Monthly Archives: July 2009

Patchwork Across the Pacific

           Whenever you embark on a trip, there’s a wonderful sense of anticipation that comes from all those things you are expecting to happen. In the case of this New Zealand-Australia trip (which consisted of the following itinerary: Auckland, Rotorua, Christchurch, Cairns, Melbourne, Tasmania and Sydney), I’d been looking forward to scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, visiting hot springs, seeing the Sydney Opera House, petting (and eating) kangaroo… all of which occurred, and didn’t disappoint in the least. But there are also those wonderful, unanticipated events that truly give an experience character and offer some of the most lasting delight. This trip was also full of those, and since I’m currently writing this at the two-hour point in a fourteen-hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, I might as well start from the beginning…

                It didn’t take me long after arriving in Auckland to figure out that New Zealand abounds with a unique and bizarre type of yarn which I was only vaguely aware of before: possum fur. Now, this may sound horrific, but New Zealand possums are actually quite different than those we have in the States, and they are enormously destructive to the countryside. Their fur, when blended with wool, makes for incredibly soft, cashmere-like knitting. Of course, I’m intrigued by any unusual fiber and I immediately set my heart on purchasing some of this yarn. While I didn’t find any in Auckland where most of the possum is in finished products sold at tourist shops, I was delighted to discover an Arts Center in Christchurch (http://www.artscentre.org.nz/) full of handmade crafts (from woodwork to fiber arts) as well as locally spun yarn. I bought myself a red skein of Touch Possum Yarn (40% possum fur, 60% wool) and my boyfriend purchased eight skeins of grey for me to knit him a sweater. I’m sure any knitter would agree that the gift of working with lovely yarn is as good as it gets; even better when the end product is for someone I love.

New Zealand Possum yarn

Another welcome surprise came during the three-hour car ride from Auckland to Rotarua when we stumbled upon the Tirau Quilt Cottage (Sth Waikato, NZ, www.tirauquiltcottage.co.nz). Seeing the word “quilt” on a storefront so far from home is an immediately comforting (and exciting) feeling. Of course, I had to run inside. The woman who owns the shop was an avid quilter (who makes both traditional and nontraditional ‘art’ quilts) and extremely friendly and happy to chat with an excited American tourist. She even informed me that Quilting Arts Magazine (my future employer) is ‘her bible’- it’s a small world after all! Since my weary and patient traveling companions were waiting in the car, I tried to be as brief as possible and quickly selected half yards of two very New Zealand quilting fabrics. One is of the kiwi fruit, which to my surprise is quite popular in New Zealand, and the other is of the rare and endangered Kiwi bird which only exists in New Zealand and is one of the most unusual and adorable creatures I’ve ever seen:

New Zealand fabric

My few days in Cairns were spent either in the rainforest or underwater, and during my time in the bustling, beautiful city of Melbourne I didn’t see much in the way of yarn or fabric stores (though I’m sure they exist). Unexpectedly, the most glorious fiber-filled place that I visited was Hobart, Tasmania. Like most who travel to Tasmani, my brother, boyfriend and I tagged this unusual destination onto our trip with one primary objective in mind; to see Tasmanian devils. In fact, we drove directly from the airport to a devil sanctuary and spent nearly an hour watching them feed on wombat meat- yes, it was worth it. But I had no idea that Hobart itself would be such a charming little city, so closely aligned with my personal passions. The main streets are full of antique shops, yarn stores and fiber art galleries. The first day there, practicing serious self-restraint, I made three purchases. Firstly, I bought 100% Tasmanian Alpaca wool yarn, hand-dyed by the Spindle Tree Designer Crafts Co-Operative Society, Ltd. (www.spindletree.com.au). I also purchased several balls of Merino Magic yarn, made by Heirloom: The Australian Yarn Company, made from 100% pure new wool.

Australian yarn

I have no specific project in mind for these yarns; this isn’t the point. I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to acquire a sample of such unique fibers. I’m sure the right project will present itself one of these days. Finally, I bought a 1960s bedspread at a funky little antique store called Kookaburra. I loved the pattern and colors, and the entire thing cost only cost 20 Australian dollars (so about 16 US dollars).  It has that soft, worn-in feeling that makes old fabrics so appealing, and seems to lend itself to clothing… I’m imagining a skirt, or possibly even a jacket.

1960s Australian Fabric

But that’s not all. In Hobart, the main road is shut down on Saturdays for the well-known Salamanca Market (which consists of endless stalls of handmade goods, from fruit leather to honey and fudge… and of course, lots and lots of fiber. I made two purchases that I instantly fell in love. The first is a reversible patchwork skirt, designed by a local Tasmanian designer. I’ve already worn it several times, for dinners out in Sydney:

Patchwork Skirt

I also bought a very unusual shawl-like wrap with sleeves… hard to describe, but like nothing I’d ever seen. It was also designed by a local (the company is called Keshet) and made of hand-dyed fabric-like yarn that is then woven. I’m quite capable of knitting my own sweater but have basically no weaving experience, and feel like it makes more sense to purchase something that I can’t make myself (not yet anyway). It’s also full of color which, it goes without saying, always wins me over. I also wore this constantly while in Sydney, and I don’t think I’ll fall out of love with it any time soon:

