Made By Mrs M

Stitching Long and Slow...

Craft, Inspiration, London, Sewing, TextilesKate Marsden

Guest post from Lucie Dutton from

I have never been good at simple projects and I can never seem to get along with projects that seem to be designed to be “quick makes”. I think that’s why I am a hand quilter.

Every so often I say to myself “I am going to use up my fabric stash once and for all and get my sewing machine out and whip up some small quilts. It will be fun!”

Fun? For me, it never is. The machine snarls, the thread breaks, my back hurts and my stress levels rise. After many years of sewing, I know that I’m better off working by hand – it helps me relax, even if I am stressed out by the world around me. If that means my huge fabric stash will never be used, then so be it.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly ambitious in my hand stitching projects which seem to get bigger and bigger and combine a love of research with my need to sew. Two in particular grew and grew.

The first is my Nelson Quilt – which took thirteen months to piece by hand. It was inspired by a 1918 silent film about Nelson that I had been researching and while taking a break from research I wondered to myself “I wonder how a quilt of Nelson would turn out?” Well, now I know. Working on the quilt added an extra dimension to the research work – I read biographies I wouldn’t have read otherwise, found out about traditional Nelson-related quilt blocks and sought out Nelson memorabilia such as samplers and banners, feeling that I was one of a long line of women who had sewn Nelson-related items.

I’m currently working on my Thames Quilt, which allows me to use my interest in using stitch to create words. It’s going to end up being terrifically long – the idea is to have a panel for each section of the river that can be found on a maritime map, from the Tower of London out to the Maunsell Sea Forts, off the coast at Whitstable. This allows me free rein to stitch but also to find out all sorts of things about the River Thames and the Thames Estuary – I can bring in Samuel Pepys, Charles Dickens, women munitionettes from the First World War, Nelson (again), Hilary Mantels Wolf Hall, sea shanties, Elizabeth I – all sorts of ideas. I always start each panel by brainstorming ideas about that part of the river, checking out facts online, or using old histories of the Thames. I then have the difficult task of deciding which aspect to focus on before choosing a phrase or series of words that I will quilt – and tweaking my ideas to make sure the words will fit. For example, I had a range of choices when I was looking at Limehouse Reach – should I work up ideas relating to Magwitch from Great Expectations? Or the 1928 silent film Piccadilly? Or Sally Lockhart in The Ruby in the Smoke? A more controversial idea was created when I visited Greenland Dock, off Limehouse Reach, which was once the centre of the London whaling trade. Now I don’t support whaling at all, but I can’t ignore the fact it was once a major trade on this part of the river – so a sea shanty based on whaling provided my words.

I do most of the stitching on a train journey I have to make regularly at present (which has influenced the shape of the project) and each panel takes a couple of weeks. I then make sure I prepare a blog post explaining each panel – and I like to be two panels ahead in terms of stitching. And I know I am well overdue with a post at this exact moment!

So here are some hints for keeping a long project going – and (hopefully) finishing:

·       Use social media – post your progress on a blog, on twitter, Instagram or whatever your favourite sharing medium is. I found that having lots of people online interested in how it was going gave me a sense of accountability and I felt I owed it to them to keep going;

·       Engage friends in real life. When I was working on the Nelson Quilt, I used to take it into the office where I was based to photograph it against a white wall and a few colleagues used to come along to see how it was progressing;

·       Don’t’ start a major project using a completely new technique – try something small first. You can be ambitious once you’ve conquered a little project;

·       Find a medium you enjoy. There is no point in embarking on a major project if you aren’t going to enjoy the process;

·       Break your big project into little pieces. Can you design it so you can work on a bit of it on the go? Train journeys are a great opportunity to make things if you are organised;

·       Allow yourself to undertake “side projects” as you go – there’s nothing wrong with breaking up your long running project with something else if it will stop you from getting bored;

·       If you can, do things to your own timetable and be realistic. I learned that lesson the hard way when I was working on my Nelson Quilt; I rushed to complete the piecing because I wanted to show the quilt top complete at a conference at which I was giving a paper. All I did was give myself tennis elbow from too much paper piecing – and I had to stop for three months. And the people at the conference weren’t expecting a finished piece, so I put pressure on myself for no good reason;

·       If it isn’t working, put it aside for a month. What looks like terrible stitching/painting/drawing/insert technique of choice today will look absolutely fine in four weeks’ time;

·       If it really isn’t working, and you are finding the project more of a chore than a pleasure, give yourself permission to stop. Completely. You can rework materials, repurpose abandoned projects, and find new uses for your project.