments feel like amulets to me. And they were indeed medicine. I had fun and lost myself in the process. And I’m just getting started, the idea has momentum and there is lots more for me to explore here. If the amulet idea appeals to you as a shape for your experiments I hope you try it and I’d love to see what you come up with.
The ridiculous humidity and a summer cold have left me with a stunning lack of ambition. I aggressively indulged the lack of ambition and it transformed into restlessness. I needed to put on some clothes and do something. Anything.
This is where sewing saves me. As soon as my hands start moving my head starts to work again, I can feel the wheels turning. I spent some time making tiny doll things, little dresses and pinafores and bloomers with sweet little details. Peaceful, happy work.
Spending time on the tiny things with tiny details made me happy. And so did these floss winders. Am I the last person to know about these? Historically, I’ve stored my embroidery floss in the traditional way, in a maddening tangled mess. These solve the problem beautifully, I love the way it looks.
If you’d like to make a tiny doll find the sewing pattern here. I hope you make tiny dolls and if you do you can email photos to me at info at ann wood handmade dot com or use #annwoodhandmade on instagram. And send your songbirds and mushrooms and other things too, I’d love to see!
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