Sydney (blog pics) (4)

Our few days in Sydney were the perfect way to end the trip- lovely weather, lots of walking, a trip to the beach and no agenda besides enough sleep and good food.  It wasn’t until the evening of our last day that fabrics once again entered the pictures. I was vaguely considering how nice it would be to find some unique Australian fabrics, but a brief look in Lincraft (think the Australian version of Michael’s) turned quilting fabrics not that different than what you can buy in the states- and they were actually made in China! I had all but given up when I spotted these Australian Made Handkerchiefs by Bulurru (www.bulurru.com) in a cheesy tourist shop that we’d entered to investigate the kangaroo scrotums we saw in the window (possibly the weirdest souvenir possible; and no, we didn’t purchase one in the end).

Sydney (blog pics) (3)

Though these little plastic packages looked silly at first, they’re actually lovely swatches of fabric, each 100% cotton and based on various Aboriginal designs. They even come with “Dreamtime Stories” related to the fabric’s pattern. Turns out, they were exactly what I’d been looking for and I ended the trip having accumulated the most wonderfully unexpected and interesting conglomeration of yarns, fabrics, fibers and more.

Of course, in addition to all these encounters with the new, my own patchwork projects have been trusty and much-needed companions throughout the trip. First of all, working on my neutral domino scarf was nothing short of essential for passing time during the many long car rides and total of 10 separate airplane flights! Unsurprisingly, it’s coming along quite well (and I still have many hours of travel to go):

Sydney (blog pics)

Finally, my already-completed projects have been both useful and comforting. I didn’t go anywhere without my feedsack messenger bag which has withheld the strain of being filled with water bottles, snacks, and books, and lugged around various cities. My zippered patchwork knitting bag has proven itself to be equally durable. Then there’s my multicolored domino stole, which I wore almost every single day since it was perfect for combating the (relatively slight) coolness of Australian winter air. Here are two examples, one from a crazy little “Faerie Shop” in Hobart (http://www.faeries.com.au/) and another on the streets of Melbourne:

 Hobart (the faerie shop)Melbourne (2)

Most importantly, since Aussies clearly love color, pattern and fabric, my handiwork was a great way to meet people throughout the trip, guaranteed to inspire a friendly inquisition or admiration that often led to further conversation. As soon as you find common ground with the people around you, differences in geography and culture quickly fade. I was a long way from home for three weeks, but I never felt out of my element. This vacation only confirmed what I have always suspected, that patchwork has a fundamental and universal appeal.

 

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At Home and Down Under

Where to begin?

Let’s just say that the prospect of three quilting-free weeks has sent me into a patchwork frenzy- yes, even more so than usual. On Wednesday I leave for New Zealand and Australia and my only crafty companion will be my knitting, which is currently the Neutral Domino Scarf, already half complete:

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Since sewing projects don’t travel quite so easily I’ve made a particular effort to make some serious progress on my tablecloth and Essay Quilt. In terms of the former, I finished making all 45 of the nine-patch blocks and now just need to sew them together:

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As you can see, even when I try to infuse my typically improvisational work with a little bit of method, it manages to veer toward madness nonetheless. I’m fine with this. The navy blue squares don’t exactly hold it all together in the way I originally anticipated, but in the end I prefer this totally scattered, deeply patchworky look- at the very least, I’m resolved to the fact that my work is bound to be a bit more on the unstructured side of things! Even my adherence the red-blue-green-yellow palette turned out to be pretty loose.

As for the Essay Quilt, I managed to finish writing on all of the blocks and they too are now waiting to be joined together:

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Trust me, you don’t really know a fabric until you’ve tried writing on it. Not all are equally conducive to this: some were smooth against the pen while others caught on it endlessly and had to be held taught. Furthermore, I included some fabrics which are a little darker or more patterny so the writing doesn’t pop out quite as clearly. I’ve decided that these harder-to-read areas are equally intriguing, like little secrets embedded within the quilt. I’m sure I’ll forget what they say at some point, but I’ll always know that I’m intrigued by every passage that’s been written onto this quilt. Some of the quotations I found are seemingly random or just quirky and odd, while others are quite moving. There are even some that I don’t entirely agree with but included because they at least managed to get me thinking. I added a few books along the way, including D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and The Rainbow, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner, and Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice. Here are a few random examples:

“As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love Death- not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life.” (EM Forester, Howard’s End)

“I’ve spent so much time these last years wondering what I’m supposed to be… I’m just a slippery antevism– betwixt and between- a student on the ever-shifting border near the wonderful, terrifying new.” (Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love)

“This experience convinced me that there was something that I could do that was really worth while, and it I was not doing it justice by coming around with cameras and recording equipment, as I had on this trip. The Pygmies were more than curiosities to be filmed, and there music was more than a quaint sound to be put on records. They were a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care.” (Colin Turnbull, The Forest People)

“In the fleeting seconds of final memory the images that will become Burma are the sun and a woman’s parasol.” (Daniel Mason, The Piano Tuner)

“Who turned on the lights? You did, by waking up: you flipped the light switch, started up the wind machine, kicked on the flywheel that spins the year. Can you catch hold of a treetop or will you fly off the diving planet as she rolls?” (Annie Dillard, An American Childhood)

In the end, this is really more of a Story than Essay Quilt, though it does combine both fact and fiction. Either way, it’s meant to capture the power of words in their written form, whatever the subject may be. Making this quilt has also given me the rare and wonderful opportunity to search through books that I have loved in the past and rediscovered the ways in which they touched me.

