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Mandy's Blog

New Year, New Ideas!

Alison Owens

At this time of year, I start having a little tidy up and sort out. It should be of the household variety, but instead I spend hours fiddling and sorting through my bits and pieces, creating more mess and no order.

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Feed Sack Quilts

Alison Owens

The Quilt I made in my hotel room after coming across Feed Sack fabric for the first time at a quilt show in Ascot

The Quilt I made in my hotel room after coming across Feed Sack fabric for the first time at a quilt show in Ascot

A long time ago when there was a quilt show in Ascot (which is now at Sandown), I helped on a stand run by Country Crafts selling fabric etc. Opposite the stand Jennie Rayment also was selling her wares. I fell in love with some American vintage fabric squares she had, she described them as Feed Sacks. They were washed and worn and the prints were from the 1920s and 1930s. That night in my hotel room I cut them up into small squares and by the time the show had finished I had made a small nine patch quilt top. I teamed up the fabric with a soft quilters calico. The top came to life after I hand quilted it.  It is still one of my favourites and is now over twenty five years old.

Now what were these fabrics? Feed Sacks!  Today a quick look on google will take you right to the heart of the story.

In 1924 Asa T Bales patented an idea of making sacks that animal feed, and dry goods, sugar, flour, etc were sold in and afterward could be made useful in other ways. “One of the objects of this invention is to provide a sack, the cloth of which is adapted to be used for dress goods after the product has been removed or consumed.

These early sacks were made from red gingham and were known as Gingham Girl. The advertising print on the sacks could be washed away. Just imagine buying our tea bags in a fabric sack – it would be in heaven. The idea caught on and became incredibly popular all over the USA.  In the 1930’s Percy Kent introduced pastel colours and Bemis Co use this slogan in its advertisement for their bags “Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Or do without”.

Later these bags featured ‘back prints’ which included patterns for toys, aprons, dollies, collar and cuff sets and tea towels. Local communities often had competitions at their summer fairs entitled 'Best Use of a Feed Sack' lots of quilts were made, curtains, children's bonnets and clothes. The sacks came in all shapes and sizes and Percy Kent even made a cloth of the United Nations depicting significant battles of World War Two.

If the ink didn't come out you just needed to boil the fabric 10 times!

If the ink didn't come out you just needed to boil the fabric 10 times!

You can always spot a Feed Sack because the fabric is of a more open weave and of a poorer quality than dress fabric. The sacks were sewn up with thick cotton thread with a chain stitch which left large holes in the seam. The threads themselves were often put to good use as well and used for knitting and crochet. The advertising print needed a lot of washing to remove so sometimes evidence of residual print was also a good clue.

You can always spot a Feed Sack because of the open weave fabric. The thread would also be used knitting and crochet

You can always spot a Feed Sack because of the open weave fabric. The thread would also be used knitting and crochet

I was lucky to buy my Feed Sacks from Jenny but nowadays you can still find them to buy on the net and if you happen to travel to the USA you will find them in antique shops, boot sales and junk shops. There are lots of Feed Sack collectors and some have get together to share memories and stories and swap Feed Sacks.


The History of Redwork

Alison Owens

As many of you will know redwork is my favourite embroidery technique. Simple but extremely effective it can be mastered in minutes and used by both new comers and the more experienced stitcher. People often ask me about it’s heritage and I thought it would make a great blog so here it is.

It all started at the School of Art Needlework which was founded in 1872 by Victoria Welby with help and support from William Morris, his daughter May other friends in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

It became ‘Royal’ when Queen Victoria became its first patron in 1875 and in the same year there was a World Fair held in America to celebrate the centenary of the signing of the declaration of independence. The idea of the gathering was for countries from around the world to showcase their culture, new inventions and scientific advancements. These included a first appearance for Heinz Tomato Ketchup, the British Penny Farthing and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

The Royal School of Art Needlework was invited to showcase a type of simple hand surface embroidery sewn with backstitch which was known then as The Kensington Stitch – named after the Schools first home which was above a bonnet shop in Kensington, London. The American’s loved this new technique and started to embroider designs with simple outlines to decorate household wares.

By this time synthetic dyes were common and as a result embroidery threads were available in all colours of the rainbow. However, there was a perennial problem with red. No matter how they tried the synthetic dies threads would fade to a rose or brownish red and would bleed the lost colour into the fabric. Red was often avoided as a colour as a result.

So it was with much excitement that a new colour fast dye was introduced from Syria that produced a rich and incredibly colourfast red. The process of manufacture was long and complicated (even to this day red is an expensive dye to produce) but the result was a luxurious and durable red thread that did not run or fade. The middle eastern origin of the dye led it to be called ‘Turkish Red’ even though it came from Syria!

