Family treasures

Recently I wrote about my story quilt, and the fabrics I had chosen to include and their family associations.

It got me thinking.  I started looking around at all the textiles lying about the house, and thinking about the people who had sewed or knitted them.  I was amazed to find so many treasures that family members had made.

Let’s start with the needlecase that my step-great-grandmother made.  Great-Gran lived in Miss Havisham-esque magnificence in her bedroom in a huge house in Leicester.  She took to her bed in early old age in the belief that her heart was weak, and she was waited on hand and foot by her family and a saintly elderly retainer, Miss Wood.  All around her bedroom were cupboards and boxes, filled with beads, silks, threads and other treasures.  If I was lucky (and a good girl) she would give me some beads or silks from her treasure trove.

Great-Gran’s workmanship was exquisite.  Here is the needlecase she made me.  I still use it everyday, and look at her skilled stitches and remember her bedroom.  It’s worth enlarging this image to see her detailed work – there’s beading along the edge.Great-Gran's needle caseHer son, my step-grandfather was also extraordinarily skilled at – well, just about everything.  He repaired clocks, made jewelry – and was a successful and busy business man to boot.  He also did tapestries.  This is one of a set of chair covers he embroidered.  A very stylish simple design which regularly gives me great pleasure.  (And – sadly – he predeceased his mother, tucked up in bed with her so-called heart problems). Gampy's embroidered  chair seat His wife, my Australian grandmother Dordy (she didn’t want to be known by any ageing grandmotherly term, so we grandchildren gave a family twist to her first name, Dora), was also a fine sempstress.  She never did any “hobby” sewing that I know of, but she made almost all her own clothes.  Perhaps there’d been greater necessity for practical sewing in the world she’d grown up in – I don’t know.  She loved to wear batik fabrics which suited her colouring very well.  Here she is outside her little London home with it’s beautiful garden wearing one of her handmade batik dresses.Dordy wearing batik dress 1971Many, many of her clothes came to me, and I wore them (usually cut down and altered into shapes I considered more fashionable).  The dress Dordy is wearing above is now in my story quilt (of which I have written more here).  Look below! My story quilt featuring Dordy's batik dressMy father, (Dordy’s son) took to tapestry like his step-father.  The best of his embroidered cushions are masterpieces of design, incorporating words and phrases in many languages. (He had been a linguist, a traveller and a diplomat).  I treasure this cushion particularly.  Apparently the Japanese characters say “Good Health.  No smoking.”  (I can’t verify that!)    A rough translation of the ancient Greek at the centre might be: “For each person chooses best for themself.”  The cushion was a gift from my father to mark the occasion of my giving up smoking.  He’s put his initials round the motif on the left, RHE, and the date on the right, 1982.  An important and precious reminder to me.RHE's embroidered cushionNone of the men on my mother’s side of the family sewed, but her mother did.  Granny was another embroiderer, and her chosen colour was blue.  She worked the cover of this stool, and this little bag for me.  It’s got my initials on it (KE) and the date (1960).Granny's embroidery stool and bagMy Aunty Jilly (her daughter) was a talented weaver.  I treasure  this scarf she wove with it’s red and purple pink tones – and the occasional shot of turquoise to give it lift.  Her use of colour is brilliant – she always gets it just right.Aunty Jilly's woven scarfMy mother is a sempstress par excellence!  She made many of our clothes when we were little.  Here we all are, in a symphony of blue (her favourite colour like her mother), at my youngest sister’s christening in the hot hot 1961 Belgrade sun.  I’m the eldest on the left, and my sister, Marian, is on the right.  My mother has made us the most enchanting hand-smocked blue and white cotton dresses.  Her dress is also blue – a paler colour.  Don’t we look an delightful family, with these beautifully dressed children (I see we’re even wearing gloves!)?  How extraordinarily photos can conceal the truth – my mother’s heart must have been breaking amidst all the happiness because just a year before she’d given birth to a still-born baby.  I don’t remember at 7 being aware of this – just the heat and the cosmos and sunflowers growing exuberantly. Elizabeth's christening 1961 My mother also knits, embroiders and does patchwork.  It’s really hard to chose what to chose to show that captures her skills best but I think I have to include a patchwork quilt.  Here she is, sitting beside the patchwork quilt she made with my mother-in-law, Liza, for my 1979 marriage to Hugh.  My mother designed the quilt, and sewed the patchwork.  Liza was an artist and embroiderer, and added names and dates, and some delightful little embroidery stories.My mother with the wedding quiltAaaggh –  this quilt evokes so much pain and guilt in me!  So much care, so much love, so much skill, and what did Hugh and I do but get acrimoniously divorced!  I know it is ridiculous, but the quilt sums up all my sense of failure at our divorce.

