By Maggie Colpus,

Applique and Free Motion Quilting (Highland Cow) – 28-29 October 2023 – Anita Birtles – The Hog’s Back Hotel & Spa

So, what makes a group of ladies, some travelling great distances from as far afield as Yorkshire and Staffordshire to join a weekend of sewing in Farnham, Surrey?   Our Applique and Free Motion (Highland Cow) weekend that’s what.

Of course, our long-distance travellers joined a few others and stayed Friday night, at their own expense, to join us for a relaxed evening chatting in the bar, having dinner together and renewing old friendships and making some new ones.  They even had the opportunity to unload their cars and set up their workstations late Friday afternoon.


Everyone else started to arrive from about 8.45 a.m on Saturday so they could settle in, set out their workstations and enjoy the coffee and Danish pastries before the class started.

Val Nesbitt introduced our tutor, Anita Birtles, and the class began.

Anita talked the group through the various choices for the Highland Cow be it a cushion, table runner or quilt, and each student was given the Delphine Brooks instruction book.

There had been no pre-weekend preparation, so everyone had bundles of scraps, fat quarters, charm packs etc to work on their cow design.  Two ladies even arrived with a Fortnum & Mason picnic basket full of their fabrics, but everyone thought they had brought the class treats!!!!

With everyone back at their workstations it was heads down choosing the relevant fabrics for their design and cutting out templates for the various sections.  The four ironing boards suddenly became quite busy as everyone was using Heat-n-Bond, or similar, to affix to the various fabrics.

By early Saturday afternoon most were in a position to start affixing their various sections to the backing fabric.  Anita showed the group the various stitches and stich length for the actual applique.

Throughout the weekend Anita, with the help of Val, stopped at each workstation offering advice and assistance, and Anita also called the group together for informal discussions and demonstrations at key stages.

Walking through the group was a joy. Some were referring to their cow by name. So many different colour choices from the pastels, batiks to black/grey and all seemed to have a very good eye for colour.  The background fabrics were also interesting to see, going from cream/white, pastels and one lady using part of her heavily embellished ivory silk wedding train as her background fabric – wow.

Beverages were on tap all weekend which allowed everyone to take a break when they wanted in the Park Foyer enjoying morning biscuits and afternoon sweet treats.  All our meals were taken in either the Restaurant or the Garden Room (changing for dinner is not compulsory!)  Our students love being in this relaxed and informal environment, sewing at their own pace.

Teaching officially finishes at 4 p.m. Just prior finishing Saturday, Anita checked if anyone needed further assistance or advice.  As usual most of our ladies stayed to sew right through to a drink in the bar prior to dinner.  And many went back to the sewing room for a few more hours sewing after dinner. The excuse was, “we have an extra hour to sew as the clocks are going back!”


After a leisurely Sunday morning breakfast, and for some an early swim, it was back to the sewing room. Although some had been sewing before having breakfast.

Sunday was free motion day, and the group gathered round Anita’s workstation listening very closely to her words of wisdom on free motion quilting as well as watching very closely as she demonstrated on her sewing machine.  There were a lot of questions as some had never attempted to free motion quilt before.

Anita also demonstrated the easy way to insert a zip for those making the pillow.  Another invaluable Anita tip!

Shortly after the demonstrations you could hear, “oh I can free motion quilt!!  I’ve inserted by first zipper in a cushion cover” coming from around the room!

Then, it was time for show and tell.  So many different variations on show. It was amazing. Most had actually got their cushions stuffed, complete with zip, blocks made ready to add stashing etc. Anita advised on how to finish at home, at their local groups, or even on one of our Sewing Me Time weekends.

Before you knew it, it was the end of a lovely weekend — with everyone making new friends, reconnecting with old friends, plenty of laughter, sharing of ideas, and thinking of future weekends.

Helping the students load the car, I found Anita sitting quietly on the settee enjoying a relaxing and well earned cup of tea after what was an amazing weekend of teaching and sewing.

Check out the pictures from the weekend.

Here’s what the students had to say about the Applique and Free Motion Quilting Retreat:

“Our first one, had a fabulous time, lovely group of ladies.  We have learnt so many new skills and had the opportunity to develop these, thank you.”

“Super weekend.”

“Anita is a ruddy marvel, thank you so much – I learnt so many tips from her and her teaching is excellent.”

“Thank you all for another brilliant weekend. I absolutely loved making Henry my Highland Cow and learning how to do free motion quilting – thank you to Anita for her patience (and sense of humour).”

“A great weekend and I learned a lot. Thank you.”

“Thoroughly enjoyed the weekend doing this.”

How to book a place at a retreat

Join us and escape for the weekend at one of our upcoming retreats – you’ll find full details here.  For any questions, just click on the Contact Us button.

You can also pre-register your interest for any of our retreats. Just email

Here’s what coming up:

Sewing Me Time Weekend: finish your Christmas projects or your UFOs, it’s your time, 18-19 Nov 2023 at New Place Hotel, Shirrell Heath, Hampshire

Quilting Weekend: Crazy Patchwork with Valerie Nesbitt, 24-25 February 2024 at The Hog’s Back Hotel & Spa, Farnham, Surrey

Quilting Weekend: Machine Stitching with Sarah Soward and Terry Summerfield, 6-7 April 2024 at New Place Hotel, Shirrell Heath, Hampshire

Machine Embroidery Weekend with Dionne Swift, 27-28 April 2024 at The Hog’s Back Hotel & Spa, Farnham, Surrey

Goldwork Weekend with Wendy Mansfield, 11-12 May 2024 at New Place Hotel, Shirrell Heath, Hampshire

Free Motion Quilting and Finishing Weekend with Anita Birtles, 14-15 September 2024 at New Place Hotel, Shirrell Heath, Hampshire