Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Fabric by the kilo and other travel tales

Fabric from a market in Florence

Writing in my previous post about memorable fabric-buying experiences led me to analyse what makes them so special. I have to conclude that it is not just the felicity of unexpectedly finding a material that seems so absolutely right - I would be hard pushed to say where or when I acquired some of my very favourite fabrics  - but also the context. So apologies if this blog suddenly degenerates into "what I did on my holidays" self-indulgence. Some of these fabrics have made it in to quilts or other projects, some of them never will, but they are equally precious.
Not all involve faraway places. Back in the Eighties, when I first began quilting, the hunt for fabrics needed dogged determination and not a little ingenuity. There were very few specialist craft shops and, of course, no online stores. So if one wanted, say, fabrics with blue roses on them, it was not just a case of googling "craft fabric blue roses". No, in those days the thrill of the chase was keener and the joy in bringing down prey far more satisfying. 

"Racing Colours" using boxer shorts

Thus one of my first buying coups was discovering on a market stall a stack of men's boxer shorts in brightly coloured spots and stars when I was making a quilt on the theme of Racing Colours. (Now if I want "red polka dots"  I can search these key words on my favourite US store, eQuilter, and on this site alone I have a choice of 109, of which 16 are immediately relevant.)

More boxer shorts - these from Australia
Boxer shorts also featured on a trip to Australia some 20 years ago, where I was disappointed to find that most of the fabrics available in quilting shops were American. Instead I bought underpants featuring koalas and kangaroos, and a cheap black and white duvet cover that to me conveyed the graphic starkness of Aboriginal design without being a pastiche. A table napkin by Ken Done - a designer not well enough known outside Australia but much copied - was also eagerly swooped upon and added to my suitcase.

"Sunshine Coast Australia". The fabric from a duvet cover bought in Adelaide runs along the bottom

A selection of remnants from another market stall, this time in Florence, contained a vivid design in yellow, acid green, shocking pink and black - see main picture above - that remains my all-time favourite, no matter that it is too bright to be used in anything but small areas, with the added novelty of being sold by the kilo. I can still feel the Italian sun on my back as I watched the crumpled heap shoot out of the silver bowl of the scales into a flimsy plastic bag.

Cheap and very cheerful  from Mexico, plus a sample using a synthetic stripe

Then there was Mexico, where in a hot, dusty little shop off the main square of Oaxaca, I finally tracked down fabric by the metre. It was cheap, nasty and synthetic. And gorgeous. I loved the bright colours and the nylon kitsch so much that I bought several woven synthetic stripes, plus one particular design of garish polyester roses in all six colourways. I later found out this was made in China. I still love it. In India, I bought authentically hand-woven and dyed cotton fabrics from the workshop where I watched it being blocked printed by hand, and it does not give me a bigger thrill than those roses.

Pile of oilcloth in a shop in Oaxaca

Of course an experience can be memorable for the wrong reasons, and one that left me disappointed and dispirited was an expedition to an Amish village at Holmes County, Ohio. The modern quilts on sale were, horrifyingly, made of cotton polyester and patterned fabrics, a world away from the glorious quilts for which the Amish are renowned. The fabrics in the shops that lined the main street were indistinguishable from those that can be bought elsewhere in America and Britain but with the emphasis on the twee and folksy. I bought some because I felt I had to, but I've never used them.

Fabrics are like photographs - they can jog the memory, and for an instant the best of them transport you back to a sunshiny past. Unlike photos, you can cut them up, make something new and even snuggle up under them too.

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