The sudden availability of red thread and the popularity of the new embroidery stitch introduced from London led to an explosion in popularity of simple outline designs on a white background and so the stitch and the style became known as Redwork.

Pre printed squares with all sorts of images including birds, flowers, nursery rhymes and even presidents, sold for pennies and the resulting embroideries were used to all kinds of home wares and often made into quilts. The vintage quilt used to illustrate this blog is just one such quilt.

Mandy's Top Ten Tips for Machine Appliqué

Alison Owens

Mandy’s Top 10 Tips for Machine appliqué

The blanket stitch on this Quilter's Organiser was done on the machine

The blanket stitch on this Quilter's Organiser was done on the machine

Appliqué is my favourite quilting technique. As a child I always loved cutting and sticking into scrap books and applique and machine appliqué is exactly the same – but with fabric.

Here are my top 10 tips on achieving the best applique every time:

1.     Always start by giving your machine a little spring clean and a new needle. Refer to your manual on how to clean and oil your machine, it makes a huge difference.  I like to use the denim needle (size 12 or 14) as they are lovely and sharp for piercing through the multi layers of fabric. You should always change your sewing machine needle before you start a new large project

2.     Reduce your top tension slightly. When you are appliquéing by machine you need the top threads to show underneath the work slightly so that you get a nice curved stitch on top.  It’s worth practising on identical fabric and layers first.

3.     You can use bobbin fill or ordinary thread in the bobbin. If you have that special little hole in the arm of your bobbin case, Bernina owners, thread your cotton through this to give a better tension.

4.     Always use your needle down facility if you have one. This will stop the work slipping.  If you have a knee lift, start using it, it frees up the hands so you have more control over the work.

5.     Always use the correct foot for the job. You will need an open toed embroidery/appliqué foot which has a cut away on the under side which allows the raised stitch of the appliqué to go under the foot more freely making a huge difference.

6.     If you have not attached your shapes with fusible webbing use some thin paper or ‘stitch and tear’ behind your work to stabilise it to prevent unattractive ruffled stitching.

7.     Always start sewing by pulling the bottom threads up to the top, sew a couple of stitches on top of each other and then cut the thread. This prevents the threads tangling underneath.

8.     When sewing curves always stop on the outside edge, needle down, foot up, and then turn the fabric. It is better to stop and start a thousand times than try and get round the corner in one swoop.

9.     I always sew using the single blanket stitch that comes on most new machines. The double stitches are too bulky and difficult to manoeuvre around curves. With a bit of practise, you can get a great hand look. 

10.  You can blanket stitch with a thicker thread, Maderia do a wool thread and so do Aurifil, just put a larger needle in your machine, size 16 and they will sew a treat. The bobbin thread should remain unchanged.

I hope these tips will help with your machine appliqué, but you must remember practise makes perfect. Each machine is slightly different and you will need to understand what works best for your own.

It all sounds a bit fiddly I know but remember – it’s far better to make a quilt, finish it, and learn from it than have no quilts at all!




The Old Inspires the New

Alison Owens

I have always described myself a maker of all things lovely but one of my main sources of inspiration behind all my makes is a wonderful collection of ‘things’ that spark joy.

From an early age my mother and I would go to jumble sales and enjoy rummaging through the clothes. When we got them home she would unpick the seams, cut off all the buttons and save them in a sweetie tin. She would then give the fabric a good wash to make into rag dolls, the pattern was an old one from Woman’s Weekly. She would even unpicked woollen jumpers, wind the wool into skeins, washed them and use it for the hair of the dolls. She would then sell them. I think most of the village had one!

I can remember getting a coat for my bear at a jumble and loving the buttons and the labels. I can only have been five or six so it shows how important it is to be creative around kids.

These memories are the grounding for my love of textiles and related things. I was bought up on tins of buttons, bag of fabrics and sewing machines whirling.

Jumbles today are few and far between but a Sunday morning jaunt to a car boot is now a family affair. My beady eye zones into buttons, vintage tablecloths, lace, fabrics, old needle cases, books, old toys, wooden boxes, old patterns, things with nice graphics, clothes with nice labels or a pocket feature. You never know what treasures you may acquire or perhaps none at all but the chase is exciting.

We have a tradition when we get home of putting on the kettle popping some croissants in the oven and having a ‘care to share’ taking it in turn to show our wares.  I will then spend the afternoon fiddling, mending, embellishing and sorting out my treasure and putting it into a display box. This might evoke a little cleaning spree of the shelf or cupboard itself or even spark creative thoughts of making a new sewing project.

This design process of mine is all very unpredictable, not organised or planned. I find it difficult to work to order, luckily I am a prolific maker and always have ideas and projects in the pipeline waiting for a little spark of inspiration to bring it all to life.

Those little sparks come from my collections.