Scotland’s Unicorn

Did you know that the unicorn is Scotland’s national animal? It was adopted as our national animal by King Robert in in the late 13000’s.  It’s no surprise really when you think how steeped in myth and legend the country is. And, though it is a creature straight out of fable, it does represent ideals synonymous with those of Scotland: Pride and a fierce desire to remain unconquered. It also stands for wildness, masculinity, nobility, chivalry and dominance, qualities important to Scottish kings, centuries ago. 

And did you know that there were once TWO unicorns on the Scottish Royal coat of arms? The Unicorn first appeared in the 12th century under William 1 and when James III came to power in the 15th century, gold coins were added below the Unicorn. Much later, when Scotland and England unified under the reign of James VI of Scotland in 1603, the Scottish Royal Arms sported two unicorns, holding a shield.  However, when James VI of Scotland became James I of England and Ireland, he replaced the unicorn on the left with a lion (the national animal of England) to demonstrate unity between the countries.(I have always thought it ironic that the lion and the unicorn have been age old enemies in folklore, since Babylonian times).

If you look at the first picture, above, the Unicorn in the Scottish coat of arms is always shown bound by a gold chain that snakes around its body. Given that the unicorn was reputed to be the strongest of all animals, this seems to suggest that Scotland has the power and strength to ensnare a unicorn.

You may wonder at the meaning of  “Nemo me impune lacessit”, the motto of the kingdom of Scotland, which is written below the two animals. It translates as “No-one provokes me with impunity “. Translated into Scottish Gaelic, it is closer to “No one who harms me goes unpunished.”

So being a Scot, I thought that it was fitting that I should create a couple of unicorns of my own, though these are unchained, gentle animals romping through fields or at rest among flowers, as unicorns should be. This is certainly more in keeping with how unicorns are portrayed today; more benevolent creatures. I read somewhere that a medieval cookbook had been discovered containing instructions on how best to cook a unicorn. That’s if you could catch one!

The first of my unicorns is a 8 inch square mini quilt with a simple pattern. I wanted a use for some lovely floral fabric scraps I found online, and the soft pink stars and  gold fabric that I couldn’t seem find a place for. They seemed to fit together here. The unicorn is embroidered entirely with stem stitch and the pink plants in the centre square are embroidered with chain stitch. I realise I have given him a white eye and so you can’t really see it. Somehow introducing such a hard colour as black didn’t feel right.

The second mini (below) is also 8 inches square but a bolder design in bolder colours. I tried a polyester wadding in this one, to see how puffy the result would be and whether I would like it. Hmm, I’m not sure, I think I prefer the flatter  one above. The gingham and check binding were a nightmare. I tried to keep the number of squares even all the way around but it was so difficult. At some points keeping the pattern the same would have meant a change in the width of the binding, which was not acceptable. Perhaps in a frame, with only a fraction of the binding showing, they would look ok but although bindings like these can look striking, I will certainly be avoiding them in future.

I have  embroidered the body, mane and tail of this unicorn in stem stitch again, but this time I have used a variegated thread to introduce some of the colours that are in the background fabric. The hoofs are satin stitched.

Amazingly, the unicorn was believed to be real, all across the world, for thousands of years, until in 1825 scientist Baron George Covier suggested it was hardly feasible for an animal with a split hoof to have a single horn emerging from its head. By 1900 it was thoroughly disproved by Dr Dove’s experiments with a male calf.

You wonder how something that didn’t exist could hold so much fascination and power for so long. Merchants used to sell ‘unicorn horns’ for huge sums of money, or they were given as gifts to kings because were said to have the power to purify; to provide an antidote to poisons.

We would still like to believe in them a little I think, especially as in our culture they have long been depicted as beautiful, noble, creatures. This was not the case everywhere. The Greeks and Romans thought they were more like antelopes and in some other countries they were perceived to be smaller, goat like animals.

They are very popular among children these days. I know a little girl or two who dreams of unicorns and loves to see them galloping across her duvet or keeping watch over her from the wall.

I wonder how long the Unicorn will stay with us in this new, kindly, form.

Till next time….

Update – Work in Progress

Hi Everybody,

This is just a short post to show where I have got to with my Scottish themed quilts in progress. I’ve added little bits to three of them and they are now ready to square up, surface quilt and embroider and then bind. Seems like a long way to go still but they are looking a little more promising than when I last posted. These will be the first to be finished and then there will be another two to follow.

First up is my black and white ‘Wind in the West’ mini quilted picture:

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All I have done to this is to add a window and door to the cottage, appliqué  a strip of fencing around the edge of it and pop in a running rabbit (bottom right). I think its’s about ready to quilt now. I’m not sure whether to add a touch of colour or keep it all black and white, or grey . What do you think?

