Karen Kay: I’m addicted to my sewing machine

PUBLISHED: 15:29 30 June 2016

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto


Be warned, once you start chopping up those old shirts, baby clothes and lace trimmings, the obsession to create is unstoppable

I made a quilt. Well, that’s not strictly true. I have created a quilt-sized piece of patchwork, and appliqued fabric with my daughter’s name for the back. Now I can stand back and look at 1,080 five cm squares stitched together in a riot of red, pink, coral and creams. There’s florals, polka dots, ginghams, bunnies, birds and all sorts: a cacophony of pattern that is joy writ large in scraps of cotton.

I’ve loved quilts since small, but am also drawn to their aesthetics: the infinite possibilities of pattern and colour that can be with a very personal blend of textiles. Whether it’s a classic red and white log cabin design, or scrappy combination cut from old clothes, every quilt tells a story. Historically, quilts have been stitched by women, often in groups to create a project, perhaps to hand to a bride on her wedding day, or as a gift to welcome a newborn. The symbolism of different patterns is imbued with family history, weaving a rich tapestry of geography, culture and ancestry into the threads.

Visits to the American Museum in Bath, where there is an awe-inspiring collection of historic quilts, have left me spellbound. Not for them a trip to John Lewis to kit out their offspring’s bed with an easy-iron duvet cover and anti-allergy pillow. No, their young slumbered beneath a layer of love, assembled from remnants of the family’s wardrobe or discarded grain sacks.

I’ve been squirreling away favourite fabrics for years, hoarding baby and toddler clothes, shirts resigned to recycling because the collar and cuff wore away, remnants from dressmaking projects during my days as a fashion student and pieces of Liberty lawn that were simply too exquisite to leave in the shop.

I always thought making a quilt would take years and that I’d only have time to devote to it in retirement. Perhaps sitting in a Shaker rocking chair, quietly piecing together hexagons. However, gripped by the urge to seize the moment, I found myself in the Plain Stitch workroom in Wendover, a hidden gem nestling above an estate agent in the High Street.

I enrolled in workshops run by proprietor Debs, a seasoned quilter. She promised it would deliver a crafting ‘high’ and would come together faster than I realised. Reader, I was in her thrall.

Now I’m a patchwork and quilting junkie, addicted to making mosaics of material. Debs and her shop manager, Julia (she sells a tantalising array of fabrics and quilting paraphernalia) have become my local dealers, though I have found a whole world of suppliers shipping wares via the likes of eBay, craftsy and etsy. I’ve learned the language: we quilters talk in Fat Quarters, Jelly Rolls and Charm Packs. I’ve come to love the work of certain print designers – Janet Clare and Heather Ross, for example – and found new justification for the hours of fractions and multiplication homework I did as a young girl.

My sewing machine – regretfully only fired up once in the last decade to make my then four year-old a costume for her nativity play – has helped to make a quilt easily and so quickly. Believe me, if you can drive a car, you can sew in a straight line.

My heart sang as my machine hummed and the strips of fabric became a hotch-potch of squares like no other on the planet. Every quilt is unique, you see, and in this mass-produced world that is, quite simply, joyous. I had an idea to make a patchwork block and cut out my daughter’s name to applique on the backing fabric, and Debs relished the challenge.

She dispatched me to Princes Risborough, to the home of Jenny, the proud owner of a long-arm quilting machine. Jenny’s front room is a temple to the art of machine 
quilting, with a vast computer-controlled contraption that creates swirls, flowers, butterflies, feathers, linear grids, stars and more on quilts. And she’s busy. There’s a waiting list for Jenny’s services, apparently there are vast numbers of patchworkers working busily behind local doors.

Join us in our endeavours. Create the heirlooms of the future and discard your duvets in favour of beautiful bedding with the personal touch. I’m on my second quilt now, awaiting Jenny’s call to tell me my first one is ready. I feel like a child awaiting Christmas morning.

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