Best laid plans – the challenge of rethinking projects

I dream of a cupboard with patchwork quilts in neatly folded rainbows. There is the scent of lemon myrtle and bay leaves.

I have the beginning of this dream, it’s just that I haven’t made a contribution to the stack. What is there is because of the endeavours of my mum. (Thanks, madre!)

From time to time I have another go. I buy fabrics – gorgeous, colourful textiles. I buy quilting books and look at them on rainy afternoons. Sometimes I cut and start to piece quarters together.

I get caught up in the need for the piecing to be exact. It would help if I could relax my way into the sewing. I expect I would also need to be able to ‘spread and leave’ a sewing project while it was in progress.* It is literally a question of time and space.

Sometimes, when I contemplate another go I think back to the evening (sometime last century, so a while ago …) when I laid backing, batting and a top piece on the floor of the lounge room.

I stretched the sandwiched layers, pinned them into place and tacked them together. I got to the end and released all the pins but the pieces didn’t spring back to a relaxed state.

I had managed to stitch the whole lot into the weave of the carpet.

Putting the stitches in had taken a lot of the evening. I knew they were only to hold the layers in place and that they would be unpicked as soon as the quilting-proper was done. Even so, I had been neat and thorough. It was a work of beauty.

It took hours to unpick it all and weeks to start again.

Piecing it together

Why am I thinking about the delights of a patchwork blanket (preferably in a simple pattern like flying geese or tumbling blocks – I know my limitations, after all)? It isn’t just the present shift in the weather to rain.

I have a cupboard full of fabric for patchwork and quilting projects. I can’t remember the last time I opened it. At the moment, I don’t think I could even negotiate a path to it. There are books and a filing box of research notes in the way.

To be honest, the books have taken over a bit.

This was pointed out to me by one of my favourite young people yesterday who observed that I should not buy more books because (and these points were made quite clearly and purposefully)

  1. I already have more than a thousand books. (True, but I don’t think the number is excessive. Nor is the collection frivolous.)
  2. I haven’t read all the books I already have. (Also true, but I like to think of my library as aspirational. Also, tsundoku is a beautiful word. It is possibly one of my top five favourite words. In any case, I’m planning on reading them.)
  3. I have run out of shelf space and there are books in stacks of twenty on a table. (Not quite true, none of the stacks reaches to twenty. If I were a shade tetchy I might suggest that the young person should count again and revise the merits of their argument. Clearly, that is unnecessary.)

Many of the recent additions have come about as I’ve clarified the texts I want to use in my thesis.

Others have made their way to the stacks – and been graced with my current favourite bookplates – by virtue of simple desire. Or, they relate to past and planned projects.

Or, …

Does there really need to be a reason?

Adding books to my library
Some of April’s additions

Working out light and shade

Amid the flourishing crop of books and research articles I’ve been looking at my project plan as I try to rejig my approach to my thesis.

My most recent focus has been hagiography – specifically saints’ lives in Middle English, and more specifically female saints’ lives. This was always part of my plan. I’m pretty clear about the what of my research but as I’ve selected sources I’ve also been working on how the project as a whole fits together.

And I’m reminded of the quilts I’ve never made.

There’s the piecing of the squares to make the blocks and then the laying out of the blocks into the overall pattern. This happens before the (in my case, sometimes disastrous – as described above) sandwiching, strapping and quilting.

Before all of that, though, there’s the selection. The balancing of tones within a square before you move on to the blocks.

When I bought my first quilting book (sometime in the 90s) I dutifully made a shopping list on the basis of the ‘necessary items’ that the book listed. One item was a ‘ruby beholder’ and I would go into craft shops to ask if they had one only to be met with blank stares. A what?

When I eventually found one I misunderstood how to use it. It is a rectangle that features a square cut out. I thought that was so a quilter could determine which bit of fabric to feature in a block; the square was a frame. I was wrong.

As it turns out, a ruby beholder is a device for working out ‘colour values’ in fabric. It tells you which fabric in a selection is light, medium … or dark. (Here’s a video that explains this, if you’re curious.)

I had set up this (I thought) brilliant plan of the structure of the thesis. I knew I shouldn’t become attached but that’s precisely what I did, despite my best intentions.

I’ve realised that my thesis is not unlike a quilt.

I need to work on building individual squares. Ultimately, though, the pieces might have to move around.

A ruby beholder for literary sources would be a bonus.

Stack of books
Raw materials


*This is based on familial observations which I like to think are expressed as endearments but could equally be epithets of despair.





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