Apart from a recent jaunt down to the London Embroidery School for the rest of their Lace Series course, the number of in-person craft courses going on has been rather lamentable so I was very pleased to see that the weekend Lampshade Making course at Minerva Studios was still going ahead, albeit with some health and safety upgrades.
This was a two day class on a traditional method for making gathered lampshades with Moji of Moji’s Designs, textile designer, interior designer and generally creative person extraordinaire. I still have a grand total of zero lampshades in my place so, after the original pasementarie course I wanted to do was postponed, postponed then cancelled, the chance to be moved to this course seemed like a good one.
While it might be harder to find the time to get to them, I do much prefer full day classes over evenings. The promise for this one as well was that, after two days of what would turn out to be rather intensive labour, we would be leaving with our first handmade lampshade. (Well… almost).
I had never really thought much about how lampshades were constructed but like nearly everything handmade it turns out to be quite an intensive and involved process. We were working on empire shades with straight sides and supposed to be doing a gathered shade in soft cotton, though it turned out very few of us had managed to bring cottons soft and thin enough to be suitable for lampshade use!
First order of the day was to bind the lamp in cotton tape and secure it by sewing the ends in in place to give a surface to secure the lining and top layers of fabric into. The key here was keeping a tight tension so nothing slipped later in the process. An interesting part of this was learning all the vocabulary for the different part did the lamp, from struts to T junctions to the wonderfully named gimble, where the fitting for the bulb ends up sitting.
Binding is hard on the hands keeping a constant pull on the tape to keep it taught. Some of the binding is also only temporary (on the struts at the side so the lining can be fitted) which feels very indulgent given that it isn’t that fast a process.
I have a feeling a large part of the skill in creating lampshades is not just having hands of steel but comes in being able to elegantly fit different fabrics with all their little nuances. We were using lycra for the linings which was nice as, due to its natural stretch, you don’t need to work on the bias and, despite being a very underwhelming fabric in itself, transforms itself to something elegant and tasteful when it is in place. I think working on slate frames and worrying about achieving that mythical drum tension with no fabric distortion had prepared me well for this stage of the process.
With seams added to the lining, it was time to make a start on the bit involving the colourful top fabrics. I had brought along some quilting cottons, two batiks and a Japanese print with lovely gold. I had been concerned the latter of the three would be too thick and even too stiff to gather well but it turned out even the batik I ended up going with (this vomit-inducing combination of orange, green and yellow) was probably a bit much for gathering with three times the panel size. It makes for a very voluminous dense lamp and a good amount of sewing!
One thing that is interesting about lampshade making is the idea of leaving not just seam allowance but ‘handling excess’ so you have some fabric to tug on to get the tension around the main body of the shade correct. We were leaving around 5 cm, which meant plenty of room for error but it was easy to get a good handful as you really need to tug with some force when adjusting and pinning.
By the end of the first day, I’d managed to cut up all the panels and then had to do the gathering at home, which didn’t take long. When cutting panels you can cut them for one or two sections or even up to four. I didn’t find the larger panels any more difficult to do the gathering on or more complex for the pinning and it saves wasting excess fabric for the edges as well.
For day two, I tried to get a bit of an early start as I was having some problems at the end of the first day with getting the small pins into the frame. It turns out that pinning is just awful, painful and relatively unrewarding and I am not sure I have any great aesthetic eye for lampshades in terms of distributing gathers. As well as being hard on the hands, it felt like it took forever to get all the panels in place, loosely pinned, tensioned, pinned, adjusted, pinned, and then re-pinned when the pins decided to pop out as they hadn’t bitten into the binding layers enough!
After getting everything pinned in place, the sewing felt very easy. There’s something called lampshade stitch for getting each of the gathers secured in place, but I did feel it was a bit ambiguous quite what size and how much stitching needed to be done. It was also a lot of stitching to make it all around the bottom and top rims of the lamp…
Of course the fun couldn’t be over yet, as with the outside done, it was time to get the lining in, which meant more rejigging, fitting and sewing. Looking back on a lot of the process, I wouldn’t say any of the individual steps were technically complex, but I cannot understand quite why everything seemed to take as long as it did…
I have to admit, at this stage, with the end of the second day looming, energy levels were starting to flag and I ended up having to leave part way through doing the binding. I don’t know how our pacing was as a group but even with Moji very generously giving extra time on both days, I still wasn’t able to finish. These were two very intense days as well with nearly no breaks and a relatively compressed lunch, some homework on the Saturday and early and late starts!
I can definitely see lampshade making being something I’d enjoy. There aren’t too many ‘fiddly’ steps but there is just a lot of adjusting and repetitive work that just takes time, but could be relatively mindless when you had a bit of confidence. Even my half-finished result in a revoltingly fantastic fabric I quite like, although I think I should have been even more brutal on the tensioning as it looks a little saggy which is exacerbated by the sheer volume of fabric in the gathers.
One thing I really like about the Royal School of Needlework weekend courses is how the projects are deliberately designed to let you sample all the skills on different areas so you learn everything you need and then you can take it home to practice. Finishing would be a near-impossibility even for a quick stitcher but it’s really nice as you learn a lot and can go home and reinforce that with the help of the kit guide later.
Overall I enjoyed the class and Minerva Workshops is a beautiful, airy location to work in. I would definitely like to try one of the traditional, smooth-finished lampshades in the future or even one of the advanced courses that may be on offer next year. The one downside for me was the pacing. The class was very, very intense and unfortunately, I think a little too much so having had a very challenging week (well, more like several…) beforehand. I did start both days of the course exhausted which was never going to be great as I find the 10-4 schedule of the RSN Day Classes tiring enough so the even-longer days erred a little too close to endurance test territory.
I will get around to binding this at some point (and inflicting it on someone – any volunteers?) and I think this is a skill that won’t go unwasted, just maybe with a more tasteful choice of fabric next time. I definitely learnt a huge amount too and really enjoyed Moji’s expert insights and hints and tips to help us all along. For now though, I think I need to chase some sleep…