Aside from these more ‘typical’ patchworking endeavors, I’ve expanded beyond my usual interactions with fabric to create baskets. While in an antique store in Concord Center, I came across a woven fabric basket and, naturally, fell in love on the spot. It always seems silly to buy something that one could conceivably make on one’s own, so I took a picture and emailed my grandmother, who is both a quilt-making and basket-weaving expert. She replied that I had stumbled upon ‘rag baskets’ and explained that they are made using strips of fabric, coiling card, and sometimes hot glue. Between this email and some quick web-browsing, I came up with these:

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The first one is most truly a ‘rag’ basket since I only used strips of fabrics that I already had, but I bought some new fabrics for the second and third. I tried out different shapes and it’s hard to say which is my favorite, but I’m rather fond of the oval. Apparently rag baskets have been around for a long time and are a relatively well-known creation. I’d never seen them before, but I’m completely in love. They’re relatively easy, not too time-consuming, and wonderfully functional. It’s even sort of meditative work. My one struggle has been finding the coiling cord; I’ve been using rope from the hardware store instead which works just fine though it’s a little less malleable. Sadly, most of our local fabric stores are disappearing (I miss you Fabric Place!) so I may have to get this online.  

I strayed even farther from my typical craft endeavors this week with another little project. Part of the cleansing and cleaning of these past few weeks has been getting rid of the mounds of change that have accumulated in my room, primarily in a hollow ceramic pig. Before organizing my American coins into rolls, I separated out all the foreign/otherwise-interesting currency, only to discover that I had rupees, francs, Australian dollars and even a few coins from the Bahamas. (Since many of these coins are from places I’d never been, they must be hand-me-downs from my Dad’s business travels).  Anyway, I decided I should do something with these ‘special’ coins and as a sort of tester project, I came up with this:

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Coins seems to lend themselves to a mosaic-like setting, so I used an old wooden frame and some crazy glue (which is scary stuff, by the way) and arranged the coins inside. I was considering using it as a trivet but, as my mother pointed out, the coins themselves would get very hot. In the end, I may hang it on the wall of my new apartment; not everything has to be functional after all! I have many more coins (and my Dad just added to the collection since his return from China) so I’d like to make one larger one. Sorting through my collection, I’ve been rather surprised at how beautiful currency can be, including everything from pictures of sailboats to dragons and multi-colored metals. Blending them all together into a single piece feels like a hopeful gesture that brings these different locations and cultures a little closer together.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that the Australian dollar coin is in the middle; my mind has been very much on my approaching travels. However, at the same time, my heart is still rooted to home, especially given the patriotic aura of the 4th of July holiday weekend. Naturally, this week’s nine-patch is in honor of this day:

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I have also cheated a bit and made the next three weeks’ nine-patches ahead of time since, as much as I love quilting, I don’t want to lug my sewing and fabric supplies across the globe with me. One of these patches is a rather obvious tribute to the continent I will be visiting. The Australian flag is also red, white and blue so this patch might look a little familiar, but the central square is cut out of Australia from a fabric that shows a map of the world (the continent is actually labeled “New Holland” on this map; apparently that’s another name for Australia):

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The other two patches are in honor of two very important men in my life who will be accompanying me on this journey; my brother, Gordon, and boyfriend, Kyle. Gordon’s patch is a sort of mini-version of his plaid quilt, while Kyle’s uses the kinds of classic blue and striped fabrics that he tends to wear (basically, he balances out my proclivity for a wardrobe that is full of as much color and pattern as possible):

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My final patchworking project of the week is also in honor of both home and abroad, but above all else family. Encouraged by my last successful bread-making effort, I decided to try a recipe for Swedish Rye bread (­­­­also known as Limpa ) that has been in my family for many generations. I got the recipe from a book made for my mom by her mother, but it originally comes from her Swedish grandmother (Grandma Dahlberg) and therefore my great-great grandmother! My grandmother wrote the recipe out by hand in a beautiful recipe book so the whole bread-making process felt that much more intimate:

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It’s a very interesting recipe that calls for beer (though my great-great grandmother apparently didn’t use this), molasses and orange rind, and results in this lushly rich, dark brown bread that’s moist and delicious:

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One of the loaves is brushed with water and corn syrup for a softer crust which explains the color difference.  It’s an amazing feeling to carry on a tradition that has been passed down between the women in my family for so long. I can only hope that my own favorite recipes (not to mention my quilts) will one day wind up in the hands of my great-great granddaughter.

It is in this state, anchored to my home and family but excited to take in somewhere entirely new, that I leave for what is hopefully an amazing trip. Yet it goes without saying that my patchworking, in mind and in practice, is never far behind.

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