June 27, 2008

Lake District lovelies

Now that I've demonstrated the efficacy of tea and cake in dispelling the blues brought on by rain, I've got some more treats from the Lake District to share.

It's a wonderful area, with huge significance for British artists (and, no doubt, others) - the home of John Ruskin, Brantwood, is on a hill not far from Bank Ground Farm, where the previous post was set. And Turner painted here, as did many others. Plus, the tourist is always reminded that pencils and charcoal have long been products of the Lake Country, with Cotman watercolours inviting us to their factory for viewings.

If I could paint, I'd be looking at buildings like this for inspiration, with their solid form and the texture of stone.

At Bank Ground, there was even a quilt sighting:

We asked who the maker of this lovely quilt was, and she wasn't sure but I gather it was made for Lucy, the owner of the farm. It's a nine-patch irish chain with embroidered illustrations from Arthur Ransome's books, with Holly Howe, the fictional farm house name, in the middle block. We thought it was lovely - three cheers for the maker.

Speaking of three cheers, here's J reading one of the books, with the view of Coniston Water behind. And cows. There were lots of cows, just out of sight.

After a wet and windy walk to Brantwood (sadly, no photos inside, but there were two gorgeous rag hooked rugs I was looking at, along with many of Ruskin's sketches of plants and shells) - we hopped down across the field to the jetty, where the good shp Gondola was just coming in.

Gondola in the rain.

We had been a little concerned that she would not sail due to the wind, and this was to be our only way to get across the lake to the bus stop. Not fancying a 3-mile walk in pouring rain, we were well pleased to see the welcoming steam of Gondola coming across the lake.

A steam-powered yacht is a divine way to travel, and I thank the National Trust for keeping her afloat.


June 26, 2008

What to do when it rains in the Lake District

We've just got back from a two and a half-day jaunt to the Lake District.

Revisiting places we went to on our honeymoon, sampling the tea and scones (with cream and jam, of course!), walking down stone-wall sided lanes, with sheep bleating in the fields, drying our feet and rain-soaked trousers in the local pub. It was all we expected, and we packed it in, and it was lovely.

This picture was taken in the window of our room at Bank Ground farm, the farm that inspired Holly Howe in Swallows and Amazons.

Avast ye maties with lashings of ginger beer....

more anon,

June 23, 2008

Wet and windy without woolens

This was going to be a post with weaving delights and textile interests, but instead, yesterday was... interesting.

We set off in the morning to see the delights of Quarry Bank Mill, a Chesire weaving mill from the Industrial Revolution, with working machinery and looms running on steam power. It's operated by the National Trust and is not too far from Manchester - however, we were fated never to get there....

Yesterday, there was a wind storm across Northern Britain, with gale force winds. No problem, we thought, with four of us in the car, we'll have lots of weight to hold it steady as we dive across the wuthering moors towards Manchester.

But near the airport, chaos reigned, high winds cancelling flights and closing roads, and when we finally - after a 45 minute car-queue (ooooh yess, I remember why I don;t live in England!), we got to the mill only to be confronted with closed gates and a man waving people away. And I got sick from the dreadful pollution/fumes. Argh.

Later, the day was rescued with a nice country pub Sunday lunch at Audley Edge (well done, Chris!), and then we decided to try a walk in the local country house estate. But no. Also closed. It was then that we realised that the wind was causing the mayhem - until then, we'd been debating what on earth could be creating such havoc.

So we blundered around the countryside on a wet and windy day - and there were snorts of laughter when we spotted an ice cream van up on top of the blasted heath that is the moor, next to a white whipped-up lake that looked about 3 degrees, trying to sell icecreams to... nobody, unless the sheep!

Here's the lake: fancy a swim anyone?

Still, you have to admit that the moors are beautiful in their windy, wet, wuthery, wild way, with the cotton grass flowers waving.

June 22, 2008

The Viking Loom

This is the name of a shop I went into yesterday, and it's fairly appropriate for a post about York.

I've been there a few times now - a good friend went to university here, and I popped up to see her when I lived in the UK - at least twice.

York is in the very north of England, and it's a main tourist attraction town for very good reason. There are many fantastic half-timbered houses, a river, a castle, and several heritage manors and guild halls from the medieval age. And of course, there's a Monster.....

York Minster is the cathedral for the city, commonly known in this family as the monster. (As in, watch out, there's a monster behind you!)

