Finding Room to Sew

Quilting isn’t just about patching together bits of fabric, but also about patching together bits of time, in order to create something out of very little. For me, that means sewing in a variety of places to make the best use of scraps of time.

I do a lot of hand sewing on train journeys. When booking tickets, one of the questions at the front of my mind is usually: Is there room for me to sew? After all, a train journey without a needle and a good audiobook is a waste of good stitching time.

English Paper Piecing is always a good choice for a train journey. Over the last year, I’ve made a series of random bird blocks – one of these days they will find their way into quilts.

Bird Block 1 Bird Block 2

My current Nelson Quilt project is mostly kept at home, because the size (1 inch) and number (3,200) of the pieces make it quite fiddly. However, with some planning, I’ve sewn sections on various trains and, so far, haven’t lost any pieces.

Nelson on the way to Birmingham Nelson on the way back to London

One of the consequences of sewing on the train is that I tend to associate quilts with the journeys on which they were made and why I was going there.

For example, I made my first experiments with curved piecing in April 2014. I was on a train to Canterbury, en route to a conference about cinema and the First World War.  When waiting to change trains at Ashford I got into conversation with a young man who asked what I was doing, and then confided his secret passion for knitting. The curved piecing made its way into a quilt, which I then sewed on a train to Manchester – and, yes, it is possible to cram a full size quilt into a train seat and work on it comfortably.

Curved piecing Curved quilting Cuved quilt in progress Curves Quilt unfinished

Finally, this unfinished piece will always be inextricably linked with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:

A Quilt for a Bleak House

I started piecing it on a train to Nottingham in 2007. I was going to the British Silent Film Festival. They were screening Maurice Elvey’s 1920 film of Bleak House; I was just starting on my Elvey research and was desperate to see it. It was that trip that convinced me that Elvey’s early career was definitely worth a closer look and I’ve been working on that research ever since.

The Quilt for a Bleak House remains unfinished. My taste has changed and the fabrics look too “busy” these days but I still look at it with affection because of its associations. And once I finish my thesis I might give the quilt another go.

Stitching a Hero: England Expects (or Maurice Elvey, Nelson and Me)


Nelson - 490 squares so far.

Nelson – 490 squares so far.

On 19 December 2013, I sat alone and in silence in a darkened basement room at the British Film Institute, watching a biographical film made in 1918. This was Maurice Elvey’s film Nelson, a film I had read about but had never seen. I knew a lot about the making of the film, some of the challenges it faced and the critical response to it. I also knew that it had been made just before Elvey’s masterpiece, The Life Story of David Lloyd George, so I was secretly hoping for something a bit special.

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Nelson turned out to be a curate’s egg of a film – parts of it are excellent, while parts of it are simply bad. I liked the scenes of Nelson’s childhood, featuring young actor Eric Barker as a funny and irreverent boy. I liked the love scenes between Donald Calthrop and Ivy Close as Nelson and Lady Nelson. I was gripped by the siege of Naples and the battle scenes depicted diagrammatically. I enjoyed the intertitles – beautifully illustrated with nautical ropes and flags. And I loved the structure of the film – Admiral Fremantle giving a young would be sailor a biography of Nelson to teach him how to be a sailor. On the other hand I winced at a particularly ill-advised Arctic sequence and was appalled at the badly conceived make up applied to Donald Calthrop, which made it difficult to take the character seriously.

I hadn’t uncovered a masterpiece. Rather I had seen a very flawed film albeit one with some brilliant moments. Disappointing.  And yet… an interest in Nelson’s place in the national culture was sparked. Six months later I found myself in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in front of Nelson’s tomb. I have stood on the decks of HMS Victory and seen the spot where Nelson fell at the Battle of Trafalgar.

HMS Victory

I’ve looked at figureheads at Portsmouth and been to the site of the Cradle of the Navy – the old Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight, where part of the film was shot.

