A little goes a long way

Making it: creating a patchwork quilt can be as intricate and complicated as you choose, but one thing's for certain: it will broaden your horizons.

When Anne Waring signed up for a course in patchwork, quilting and applique, she thought the lessons would be built round sewing bits of fabric together and learning some embroidery techniques. What she did not bargain for was being invited to create her own designs.

"At school, I thought I was bad at art. I spent an entire term painting rosehips, and eventually I was allowed to give it up. When I came here I thought I would never be able to design anything, but I've discovered I can, and it's a great confidence-booster."

Gillian O'Bryen, tutor of the course, which leads to a City and Guilds Certificate, always enjoys showing students that they are not nearly as inept as they think. Design is an integral part of the course, whether in quilting techniques or in applique.

"One of the exercises in applique and embroidery begins when I bring in a vase of flowers and ask the students first of all to draw what they see," she says. "It is better to use a Biro, because then they produce good lines. If you give them pencils they will fuss, and keep changing what they've drawn.

"The interesting thing is that each person will see those flowers in a different way and produce quite a different picture. It is not a question of getting it right or wrong; it is an exercise in gaining the confidence to express yourself."

From this initial design, the students then cut out pieces of fabric to echo the drawing. They are encouraged to cut freehand rather than trace their drawing on to material. The next stage involves ironing the flower shapes on to Bondaweb, a foundation that stops fabric from fraying and provides a stiff backing. The flowers can then be pinned on to a background material, ready to be sewn on with a variety of embroidery stitches.

Students learn a wide range of stitching, both by hand and on the sewing machines that line one side of the room. An experienced seamstress will pick up plenty of tips from the tutor, but if you are a complete beginner and can barely remember cross stitch from schooldays, it doesn't matter. In minutes you will be initiated into the intricacies of herringbone or buttonhole stitch.

Students work at their own speed - unsurprisingly, the class of 15 or so are all women - and can experiment with different stitches when sewing on each flower, leaf and stem. This teaches how to create different effects in applique, when a piece of fabric is embroidered on to a background. It is hard to believe that the immensely varied tableaux around the table were all inspired by the same vase of flowers; each one is completely individual in colour, style, shape and texture.

Gillian explains that the 35-week-long course will allow students to build up a portfolio of work which includes patchwork quilting and embroidery techniques as well as giving them an introduction to design. Each session is three hours.

"We start the course by discussing the use of colour," she says, "building up from primary, then secondary colours; then we mix them to obtain a wide range and apply them to a simple chart. Nothing is taken for granted. Not everyone knows that mixing blue and yellow produces green."

Ann Clark has completed her vaseful of flowers and is now concentrating on Hawaiian patchwork, which involves folding a rectangular square of paper and then cutting shapes from it to form a pattern. Using it as a template, the exercise is repeated in fabric. Once pinned to a background, the patterned cut-outs are hemmed with invisible stitches to give a contrasting effect to that of ordinary applique.

"We have learned so many interesting techniques, and it is great fun to sit and chat with the others," says Ann. "Gillian also encourages us to visit exhibitions and art galleries. There is so much you can learn about colour and perspective in fabric design by looking at paintings."

Ann is planning to start work on a quilt shortly, but is not as ambitious as Kay Roy-Price, who has been steadily working over three terms to make two quilts for her twins, now 20 months old.

"Basically I chose different materials, designed a pattern, cut out the material and pinned it together, and then tacked each square by hand. After that you have to sandwich the wadding between the front piece of material and the backing. I have used a series of little knots throughout the quilt to keep the wadding in position."

It sounds simple, but these quilts, designed in bright pink, yellow and blue checks, have been a real labour of love. Kay works on them only in class, where she finds the space and concentration that are in short supply at home.

Simple quilting techniques on squares are also taught on the course, and have inspired Yvette Taylor to make one for her baby.

"I'd never used a sewing machine before, and I certainly don't have one at home, but I've learned a tremendous amount from this course. It's a mixed group of people, and offers a peaceful way of learning something useful and having a good chat."

Gillian O'Bryen's course on patchwork, quilting, embroidery and applique at the Kensington and Chelsea College lasts 35 weeks, and costs pounds 144 (0171- 573-3600). Weekend courses in the subject are offered through 'The World of Embroidery' magazine, and more information can be obtained from the Embroiderers' Guild, Apartment 41, Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey (0181-943-1229).

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