It's a fantastic building, a huge cathedral with buttresses, beautiful windows, and extravagant carving over the west doors. (And during the restoration of the 1990s, local people were used as the models for the character portraits carved in stone over the west doors, including a fine portrait of one of my friend's colleagues from the Medieval Studies department....)

But we went to York not just to see the Minster and remember good times, but also because there is a new kid in town....

... the National Quilt Museum!

I am in love.

A few years ago, when I lived in the UK, I was a member of the Quilters' Guild of the British Isles (great name), an organisation set up to encourage, teach, record and preserve Britain's quilting history. They have a library, teaching facilities, they collect and preserve old quilts for study, they publish an academic journal, and - my favourite - they run the major quilt show in Britain, the Festival of Quilts, at the Birmingham NEC.

We lived just outside of Oxford, which is only an hour's drive from Birmingham, and the first year I drove up, attracted by the possibility that there would be a few quilts to see. Many hours later, I emerged, exhausted, eyes revolving gently in my head, enthused, inspired, amazed - there were something like 800 quilts to see, of all sorts and skill levels, all colours and sizes, from miniature to maximum size. Even a tent made of patchwork!

So the next year I was prepared for the some 1100 quilts that greeted me - I took provisions, I planned my route, I wore runners for maximum walking pleasure, and I went back for a second day. Mmm. Bombing up the motorway in my rattly old Nissan, I was quilter-spotting all the way - cars of 4 women, white hair and homemade patchwork bags on the back shelf in the car - they must be off to see the quilts!

Back then, the Quilters' Guild were promoting the idea of a national collection for quilts in Britain, and I was eager to see how and when it might come to fruition. I was right behind the idea of preserving and displaying the wonderful heritage of British quilts, from wholecloth to english paper piecing, crazy quilts, quilted garments, and the wonderful colours of Welsh wool quilts.

The collection opened just a few days ago, on 7 July, with their first exhibition, Quilts from Bed to Wall.

This exhibition includes examples of heritage and modern quilting, including utility quilts and a Canadian Red Cross quilt made for displaced people during the war, as well as recent quilts by some of the best and/or most well-known British quilters, including Laura Kemshall and Pauline Burbidge, some of which were commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the Quilters' Guild. You can read their notes about the show, which explain the development of the idea better than I ever could.

The show is housed in a medieval guild hall - St Anthony's Hall - which is a bright, large, and above all, fascinating space for quilts, sensitively remodelled. They talk about the work that went into the show here.

Long may the quilts hang in bright colours under the black-and white eaves. Well done to the Quilters' Guild, I applaud your achievement!

June 20, 2008

Oo, I keep falling down! *

* The title refers to Napleon's Piano - did anyone else grow up with the Goon Show?

While in London, staying with our friends Andy and Lourdes, the talk turned to crafts and knitting, and it turns out that Andy's nan is a wonder-knitter, turning out the most intricate and charming characters for the children.

The British Bobby policeman was amazing! He's a stuffed doll, about 14-16 inches high, with the uniform, the pockets, the badges, even some carefully applied rouge to make his cheeks blush.

These are not the best photos in the world (spot the wineglass in the background...), but I was so delighted by her skill that I had to take a couple to show you.

There's a policeman, and fireman, too.

And a whole family of ducks, full of character with their bouncy rotund bellies, flappy wings and bobble hats.

Don't they just look like they are exclaiming with glee?


Kitsch delight. I love it, and I wish I could knit like this....

June 19, 2008

Inspiration is just around each corner

We're still on the road, but we've reached our half way rest point, which is J's father's house in Yorkshire, UK. How lovely it was to arrive here, to be met at the station and to whisk away up the steep hilly streets lined with familiar grey stone houses and tall terraces.

And then it poured with rain all day, so I felt not the lest bit guilty for spending most of the day in bed, or on the sofa with a gripping, old-fashioned murder mystery.

The travel we've done so far: Italy, France, Germany and Denmark, has been exciting, challenging, interesting, at times frustrating, and often times exhausting.

(Leeds railway station, UK)

I felt at times as if the image inspiration bucket was all filled up and spilling over the edges, and I just needed to go and sit on a park bench, or a sea wall somewhere, and think nothing thoughts, or just thoughts of colour, fabric and no real ideas...

(Helsingor castle grounds, Denmark)

But the main thing I think of on this trip are the people we have met and the unexpected discoveries, which stand out all the more for being unexpected. Like the Commedia dell'Arte pantomime at the Tivoli Gardens, with Pierrot and Harlequin dancing and miming; or the enthusiastic art student in Florence who recommended we go to a service at the Badia Fiorentina, an enormous greek-cross church with huge arches disappearing into light and incense smoke above, and nuns coming and going, coughing and then, finally, singing....