Nelson Figurehead Osborne Naval College

And I have looked at endless Nelson memorabilia – pill boxes, playbills, paintings and papercuts. And then there is the sewn Nelsonalia – a skirt flounce worn by Emma, Lady Hamilton. Samplers sewn by young girls to mark the passing of a national hero. The remains of the Union Jack flown on the Victory.  Nelson’s bloodied stockings. The coat he was wearing when the fatal shot was fired.

Nelson's Coat

The story of Nelson, Elvey’s flawed film and the outpouring of grief at the death of a hero transformed into porcelain, paper and stitch have inspired me to create my own tribute – a portrait quilt.

The Nelson quilt is a work in progress – 3,200 one inch squares will take some time to put together, particularly when they are all paper pieced by hand. But I feel moved to carry on. I blame Maurice Elvey.

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Nelson from the back - English paper piecing

Nelson from the back – English paper piecing




Meet Lucie

Here are some bits and pieces about me, as told to the London Modern Quilt Guild, to which I belong.

London Modern Quilt Guild

MissLveyTell us a little about yourself:

I live in West London and divide my time between a day job and working on a PhD thesis about the early career of British film director Maurice Elvey. My favourite film is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and my favourite book is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

quilt1I’m on Twitter:   @MissElvey (that’s my main account for mostly film related stuff) and @TheSewingBea (second account for sewing related stuff).  instagram: misselvey and blog over at

quilt3What inspired you to start quilting:

I had a fairly major operation and had to spend some time at home recovering; I wanted something productive to do and started to make a patchwork quilt.

Where do you work on your quilts and keep your fabric stash?

I work on my quilts in the living room at home, often listening to audiobooks while I sew. My…

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Stitching with Ivor Novello or How to Quilt a Silent Film


Quilting inspiration comes from all sorts of sources – the design or colour of a particular fabric; the natural or urban landscape; a traditional block made either in the traditional way or reimagined for a modern quilt.

I’m particularly keen on lettering incorporated into quilting designs and am always on the hunt for words and phrases that will lend themselves to stitch.  Folk songs, sea shanties, phrases from novels and chapter titles from Dickens have all found their way into my quilting.

Recently, I identified a whole new source for quilt designs – silent film intertitles. Some are simply designed with plain lettering, and others are enhanced with beautiful borders and illustrations in keeping with the film’s theme – for example the nautical ropes and flags that enhance the intertitles of Maurice Elvey’s 1918 biographical film about Nelson. My all-time favourite intertitle comes from the 1927 version of Hindle Wakes, also  directed by Maurice Elvey: I’m a Lancashire Lass and so long as there are spinning mills in Lancashire I can earn enough to keep myself respectable.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog

The Lodger Quilt

My first quilt inspired by intertitles is based on Alfred Hitchock’s 1926 film, The Lodger starring Ivor Novello (1893-1951). To-night: Golden Curls isn’t strictly an intertitle, but is a sign for a nightclub that appears on screen and sets the tone for the film. Is Ivor Novello the murderer, known as The Avenger, who is murdering blondes in the foggy streets of London?

To-night Golden Curls

One of Novello’s earliest biographers, Peter Noble was greatly impressed by The Lodger. He wrote in Ivor Novello: Man of the Theatre : “The tension was admirably sustained, the tempo was fast, the photography was excellent, and Novello’s sensitive performance marked him out as one of the truly important screen personalities in our studios.” In 1950, when Noble was writing this biography, the British Film Institute was about to include The Lodger in its 1950 Season of Great Films, which also included Griffith’s Hearts of the World, Asquith’s Shooting Stars, and Dovzhenkno’s Earth. Hitchcock’s Lodger was last revived in 2012, with a sparkling restored print and new score by Nitin Sawhney.

