A Thousand Squares of Nelson

Nelson - 1,000 squares

Nelson – 1,000 squares

This week, I reached a significant milestone with the Nelson Quilt. The thousandth square (in a shade of reddish-brown) was sewn in.

Pausing to take stock, I realise that sewing together these thousand one inch squares has involved around eighty thousand stitches (all by hand); four snapped needles; two colours found to be wrong, resulting in many squares being unpicked and replaced; various train journeys (to Portsmouth, Rochester, Hassocks, Manchester and Birmingham) all spent sewing feverishly; a stitching session on Ventnor Beach on the Isle of Wight; and approximately one hundred and forty hours’ work.

The Nelson Quilt on Ventnor Beach

The Nelson Quilt on Ventnor Beach

What else have I done during those one hundred and forty hours apart from sew and cut?

I dislike stitching in silence so I get through a lot of audiobooks. I usually have more than one on the go at any one time, and dip in and out according to mood. The listening menu for the first thousand squares of the Nelson Quilt has been:

A biography of Nelson himself by Victoria Carolan, read by Joy Gelardi.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, brilliantly read by Nicholas Boulton.
Anton Lesser, a favourite narrator, reading a number of C J Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries.
Georgette Heyer’s The Unknown Ajax read by Daniel Philpott.
A BBC dramatisation of The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown – a fondly remembered childhood pleasure.
Another BBC dramatisation – P G Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey read by Derek Jacobi.
Two books by Hilary Mantel, her memoir Giving Up the Ghost read by Jane Wymark, and the best reading of all – Simon Slater narrating Wolf Hall.

Nelson on the Wall

Audiobooks are a great hand sewing accompaniment. I’ve got two thousand two hundred squares to go – and a whole set of novels by Charles Dickens to listen to. A perfect activity for the winter evenings!

Nelson from the back - 1,000 squares

Nelson from the back – 1,000 squares

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.