(A cafe we found in Copenhagen, just at the moment when one more tourist cafe would have made us scream, and when we wanted good coffee, books, university types and .... delicious cookies. Ah, those cookies.)

We don't have pictures of many of the most memorable things - we just talk about them and recall them to each other, and that's a different sort of trip memory. The photos stay the same - they almost ossify the memories - but the stories, well, they change with every telling.

(J. photographed Copenhagen's weather predictor: the lady with the bicycle comes out when it will be sunny; she has a dog and an umbrella when it will rain. Both were attempting to come out at the same time, and yes, we had rain and sun.)

When we arrived in London, we went to see some wonderful old friends and their many children (three friends, five children), and we also managed to slip away into central London for half a day. For J. it was coming home and seeing old sights, but even there, there were unexpected delights.

(Neal's Yard, Seven Dials - wonderful Neal's Yard Remedies shop, and the Neal's Yard Dairy and the Monmouth Coffee Co. are just around the corner.... Stinking Bishop cheese and a Colombian dark roast, anyone?)

... And other new surprises such as the King's Library, in the British Museum, now a display area for themes such as Trade, Language, and Myths and Magic, with wonderful objects from the collections here and there:

We even saw a set of golden horns that we had read about two days before, in Denmark, and which were stolen and melted down for the gold. But two copies exist - and we stumbled across one of those copy sets in this library: serendipity.

And the Great Court is always a lovely space when you need to stop and stare up at the ceiling for a while, while resting tired paws.

June 11, 2008

Here's one I prepared earlier....

I wanted to write about the sewing shops I've seen on my travels. In fact, I did write about the ones in Italy, and then I failed to get an internet connection for more than few minutes to upload it, so I here it is.


Sewing scenes, Italian style

Travellers tend to notice the things that relate to their interest: bird spotters mutter about species in trees, bike fanciers remark on unusual grades and gearing. Perhaps nuns collect sightings of street shrines or saints’ altars? Kids definitely have a laser beam for zoning in on gelateria.

So, what goes through the mind of a rabid sewer as she traverses the streets of Italy?

At first I couldn’t see any sign of sewing shops. I know that different countries hide them in different places: in Canada, the fabric store is often a box store in a strip mall; in the UK, it’s a little shop tucked away on the cute but slightly less fashionable side of a country village green, and in Australia the best ones to be found are in the Italian and Greek neighbourhoods, where quilting cottons nestle up with wedding silks and Italian suiting wool, and where bargains can be found for those who rummage.

Italian shops in Italy - well, they seem different again. I finally spotted one - a hole in the wall - and popped in, only to shoot back out like a cork out of champagne, much to the amusement of my husband. “It’s scary in there,” I wailed, needing encouragement to have another go.

Why? Well, imagine if you will, a lovely old arcade, let’s say for argument’s sake, it’s a row of arches some 500 years old, and under each arch there’s a wooden shop front and shiny windows with carefully arranged, enticing goods on display. So far, so good.

(Aside: Below is a metal representation of embroidery on the wall of a hill town caled Montefalcino - these plaques illustrated the traditional crafts of the town. - And this is the deserted place where we came across a man, making a pair of leather sandals, using the top of this city wall as a work bench - 20 meters down if you drop your tools.....)

But back to sewing shops....
On the inside, sewing shops are small cupboard-sized rooms with shelves to the ceiling, each one filled with closed boxes – just like a blank wall of shoe boxes. There’s a counter of well-polished wood, and the ubiquitous gang of toughs – I mean – trio of old ladies – standing around talking….. and the moment you pop your head in the door, they All. Stop. Talking.

- “Pronto!”

One of them, the major duomo, says. That’s polite shorthand for, 'what do you want?'

The other three stare.

And if your Italian is about as fluent as a 1972 cinqucento with one gear and a flat tyre, you tend to sputter a bit and turn pink. Or at least, that’s what I did.

The thing about these shops is that they know their customer, and if you are one of their ladies who makes beautiful curtains and comes in with the measurements of your windows and an idea in mind, I bet you could have a lovely long cosy discussion about what kinds of tassels to buy. (Oh, they have tassels, pinned on one wall are samples -- rows and rows of silk, frogged, multi-layered tassels, tassels in every colour).

But if you don’t have a plan, and you love to browse and ogle the fabrics and trimmings, you could find yourself out of luck.

