Experiments in Random Stitchery

A white piece of fabric, quilted and embroidered in a curving pattern, in shades of brown, orange, grey, cream, and red
A month’s worth of unplanned stitching, September 2021

Last month, I decided to do something new. Well, new for me, at any rate. I was very busy preparing a paper about stitching in the Cromwell Trilogy for a conference about the work of Hilary Mantel which took place in mid-October, and I didn’t have much space in my head for thoughts of complicated sewing. What I needed was the equivalent of a musician practising scales – keeping my muscle memory in play.

I had read about the practice of doing a bit of unplanned sewing every day, and, earlier this year, I went to a fascinating online talk by textile artist Claire Wellesley-Smith about her longstanding stitch journal. I didn’t want to embark on anything large scale, especially given my ongoing Cromwell quilt work, but I was intrigued by what I had heard about the stitch journal and I wondered whether a few minutes of daily unplanned sewing would benefit my work.

White fabric with some quilting in chain and running stitch in orange thread
A bit of orange thread

I had an odd piece of white fabric lying around – about 13 by 10 inches – and an offcut of wadding of about the same size. And I picked up a bit of orange thread. I’ve been quilting with chain stitch a lot recently, so I started with that, then added in some standard quilting stitch. The idea was not to worry too much about stitch length but just to see what happened.

As ever, the first stitches on blank fabric looked fairly underwhelming, and I found the process slightly odd. I am usually quite controlled with my sewing and know exactly what I am going to stitch – especially when I am working with lettering – but here I was faced with a blank space and an attempt to let my needle go where it chose. I defaulted to curves very quickly, because I always prefer to stitch curved lines rather than straight.

White fabric, quilted with orange and grey thread in a curving design
Trying not to worry about stitch length

I got into the habit of using whatever thread was to hand, provided that it fitted in to a fairly restricted colour range – brown, orange, red, cream, black, and grey. Rather than allowing cut off pieces of cotton from other stitching to sit in my pincushion and get tangled (a bad habit of mine), I started to add them on to the random stitch piece.

White fabric, quilted with brown, cream, orange, red, grey and black thread in a random curving design
Random Stitches spreading out

I usually did about ten minutes random stitching at a time. I didn’t do it every day; I live with a migraine condition which means I tend not to commit myself to a daily practice, as I can’t maintain it. But I did add stitches on most days, finding it beneficial to have something I could pick up in odd minutes.

As I very gradually added more stitches, the fabric changed texture – something that never fails to surprise me – and I started to see random patterns becoming something else. Was this a rockpool? Or some sort of shale rock formation? Sometimes an unstructured stitch takes a needle somewhere entirely unexpected. It was exciting to see my ten minute stitching sessions actually turn into something – a fairly coherent piece of sewing that started from nothing.

White fabric quilted in a curving design with orange, red, cream, brown, black, grey thread
September Stitches

I found the practice so beneficial that, at the end of September, I cut out some russet coloured fabric and added it to the first piece so I could carry on in October.

So far, October’s random sewing looks less interesting – largely because I have been so preoccupied with other work. And I find that interesting, albeit not surprising: a ten-minute random stitch practice is impacted by what else is going on elsewhere. This month, there are no swirling curves, just some rather unadventurous wavy lines. I’ll have to watch how it develops in the last week of October.

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