Embroidery of Chinese butterflies on a pink T shirt contrasts with back to school plain sewing

 

Pink t shirt with Chinese butterflies (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Last week, the kitchen table in London was awash with items of school uniform as preparations for the new school year were underway. Clothes needed to be named, some of those already named for someone else need to be re-named and those marked with now-faded permanent marker needed to be made visible once more. Last minute iron-on labels – failing to do what it said on the packet – rather irritatingly also called for stitches. Donated school tunics (made of polyester and viscose and hence almost indestructible) revealed veritably archaeological layers of name tapes as unpicking the top one made visible pinpricks of stitching from yet further tapes beneath – goodness knows how many children had owned them before.  Crisp of pleat and bright of colour, I suppose you could say the tunics had worn well but I couldn’t help thinking how uncomfortable these immortal garments would be to wear.

Chinese butterfly (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

The small person goes from Pre-Prep to Prep School and his uniform changes from Aertex shirt to a more formal style shirt, which would be great except he’s now required to complete the outfit with that most controversial item of male attire  – the dreaded tie. As I write this in Cheltenham I imagine tie tying lessons in London left to the last minute out of shortage of time and/or general anticipation of failure. (Surprisingly, we must have managed to teach my own son how to do his, though he didn’t need to wear a tie until he was 11. He does, however, regularly remind me that I failed to teach him to tie his shoelaces, and how to tell the time, both of which he had to learn from a school friend when he went to primary school. Isn’t learning from peers the Montessori Method anyway?)  Some people never get tie tying and as I look at our small person I have the feeling he will look more ‘ Just William’ than school prospectus. The same goes for his trousers which we could never pass on to anyone else. Even when I’ve slip stitched the hems, and given them the once over the not very old trousers look a bit tatty and very much the worse for wear over the knees.  Hey ho!

Chinese butterfly (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

The smallest person is very excited  at the thought of joining her brother at his school and at the moment is still quite amorous of the idea of school uniform – although that may change when she realises you have to wear it day after day for five days running with no alternative choice. (This is very like of one of my own daughters at a similar age, whose desire for personal control was strong. It was always easier to get her dressed if there was an element of choice – picking one out of just two dresses was sufficient.) Our littlest one has watched her brother leave the house for school for 3 whole years. She keenly felt the front door close on her so, like most younger children she is hyper keen to make the rite of passage and step out there along with her sibling. All adults are very excited too, especially after the periods of family isolation and intermittent home schooling  of the last eighteen months. If both parents weren’t actually taking them to school, I dare say thoughts might have gone towards a champagne celebration.

Chinese butterfly (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

Daughter No 1 is still in her roboboot but it is now flat and walking is easier. Three weeks ago, simple exercises (performed out of the boot) like raising her toes or moving the foot from side to side, would make her cry with pain and frustration. Now, she does these regularly and feels improvement is tangible. All that is good but the boot is still with us for some time yet and as we change seasons, we’re aware of ‘boot’ being an inadequate description for a piece of footwear where the toes are free to the air. We’re just hoping for a dry Autumn, so no wet toes and no damp clammy boot liner to be irritated by throughout the working day.

Chinese butterfly (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

The Chinese butterflies are proving to be a popular T shirt decoration. The smallest person, who had them on a sleeveless T shirt would now like them on something with long sleeves and I have earmarked the decoration for at least another 2 girls – one of which you see here.

Pink t shirt with Chinese butterflies (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

On, I think, Friday, Nature Notes in The Times said robins were beginning to sing again after their silence in summer. This morning I stepped into the garden to hang out the washing and was delighted to hear a robin’s chatty song of extended tics which even seemed to have something of the blackbird about it, so jolly and fluid did it sound. I do love it when something you’ve just read ties in with something that happens to you.

 

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Insect T shirt for a 2 year old

 

Embroidered longhorn beetle T shirt (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

And so begins my series of children’s T shirts destined to be presents over the next few months. After the feed back from the insect T shirts I made earlier this year, I know that insects go down well with older children but I’m no so sure whether toddlers will find them fun. If in doubt about form, go overboard on colour, I  thought, and slapped a scarlet long horn beetle (of the family Cerambycidae) bang in the middle of a navy blue top.

Embroidery of long horn beetle (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

‘Long horn’ looks like a bit of a misnaming as the long filaments which together almost circle the entire body are not horns but  antennae . Often when names are confusing and downright misleading, it helps to dredge the depths of classical mythology for an answer. And there you find the story of the Greek shepherd, Cerambus who tended his sheep on the slopes of Mount Orthrys.  No ordinary herder of sheep, Cerambus was known for his glorious voice and lyre playing of such loveliness that it lured the usually unseen naiad nymphs of the mountain’s springs to reveal themselves to him as they listened.  Vanity and arrogance took hold of Cerambus and soon he was gossiping carelessly about the nymphs, casting doubt on their origins and repeating a story they found most shaming concerning the time they were temporarily turned into poplar trees while Poseidon ravished of one of their sisters. Distressed, the nymphs in turn transformed Cerambus into a wood-gnawing beetle with long antennae which it suited the story tellers to describe as horns. And, even after centuries of entomological research, the horn description has stuck.

Sketches for longhorn beetle embroidery

I’m midway through The Fabric of Civilization by Virginia Postrel (pub. Basic Books, 2020). I’d asked for the book for Christmas last year but we’d been unsuccessful in our attempt to buy it via Selvedge Magazine. Then last week I saw it in Tetbury’s excellent bookshop, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, and swooped upon it doubly happy with both present and forgotten delight. The book is dense but incredibly readable and I think for the first time in my life the writer has helped me to envision in 2D how Damask weaving in 3D is achieved. (That is I get little glimpses of understanding through the text rather as light flashes in and out as the movement of slats on a Venetian blind .)

Embroidered longhorn beetle T shirt (hand embroidered by Mary Addison)

On weaving in general Postrel is mesmerically enlightening. Contemporary handweavers use graph paper and even computer programs to record weaving patterns but as she points out affordable paper is a relatively recent resource and complex woven patterns go back milliennia. In the Odyssey, Circe and Calypso sing as they weave and we’ve probably all assumed they were singing the folk songs of their day just to amuse themselves but Postrel says their singing and chants were more likely encoding thread counts and colour changes. A C19th European traveller in Central Asia noted that rug weavers chanted “in a weird sing-song the number of stitches and the colour in which (new patterns) are to be filled”. This notion excited me for I find I do it too when working on Fair Isle bands – rhythm and a rhyme makes it easier to remember stitches and colour changes and even whether and when you should catch in the looping thread draping across the back of the design when one colour plays no part in the pattern for more than 3 stitches. Singing a row is always quicker and easier than referring back to a chart (though of course, it’s vital the chart is there in the first place – both to get you going and to refer to when someone asks you if you want a cup of tea!) Fascinating. This is a book to be read, then re-read and then, when there is time, to be read again with notes. I do like a good bed time thriller on the go, whether grabbing the odd half hour in the day or before going to sleep at night but this book is every bit as thrilling and just as difficult to put down – I only wish I could remember more of what I’ve just read!

Virginia Postrel: The Fabric of Civilization. How Textiles Made the World (pub Basic Books, 2020)

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