The second one has had a lot more detail added now:

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The cottage has chimneys as well as a door and window and a series of conifers have sprung up around it which I hope gives the scene more depth. I haven’t  decided whether to outline some of the ‘hills’, and continue the quilting lines from one hilly square to another, or to quilt tree shapes here and there. That might mean the quilt ends up being called ‘Into the Woods’ instead of ‘The Glen’

Then there is my mystery quilt. Are you any the wiser? The clue is probably in the crown:

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I shall probably outline-quilt the surrounding squares and rectangles and add some surface embroidery, especially across the seam in the heart and around the edges of the crown. I have stuffed the heart, so that it sits proud of the rest of the quilt because, for me a meaningful heart has to be one that is full.

Ok, time for the big reveal. Ta-da! This mini quilt is a representation of a Luckenbooth, that very old, traditional form of jewellery, usually a brooch and usually wrought in silver, that originated in Edinburgh in the early 1500’s. The design is a heart, or a couple of entwined hearts, sometimes with added gems and almost always topped by a crown. The brooches got their name from the stalls that popped up along  The Royal Mile (Edinburgh’s High Street), a patch of which become known as the “luckenbuiths” or locking booths out of which merchants traded. Although the  Luckenbooth was originally a brooch, as time went on the same motif has been used in various traditional and stylised ways, to fashion rings, pendants, charms, earrings and bracelets.

Here is a simple, inexpensive one I found on Ebay, sold by the jewellers Alexander Castle in Glasgow:

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As you might expect, the Luckenbooth was a love token, given as an engagement ring might be today but also presented to new-born babies to bestow love and protection. They were also handed down through families from mother to daughter. I found one among my mother’s belongings after she died, a gift from my father almost half a century before.

I wanted to celebrate this lovely Scottish emblem and the sentiment it has carried with it for so long. Maybe my little quilt can be yet another means of sending love down through a family.

Till next time……

 

 

 

 

Tartan or Plaid? What’s the Difference?

Hello Everybody,

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I’m back on familiar ground now after a run of difficulties with recent experiments. I’m back to using English Paper Piecing, this time for a series of small quilts with a Scottish theme.

I only work with 100% cotton and finding cotton tartan is becoming increasingly difficult. The few online shops I have come across prefer to sell in metre lengths which  is crazy when I use less than a quarter of a metre of each fabric and need to buy a range of fabrics for each quilt. Moreover, cotton tartans are limited to about half a dozen different patterns for some reason, which is so disappointing. How many Dress Stuart or Blackwatch tartan quilts would you want to make?

What about plaids or faux tartans? What’s the difference between them? All tartans are in fact plaid, though not all plaids are tartan. Both are a mix of stripes woven in a criss crossing and overlapping pattern of stripes, meeting at 90 degree angles. However, tartans have an identical pattern of stripes running vertically and horizontally, resulting in overlapping square grids, while the stripes in plaids may vary in direction colour, size, and pattern.In Scotland, the word “plaid” comes from the Gaelic word for blanket, which refers to the long piece of fabric worn over the shoulder as part of the Highland costume, rather than to any pattern in the fabric.

So, using checkered plaid, or faux tartan fabric, isn’t authentic and therefore not quite right for Scotland but what if you don’t like tartan much? Not everyone does. The patterns are often obtrusive and rarely work well with each other. I wondered if using plaids with a Scottish theme could create a more modern look and appeal to people who feel traditional tartans have a limited use or are not for them.

So, as an experiment, I  have made a start on a series of mini quilts, one with a touch of tartan, two with faux tartan, two with plaid, two using true tartans and one that simply reflects the kind of landscape that surrounds me, using no tartan at all.  None of them are finished. They are all pinned, tacked and works in progress for now.

In addition to using plaids, I had the idea that it might also be fun to adapt a traditional American quilting block for my Scottish theme. To begin with I took the old quilting block ‘West Wind’ (shown on the right, here)

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Borrowed from Pinterest

and removed three of the triangles to make a quilted picture that I have called ‘The Wind in the West’.

In my new version, the three black/purple triangles represent the fierce winds, that we experience from time to time here in the west of Scotland, buffeting a small cottage on farmland. I have used black, white and grey patterned fabrics with Celtic crosses, raindrops and windblown plants.

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The Wind in the West

 

It is still to be quilted and I may add some surface embroidery and appliqué. It measures about 8 inches square.

The second block I have begun is a traditional ‘Sawtooth Star’ block but I have used it to represent the twilight time in Scotland that we call ‘The Gloaming.’ The quilt uses faux tartan and two different patterns featuring Celtic crosses, all in shades of blue, to suggest that bluish/mauve light that softens the landscape as the sun sinks in the west.  I remember my father singing,  “Roaming in the Gloaming, wi a lassie by my side”,  when we lived far away on the other side of the globe.

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‘In the Gloaming’

My third experiment has no tartan. It uses an adaptation of a traditional pinwheel block to suggest a remote glen (narrow valley) in Scotland. A cottage sits among the hills and windblown leaves, while hares run around untroubled by traffic.

