This major project started life in 2017 through sheer frustration. For Kaffe Fassett’s 2018 quilt book, based on traditional quilts housed in the American Museum in Britain he had asked that, as a hand embroiderer, I make his revised version of an ‘Broderie Perse’ in their collection. I was delighted.
I immediately started to sample some simple ways to make such a large hand stitched quilt nowadays, plus information notes for others to follow the instructions. However, due to lack of time due to publishing deadlines this quilt was dropped….Rats!
Later in the year I organised with the museum’s curator, Kate Hebert, to visit the archives with the UK making and publishing team. I asked to see ‘the one that got away’ and on hearing the story, Kate said that if I ever re-considered making the quilt she would show it in the quilt gallery alongside the original. Well of course I jumped at the chance to show work at this museum, and I did want to make the quilt.
I decided that I would make it as a present for Kaffe, it was his 80th birthday in December and I had enjoyed the last 3 years working with him on his books and my contract was at an end. I reasoned I would soon have plenty of time on my hands to complete the project in time for his birthday.
As I now had ‘carte blanche’ to interpret the design as I liked I decided to make his portrait as one of the panels. Using a recent photograph from his last visit to the studios I set about drawing and scaling the head.
I made carefully measured sketches, and then 2 masks – one to the size of the hexagonal block and the other of the head. My initial idea was to garland the head with flowers – well why not?
This looked miserable, and the garland didn’t fit into the hexagon very well – and then I would have to embroider the features; I remembered my ‘Flora’ embroideries influenced by Archimboldo – the artist who made faces from flowers. I tried various flowery fabrics from the Kaffe Fassett Collective.
This selection took several days and I was still not convinced I could make it work well enough, then into my studio stepped an old university colleague from my teaching and researching days, Dr Dawn Mason, with the perfect bunch of flowers to match the work – I believe that chance happenings are not always random
serendipitous flowers – I am on the right track
I persevered. Eventually I chose the fabric placement, cut it out with a tiny seam allowance and hand slip stitched it to a spotty fabric, adjusting the chin to become a tad larger proved successful. Very carefully I placed a blue bud for the eye. Suddenly Kaffe appeared in front to me.
Now for the hair: I found the white petals of Japanese Chrysanthemum by Phillip Jacobs perfect for my purpose, and so it appears does everyone else; the hair is the thing that gets the attention. In fact most of the fabrics that I used Summer Bouquet and Shell Bouquet and Tulip Extravaganza are designed Phillip Jacobs, his fabrics are so elegantly drawn and painted and the perfect replacement of the original chintzes.
The next stage was to decide the rest of the portrait. For the shirt I had a smidgeon of an old version of Kaffe’s Roman Glass in blue, I had bought years ago – and after many trials chose the fresh Spot fabric in the colour ‘Pond’ for the background.
Now for the rest of the patchwork, So far this has taken me about 3 weeks of drawing and stitching – but it is still only June.
I dug out the abandoned samples I had made for the book – I needed to make more other panels to add to the portrait.
To make the bouquets, the fabric has to be backed with a bonding paper, carefully cut out, placed into position by re-arranging the various elements to fit harmoniously, pressed, then hand stitched around each raw edge, the stitching is quicker than the arranging and my idea of blissful work.
The quilt slowly started to grow; but trying to control the overall colour was the most difficult thing – colours that work on their own or in a sketch suddenly look drab or take on another shade when placed next to one another – obviously. But the colours of the flowers changed the balance every time I added a new panel. It was my major ongoing and fascinating struggle to get these balances to work.
By September I had eventually made my fabric decisions, I had to make multiple versions of some of the panels – all in different colour-ways, but this gave cohesion to the busy design. I also added 4 shell corners, this was possibly the easiest panel to apply as the size was perfect and the shape fitted – just a few additions to balance colour.
Below shows development of the Brassica panels, they needed to be made larger by adding extra rows of leaves before hand sewing them onto the grounds.
The next stage was to add the diamond shaped patches at the intersections of the squares.
And this is when the panic started – suddenly this massive work, that had grown over months took off in another direction, these diamonds dominated the entire design – already busy, this was manic
The only thing was to keep going – too late to stop now – the samples below looked fine
I started to applique the tiny cut squares from Kaffe’s fabrics, Sunburst onto Shot Cotton dozens of them, all hand stitched in 2 colours and I slowly added them to the quilt on the wall ….and the result below doesn’t have all the dividing ribbon strips yet!
This was beginning to look overloaded, so I called in my 2 trusted quilt makers, Julie Harvey and Ilaria Padovani – they have very sound taste in all things quilt, and I knew they would tell me the truth. They just laughed and said “well it is for Kaffe and ‘more is more’ with him – why are you worried’?
It was the addition of the ribbons, kindly donated to me by both Edith Minne, owner of Renaissance Ribbons and Brandon Mably (who was in on the secret) that tipped the balance of the work and I suddenly understood that the work had ceased to be mine – it was now Kaffe’s. This happens when you are commissioned to design and make stuff for people – you need to work with their ideas/tastes/preferences – otherwise they don’t pay you! But this wasn’t a commission this was a present, and it was all my own work – I realised now just how much I have been influenced by working alongside him.
So I machined in place all the ribbons – a mammoth task for a hand embroider! they were very tricky to manipulate especially as I had to split many yards of a wider ribbon to get the correct proportion, both Edith and Brandon were out of stock of the narrow version. Hey ho! Thankfully Julie machine stitched it all into position first and then I started to hand quilt all around my stitched applique – another mammoth task, but so rewarding, the quilt looks suitable wonky – in a good way – it looks very hand made.
It was completed in March 2018 but I had not time to deliver it; then Kaffe was awarded an MBE and I know I have to include this – so back again to the finished quilt
I made a sample first and then the real thing and appliqued it to the ‘finished’ portrait
In Bath, where Kaffe and Candace Behouth, have an exhibition together based on Flowers , I delivered another set of 5 quilts for the next book and my “surprise”
And Kaffe’s reaction when he was shown it?
Worth every moment.. I made the sample into a badge for Brandon – this says it all!