Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Fabric by the kilo and other travel tales

Fabric from a market in Florence

Writing in my previous post about memorable fabric-buying experiences led me to analyse what makes them so special. I have to conclude that it is not just the felicity of unexpectedly finding a material that seems so absolutely right - I would be hard pushed to say where or when I acquired some of my very favourite fabrics  - but also the context. So apologies if this blog suddenly degenerates into "what I did on my holidays" self-indulgence. Some of these fabrics have made it in to quilts or other projects, some of them never will, but they are equally precious.
Not all involve faraway places. Back in the Eighties, when I first began quilting, the hunt for fabrics needed dogged determination and not a little ingenuity. There were very few specialist craft shops and, of course, no online stores. So if one wanted, say, fabrics with blue roses on them, it was not just a case of googling "craft fabric blue roses". No, in those days the thrill of the chase was keener and the joy in bringing down prey far more satisfying. 

"Racing Colours" using boxer shorts

Thus one of my first buying coups was discovering on a market stall a stack of men's boxer shorts in brightly coloured spots and stars when I was making a quilt on the theme of Racing Colours. (Now if I want "red polka dots"  I can search these key words on my favourite US store, eQuilter, and on this site alone I have a choice of 109, of which 16 are immediately relevant.)

More boxer shorts - these from Australia
Boxer shorts also featured on a trip to Australia some 20 years ago, where I was disappointed to find that most of the fabrics available in quilting shops were American. Instead I bought underpants featuring koalas and kangaroos, and a cheap black and white duvet cover that to me conveyed the graphic starkness of Aboriginal design without being a pastiche. A table napkin by Ken Done - a designer not well enough known outside Australia but much copied - was also eagerly swooped upon and added to my suitcase.

"Sunshine Coast Australia". The fabric from a duvet cover bought in Adelaide runs along the bottom

A selection of remnants from another market stall, this time in Florence, contained a vivid design in yellow, acid green, shocking pink and black - see main picture above - that remains my all-time favourite, no matter that it is too bright to be used in anything but small areas, with the added novelty of being sold by the kilo. I can still feel the Italian sun on my back as I watched the crumpled heap shoot out of the silver bowl of the scales into a flimsy plastic bag.

Cheap and very cheerful  from Mexico, plus a sample using a synthetic stripe

Then there was Mexico, where in a hot, dusty little shop off the main square of Oaxaca, I finally tracked down fabric by the metre. It was cheap, nasty and synthetic. And gorgeous. I loved the bright colours and the nylon kitsch so much that I bought several woven synthetic stripes, plus one particular design of garish polyester roses in all six colourways. I later found out this was made in China. I still love it. In India, I bought authentically hand-woven and dyed cotton fabrics from the workshop where I watched it being blocked printed by hand, and it does not give me a bigger thrill than those roses.

Pile of oilcloth in a shop in Oaxaca

Of course an experience can be memorable for the wrong reasons, and one that left me disappointed and dispirited was an expedition to an Amish village at Holmes County, Ohio. The modern quilts on sale were, horrifyingly, made of cotton polyester and patterned fabrics, a world away from the glorious quilts for which the Amish are renowned. The fabrics in the shops that lined the main street were indistinguishable from those that can be bought elsewhere in America and Britain but with the emphasis on the twee and folksy. I bought some because I felt I had to, but I've never used them.

Fabrics are like photographs - they can jog the memory, and for an instant the best of them transport you back to a sunshiny past. Unlike photos, you can cut them up, make something new and even snuggle up under them too.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Cloth of gold

Sometimes I am reminded why, for all its noise, stress and crush of anonymous humanity, I still, after 35 years, love living in London. When it is accompanied by a memorable fabric shopping experience, I am in a state of bliss. Such an occasion occurred last week when I set out anew on my quest to find the crock of gold. Or at least a metre of it.

That adventure led me to a quiet street in the heart of Westminster that transported me to a different world.

Being neither a visitor nor a politician, the area around the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey are not my usual stamping ground (although I once went on a guided tour of Parliament to gawp at the Pugin wallpaper, which sort of ticked both boxes). Walking as quickly as I could to convey that London Is My City and I Am On Important Business, I strode past the queues of  tourists and into the Dean's Yard behind the cathedral, where boys from the Choir School played football on the green, ancient stone buildings cast long shadows, the beer was warm and for all I know an old maid was at that very moment bicycling to holy communion.

Out under the archway in the farthest corner and there it was: in a narrow street devoid of traffic, a bay-fronted shop that didn't look like a shop except in the Old Curiosity sense of the word, with a painted, gilded sign declaring itself to be the delightfully named Faith House, home of the equally historic Watts & Co.

My previous hunts for gold fabric had ultimately failed, the only serious contender proving to be impossible to pin or stitch without leaving a mark and, being rather plasticy, probably liable to perish too. (Is this why real gold is so precious, no cheap substitutes coming anywhere near?) Then a friend suggested that I try an ecclesiastical textiles retailer. A quick check online (let's not get too carried away by nostalgia - I couldn't contemplate life without Google) showed this to be the solution, and so off I went.

I cannot overstate the thrill of entering a shop and saying "May I see your cloth of gold please?". The phrase is so redolent of history that even Wikipedia's dry description of it as "a fabric woven with a gold-wrapped or spun weft" cannot strip it of its magic. More evocatively, the entry also refers to the Book of Psalms, the Golden Fleece, the Byzantine Empire, Roman funerals, royalty and nobility, medieval Venetian weavers and, of course, Henry VIII's Field of the Cloth of Gold.

I'm not sure that my one-metre length wrapped in a plastic carrier bag, carried back on the Tube and now hung up in my house where it gloriously glows with the reflected light not of Renaissance candles or flickering firelight but a 100w bulb and an Asda lampshade can live up to such a weight of history. And then there is the question of whether I will ever find the courage to cut into it. I hope that my finished wall hanging - for a care home run by Benedictine nuns - will in some way match the solemnity of Watts & Co's history and purpose. In the meantime I will look at the fabric, and stroke it, and enjoy it. And avoid opening my credit card statement.