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‘Down in the Glen’

 

I may add some appliquéd trees or quilt it with tree shapes. I’m still thinking about what might would be best.

What my fourth project represents, I am going to keep a secret for now, though if you know anything about old Scottish traditions, you may be able to guess. As I add to it, it will become clearer.

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Mystery Quilt – title to be revealed in due course!

In a future post I will describe the remaining projects in this series, two of which will use true tartans and the last a mix of plaid and embroidery. We’ll see how they go.

What do you think about using plaids and faux tartans? Does it feel completely wrong for a Scottish theme?

Until next time……

 

A Tartan Twosome

Hello again,

img_0932We have glorious colour in our garden at the moment and here are two mini quilts to match. These are the two tartan inspired mini quilts I promised to show you in my last post. I have been a while finishing them because I have about twenty different projects on the go at one time. I tend to do bits on one and bits on another, partly so I don’t tire of any one design and partly to give my fingers a rest from quilting too many at a time.  I have a local craft fair coming up in the third week in November so I have been working hard at building up stock. I am pleased to say I have a whole stack of accordion houses, tall wall houses, house  brooches,  house quilts, ( mini, small and medium sized) and a couple of crib sized ones all ready for a new home.

The two quilts featured here are my first attempts at using cotton tartan and ric-ric trim (spelt rick-rack in the States, I believe).

img_8658The first mini quilt I have called ‘Dog Star’. The tartan is a warm brown, yellow, soft red and olive and I have given it a burgundy trim. There is a black star, in a star print, in the top right hand corner among a series of small quilted stars and a dog at the bottom left hand corner, basking in the glow from the stars. If the dog looks familiar, it’s because he appeared in one of my earlier posts (‘The Humble Square’)  on using basic shapes to create people and animals. He wasn’t very happy languishing in a plastic box so thought I might as well make good use of him so I put him on this quilt where I hope he might get some love.Here’s a close up:img_8478

The above photo and the one  below show my basting stitches before I start quilting. The one below shows how I put the three layers together (the back the front and the batting in the middle) and then baste from the centre outwards. I make a cross from top to bottom and side to side and then go out to each corner. This keeps the quilt top really secure while I quilt. I don’t want to worry about it moving and ending up with uneven borders. After quilting, I trim the batting to the quilt edge and turn backing fabric ( 1 inch) , folding it once  (to a 1/2 inch) and then again to meet the edge, hiding the top of the ric-rac between and stitching it all down together.. img_8477

‘Dog Star’ is quite a small quilt, only 23 x 25 centimetres or 9 x 9 1/2 inches.  I have used quilting thread here for the first time but I don’t think it is as successful as using embroidery thread for big stitch quilting. I feel my stitches here are not big enough to be called big stitch quilting and not small enough for the understated look that traditional hand quilters manage so well. Still, it’s early days and I’ll be getting plenty more practice. 

img_8662The second mini quilt is even smaller at 20 centimetres or 8 inches square.  (I have called this one ‘The Bothy’. Here in Scotland, a bothy is a small cottage style house, originally intended for farm labourers, now just a basic shelter left unlocked or abandoned in fields or on mountainsides, and available for any passer by to use. This mini quilt uses only a little tartan, the same tartan that I used in Dog Star, as a part frame at the edges.  The centre, background fabric has  a red spot on tan that echoes the colours in the tartan and the this time the ric-rac trim is black. I wanted the quilt to suggest a partly enclosed field with a small house in the corner. I quilted straight across in the manner of a ploughed field but added small fly stitches at the edges to suggest some greenery beyond the field.

 In the first quilt I put the trim on the outside, so for this one I thought I would try putting it on the inside. It was very tricky getting it to go around corners. I looked for videos on Pinterest and was struck by how many showed you how to add trim, but not around corners, or posted that it was easy to bend around corners but the photos sliced off the corners, as if they didn’t want to show the not-so-good? result.  One person said you should turn the ric-rac over at the corner and proceed with it  until you reached the next corner and turn it again. I tried that but found that this method created a lump at each corner. The best way seems to be to coax it around the corner, letting it form a small raised ‘loop’ in the corner and then wriggle the loop into place and sew it down. It was a much easier process going around the outside of the quilt. I don’t think I will be using it on an inside border again in a hurry.

Here is the back of The Bothy. img_8680I let the quilting show through but kept the embroidery stitches to the front surface. I felt they might wear more easily at the back and make it look more cluttered. I wanted a simple, clean look. It could be more even but some irregularity is to be expected when you are not using a machine.

The back of ‘Dog Star’ shows just the basic outline of the stars and the dog. Surface additions such as the dog’s back leg and ears don’t show up.img_8657

I have two more Scottish themed quilts to show you in my next post and, as these are now completed, I can add them to a new post as soon as I get a moment to photograph them.

 In the meantime, here is another photo from my much loved garden. See, the sun does shine in Scotland even in November.  Till next time…..

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