Speaking of measurements, I haven’t mentioned the one other thing that makes the experience intimidating:

It’s the undies.

Now, I’m not the kind of girl to come all over a blush with the profusion of lacy delights that make up the Italian obsession (it is an obsession), with underwear shops. Most of these fancy lingerie shops display prancing dancing mannequins swirled in the barest wisp of gauzy g-things, the most cut away of cut away bathing suits, in gold lame, no less, and even one pink rubbery silky creation that prompted my husband to say, "My goodness, her bubblegum seems to have exploded all over her body!”. These shops are everywhere, and they are also manned exclusively by short tough-looking grandmammas.

(This unfortunate woman appears to have sprouted little angels that hold up her bra. How awkward.)

Now, I don't have the uge to buy undies the way I want to check out the fabrics and ribbons (sorry). However, they are often One and the same shop!

Proof: The House of Buttons.

I'm not sure why. Probably because they make their own. I discovered that when I wanted to find the sewing shops, all I had to do was to look for the very scary advertising of the bras, the bra-making bits and a gaggle of grandmammas....


June 3, 2008

Sewing in the Rooftops

I'm sitting in the window of the Paris studio, looking at the rooftops and the rain, cruising the web (we love wireless!), and catching up a bit. There have been so many things I've wanted to blog about, but the Internet access has been very limited. I've saved up a few things to share, but first...
Last night, when we came home after a very nice dinner with our Canadian friends who happened to overlap in Paris at the same time as us. (Have a good flight back home, guys!) - I still had some energy and the light and the window beckoned, so I sat down to start some sewing.
It's a modest effort to say the least, but this is the complete stock of sewing supplies I have with me on the road - weight is limited!

More later, for now we go to hunt the wild baguette....

Recovering in Paris

I don't think I've quite recovered from Venice yet. I was cruising online this morning for the first time in what feels like weeks (must be 10 days), and I had to look at this lovely bit of dreaming.

Apparently the population of Venice is falling: fewer and fewer people will actually live there full-time, it being so full of tourists, the upkeep on a palace (should you happen to have a palace darlings), being extortionate as the place slowly sinks, taking your fortune with it....

But a gal can dream.

I mentioned that we were over at the Giudecca having our picnic, and I found this site about John Singer Sargent's sketching trips in Venice and out to the Giudecca.

John Singer Sargent was an interesting painter: when I first came across his work, it was easy to dismiss it as chocolate-boxy portraits of the upper class. And then I went to an exhibition in London and I decided on the spot that the man was a genius. He'll dob on dashes and lines of paint, and a quick strip down the middle, and from a normal viewing distance you would swear it's a fold of silk. It's lush, and so talented as well as skilled.

I love the use of contrast in this portrait, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge UK.

There are paintings in many collections worldwide: too many to list here, but here are some of the sites I looked at.
- Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK
- Harvard University Art Museums, US
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, US

June 1, 2008

Venetian blinds

I think I need shutters for my eyes. They got a little overloaded in Venice, and it might take a day or three to recover.

I had an idea that on this trip I would sketch and doodle a great deal, however, there's so much to see (and it's all rocking up and down with the motion of the water bus, if you're me) -- that in the end I wandered around in a daze, allowing my camera to do all of the work.

Gondolas near the Rialto (in the background you can see the bridge). Venice was somewhat quieter than we understand it usually is, lucky us, so a lot of the gondolas were parked up while the tourist traffic was slow. I love the black, blue and silver of the prows and the repeated shapes. It's a classic curve.

J. took this photo of the colours of the poles - I'd love to try to include those red and white stripes into a composition in fabric....

Much as Venice is a trove of patterns and ideas, I find that most of them are so rich, so completely decorated, gothic and baroque, that I was looking for quilting ideas in the little corners, where I could focus on one motif or design.

Like this cherub under the landing step of one of the great palaces.

Or this wall sconce, presumably for a massive fat candle, and the plaque of the lion behind. Can you imagine this in candle light?

And how about the designs on these gondola prows in the Naval Museum? (A fantastic place, by the way, if you want to see loads of models and real carved gondolas from the 18/19th centuries).

But finally, I think this was one of my favourites: we took a boat across to the island called the Giudeca, to get away from the tourist souvenir stands. We sat on the edge of the canal and dangled our feet while we ate a picnic of bread, cheese, meat and a bottle of fizzy wine (no-one's driving in Venice!), in front of this fantastic building.

Wouldn't you just love to sing from that balcony, looking out across the water?