In the deep deep distant past of the 1980s, I used to have a subscription to a magazine called Pins and Needles. Oh how I loved it! I was a young parent with small children, a marriage on the rocks and a very isolated rural existence in a small Devon cottage. The monthly arrival of Pins and Needles was in many ways my salvation. It had so many exciting projects and articles in it! Of course, I couldn’t afford to make most of the items featured in it – nor would the cool 80s hairstyles and shoulderpads have been very relevant to my rural existence if I had been able to adopt them. But I could dream….. and just occasionally an article would spark me into action.
One such article was an interview in the September 1983 issue with Judi Dench about her embroidery.It’s a lovely article. She was rehearsing at the time with her husband, Michael Williams, for the television comedy series, A Fine Romance. In breaks, her embroidery would come out and she would stitch away.
“I can’t work without doing something,” she told the interviewer. “I’ll tapestry during a play and the nearer we get to opening the quicker I go at it. It may be nerves that are spurring me on, but the wonderful thing is that it looks so calm.”
According to the article, all the designs were her own, and her production rate was so prolific that she would give away her finished designs to other actors, her little Hampstead cottage being far too small to house all her work.
I was very taken with this pattern, and it stayed in mind until many years later (in the 1990s) I was looking for a travelling embroidery project. From the picture below, I was able to work out the basis of the pattern. I’ve no idea what colourway she was working in, but mine was to be orange, yellow, green, red and a little brown – oh, and some fuchsia for “lift”.The embroidery travelled round with me for a while, but then it fell into disuse, and I realised that I preferred to take knitting with me rather than this embroidery work.
It’s rather a sad reason why this had occurred. I’d chosen to do my embroidery in a great range of colours, many of them very close to each other. And I have to admit that now I am in my 60s, I can no longer see the colours so clearly – except in clear daylight. In trains, other people’s darker homes, I just couldn’t make out exactly which shade of red or green I needed. It’s a particular problem for me even at our own home when the days are grey and dark. We have small windows, and when there’s very little sunlight outside – it’s pretty grey inside too!When I was a teenager, my family would work on a large jigsaw puzzle together over the Christmas holidays. And how clearly now I remember my mother lamenting that she could not see well enough to distinguish between subtle colours under electric light. My turn now.
I still love the colours and the pattern of this old embroidery, and this summer, I decided to have a go at finishing it off while the days were long and light.I’d run a bit low with some yarns, but – most conveniently – my mother’s move to a retirement home meant she had passed on to me many of her sewing materials, including this large fabric bag which she had made, tied up tight against moth.Inside were more bags.All is revealed! Inside each old carrier bag were masses and masses of embroidery yarns, all carefully sorted by colour. These yarns go way back – my grandparents on both side of the family did embroidery work, as did my father. Before I chose the yarns I needed, I couldn’t resist laying out all the different yarn labels I could find. Time to get to work and finish it off!When I poured through my old copies of Pins and Needles, searching for the original article so I could write this blogpost, I discovered that Judi Dench actually delights in a particular quirk with her embroidery. “I like the thing the Elizabethans did of hiding initials. They used to put little messages secretly in their work and I think that was a wonderful idea. We’ve got a cushion that I did during Much Ado About Nothing at Stratford that’s all little squares of tapestry in different colours, and in it are hidden our initials, Michael’s and mine. Nobody knows they’re there unless they really look. I like that.”
Oh, that passed me by – I wish I’d remembered that and put some secrets in! Even more intriguingly she admits that “it’s also a wonderful ploy for incorporated rude words into a design.”
I will have to embark on another Judi Dench-inspired embroidery one day, if only to incorporate some interesting words! For now, here is my completed and anodyne cushion.It fits very well in with the other cushions on our sofa.Actually – the sofa usually looks more like this.