So what do you do when your marriage has fallen apart, and you have this beautiful beautiful quilt, made specially for you, and relevant only to you?  Well, you put it in the attic, which you know to be a nice dry place because you keep lots of other old fabrics and children’s clothes etc up there.  You put it in it’s own suitcase, which you know is clean and safe – and you forget about it.  Your mother never mentions the quilt again.

Then, one day, there’s a patchwork exhibition locally, and you think – wouldn’t that just be the right place to put this patchwork quilt, so it could be exhibited and admired as its due?  You hasten to the attic, get down the suitcase, and absolute horror of horror, the suitcase has “wept” red-brown stain (as I have never known a suitcase do before) all over your quilt.  Aaaagh again – and again, and again. *Wedding quilt dateAnd, no, I have never told my mother what happened to the beautiful quilt she and Liza made with so much love and hope for my first marriage.Wedding quilt signaturesLet’s move on to later times, other generations.

My husband, Stephen, is an absolutely whizz with the knitting machine.  It suits him so well, giving his mathematical mind full scope for the design of elaborate and beautiful patterns.  Here is the blanket he made for us.  These are all patterns he devised himself – that’s something I could never do, so I am completely in awe of this skill.Stephen's machine-knitted blanketThen there’s these gorgeous cushions that my cousin, Lucy, knitted for me.  Vibrant strong colours and patterns.Lucy's knitted cushionsThis beautiful wall-hanging that another cousin, Polly, designed and worked.  There’s calligraphy and stitchery and printing all combined into one marvellous work.Polly's View-Points calligraphic printLast Christmas, my step-daughter, Zacyntha, embroidered this cushion cover for me.  Incredible use of colours and design.   Each time you look at it, the patterns shift and it looks different.Zacyntha's embroidered cushionAnother step-daughter, Lorna, also designed and made us a cushion cover. I think this was part of her A-level Art project.  I love it – particularly how the colour changes just slightly where she’s run out of a yarn.  Just like the carpet weavers of old.Lorna's embroidered cushionThen there’s this wonderful box that my daughter, Helen made.  It’s another A-level Art project – she constructed the box, and the fabrics that adorn it are machine and hand-embroidered.  Naughty, naughty mum left it in the sun so the top is much bleached.  It’s still a treasure.  It was always a secret….. Helen's embroidered box So many precious things, so much love, so many memories – so much inspiration!

*Comforting words from Whitney Otto’s How to Make an American Quilt : “And remember, no matter how careful you are, you might not be able to prevent some damage to your quilt – no matter how attached you are to it… something may ruin it beyond repair, leaving only the memory of the quilt behind.  Do not castigate yourself; you may not be to blame.  You did your best.  These are fragile textiles.  These things happen.”

Thank you, Whitney.

My story quilt

Katherine holding quilt wide Last year, several things came together for me.

I found myself spending much more time sewing than I had for many years.

I was inspired by a blogpost I read by Rebecca of Needle and Spindle in which she wrote about the Needleworks Collective and their GiveWrap idea.  In brief, they aspire to reduce the horrific throwaway culture of Christmas and present wrapping paper by replacing it with beautiful handmade fabric wrappers which could be used and re-used many times.

As it happened, my cousin Polly and I were looking for a project that we might work on together.  In her spare time from music and Alexander teaching, Polly is a part-time printmaker.  Together we evolved a system of making joint GiveWraps with her printed fabric scraps incorporated in my surrounding patchwork.  We had such fun!  Here is our first GiveWrap (you can see Polly’s inclining printed ladies in the centre bands).First joint GiveWrapWe made a lot of GiveWraps last Christmas.  And I realised with a start that I was using up all my special fabric treasures on GiveWraps that I would probably never see again (the central tenet of GiveWrappery is that you pass it on, and then the GiveWrap is passed on again and again).