Novello starred in a sound remake of The Lodger in 1932, directed by Maurice Elvey. And now I  must declare an interest: I have been researching Elvey’s early career for some years now and take a particularly close interest in his films. Elvey’s Lodger is certainly not one of his best: although Noble calls it “a very creditable thriller” and praises Novello as having “taken the sound medium, with its stress on underplaying, in his stride,” it isn’t terribly good – the suspense has gone and the camera work is constrained by the needs of the recording equipment. The best things about it are the piano playing and singing of Novello. These are a poor fit with the overall theme of the film, but were perhaps included to make the most of the sound technology and Novello’s popularity as a composer. Although it did well at the box office at the time, Elvey’s Lodger will always be a curiosity piece, which suffers in comparison to the Hitchcock silent.

The difference in tone between the Hitchcock and Elvey versions can be summed up by the two magazine covers featuring the film. On this Picture Show cover from March 12 1927, Novello is looking sinister and mysterious…..

The Lodger 1926

…. but by December 17 1932, Novello looks as though is he about to embark on a duet with his costar, Elizabeth Allan.

The Lodger 1932

Coming Attractions at the Cinema

One of these days, I might take a whole set of intertitles from a single film and stitch the whole lot. The most likely contender is Hindle Wakes but I’m keeping my eyes open for other ideas – and am open to suggestions! Watch this space…..

Adventures in Machine Piecing

The quilt made by machine

I am, by preference, a hand sewer and usually do all my piecing and quilting by hand. However, this all takes time; I know that my output is not as prolific as it could be, and limits the number of quilts I will ever be able to make.

When I’m stitching a long seam together I sometimes think to myself, “Why not sew this by machine?” It would be so much quicker…” In theory this seems like a great idea, but when it comes to it, it doesn’t translate into reality, and I carry on sewing by hand.

There are a number of reasons why I plan to sew by machine and then end up hand stitching. Firstly, on a practical level, it always seems such a faff to get the machine out and thread it up; and then there is the FEAR. I am afraid of my machine. It speeds off, snarls, sews crookedly; or more accurately, I allow it to do so. My one experience of a machine sewing class was simply dreadful, with the very unsympathetic person in charge telling me, sneeringly, “You will never be a quilter if you can’t use a machine.”

Not surprisingly, that put me off machine sewing. In retaliation, I became an avid handquilter, specialising in tiny little stitches and complicated designs. My piecing gets done by hand, and I do a fine line in needle turn applique. At present, I have one paper pieced project and two handquilting projects on the go. The paper piecing is going to take months to complete and the weather has been far too hot for handquilting in recent days.

The other day, I came across a 2WENTY THR3E Moda charm pack and some plain grey fabric in my stash and had an urge to produce something quickly.

So… out came the machine. And I pieced a simple quilt top in an afternoon.

I was pleased with the finished piece but it did make me think about the process of stitching.

I don’t sew in order to produce lots of quilts. I sew because I enjoy the sensuous feel of the fabric, the physical act of stitching and the rhythm of the needle. I sew because it helps me relax. I can pick up a piece of hand stitching in seconds, work on it for a while, and then put it down again. I can sew with a cat climbing on me if I have to. I can control my seams and make sure the points match. And if they don’t match, I can unpick the stitching fairly quickly.

As part of my sewing ritual, I listen to audio books while I stitch (anything from Georgette Heyer to Charles Dickens with a good dose of Hilary Mantel in between). But a  sewing machine can make a terrific noise! While piecing this quilt I had to keep replaying chunks of the book I couldn’t hear – I was literally losing the plot of Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax!

Making this quilt top by machine was quick but I found that I didn’t enjoy the process. I ended up just wanting to get it finished as swiftly as possible. I didn’t want to stop until it was done, I wanted to get it finished so I could pack the machine up and put it away again. I put together a very easy design because I didn’t feel sufficiently confident to do any complex machine piecing. The result is a piece that doesn’t feel like a quilt I designed; it’s a piece put together for simplicity – which in itself is no bad thing.

To make up for the ambivalent feelings I have about the process of making this quilt top, I’m already thinking about some very complicated hand quilting to finish it……

Quilt basted and ready for quilting