Further inspiration came at Christmas when Polly gave me the powerful novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd.  This is a story of slavery in America’s deep south.  One of the slaves, Charlotte,  is a fine seamstress, and makes a quilt to record her life story for her daughter.  Aha!! My quilt is nothing like Charlotte’s quilt (it’s arrogant of me even to compare them), but the seed of an idea was sewn, and I embarked on my own story quilt, sewing the odd fabric pieces together in the same way that I had made my GiveWraps.The invention of wingsTo give some sense of structure to what was really rather a haphazard quilt, I decided to restrict myself to the red, orange, yellow colour spectrum on one side, and blues and greens on the other.  Purples and browns, blacks and whites crept in unbidden everywhere.

I started with a mess.  So many fabrics, so many scraps, so many memories – just so much to put in.fabrics strewn everywhereIn the end, I had to be strict with myself.  After I had completed the central body of each side of the quilt, I allowed myself to put in only one piece of each of the fabrics that were left in the mitred edges.  Here the blue/green side is being built up to match the completed red/orange/yellow side.building up blue green side of quiltI added the polyester wadding to the red/orange/yellow side first.  You can see my basting threads holding the two layers together.  Our cat Poe thinks it is a new play place, and is not helping with the next step: adding the blue/green layer to complete the whole. Poe on battingWhile all this piecing was going on, I was researching quilting methods – after all, this was my very first quilt.  I watched youtube training videos, searched the internet for advice, dug out my mother’s old quilting and patchwork books.  I invested in thimbles and a curious thing called Aunt Becky’s finger protector  (which helps prevent you ending up with sore, needle-pricked fingers).  With all three layers well-basted together, I set to with my thimble, Aunt Becky’s finger protector and needle.

Disaster!  I really am very bad at quilting!  My nice level running stitches on one side were completely wonky on the other.  Nothing for it but to ditch the hand-sewing and turn to the man and the machine.

The man is the measurer and calculator – absolutely essential if you are as dodgy with numbers as I am.  Here he ruminates and studies my wonky efforts.  It’s going to be tricky to get straight measurements here……. Stephen measuringBut with old-fashioned rulers and long metal tape-measures, we did get straightish white chalk lines on the quilt.  They are 6.5 inches apart.  I managed to machine it up – just!  I’m not sure my machine would have been able to cope with a larger or thicker piece of work.measuring toolsThe machine quilting worked surprisingly well, and it looks good – I now had a proper quilt! getting all quiltyTime for the edging.  I’d originally planned to use a single strip of brown and purple fabrics for the edging, but it soon became clear this wasn’t going to work.  The purples and browns planned for the red/orange side were far too strong and intense in colour for the lighter-toned blue/green side.  So I had to make a special binding, combining suitable toned colours for each side.sewing the bindingThen the bindings were hand-stitched onto the quilt.  sewing on the bindingSo what have I put in my quilt?  Well, all sorts really. There are fabrics that have come from clothes I have worn, my sisters and mother have worn, and my grandmother wore too.  There are little bits of projects I have started or done as test pieces.  The fabrics used include silks, satins, cottons, tweed, towelling and jersey.  (You can click on all these images to see the text more clearly).quilt story edited with textThere are new fabrics, fabrics that have come from much-loved clothes, fabrics that have just been in the family for so long that I don’t know where they came from.

I have added my name to the quilt and the date and place.  A little bit of Latin (and elsewhere Greek) since I was a student of Greek and Latin at university. There are knitting sheep at either end of my name – new fabric, representing my fleecy knitting interests.  Katherine's signatureThen there are the hearts.  I put the first heart in because it was a left-over from one of my mother’s sewing projects.  Mummy's original heartThen I realised that I had the perfect use for all those extra bits of fabric that I badly wanted to include but no longer had any room for.another fabric heartThis heart is from an exquisitely embroidered Serbian blouse – it’s probably 50 years old as my grandmother wore it before me.  The rest of the garment is yellowed and perished but the embroidered panels are still in good condition.Yugoslavia embroidery heart   There are bits of poetry too.  The words in this photograph  have come from one of Stephen’s poems. Stephen's poemThe squirrel in a go-kart in this photographic is fabric I used to make bedheads and pillow cases for my children when they were young.children's fabricsI don’t think my quilt will ever really be finished.  This bit of text that I’m currently working on acknowledges Stephen’s help with maths and measuring: Mathematics by Stephen!mathematics by StephenIt’s a great pleasure to lie in bed under the quilt and look at all the pieces, to remember stories and people, events and places.  What I did not expect to enjoy so much is the handle of a quilt – it is so light and comfortably squishy.  Perhaps I’ll just wear it for a while.Katherine huddled up in quilt