Earlier this autumn, my daughter and her husband arrived with a huge bag of fabric samples. They had been thrown out of a London college because they were out-of-date – but they were definitely far too good to waste!These were the sort of fabrics I’ve never worked with before – fabulous textured silks and satins …Extraodinary materials …Glitter to die for!And imaginative prints that I just loved – what I would give for a dress of that beautiful shimmery seahorse print!The thing is that most of these fabric samples were small – some very small indeed. Very tricky to know what I could do with such small pieces, but by chance I’d recently read a blogpost by Ann Wood on making little star folk and stars were on my mind …It seemed to me that these small glittery pieces of fabric would lend themselves so well to making those little starry folk …I got carried away. I made quite a few – and some were different ….Some were pink …And there was even a cat star – yes, with genuine cat whiskers (no cats were harmed in this, I assure you – our cats considerately moult whiskers every now and then).Then it occured to me that I might be able to make beaded stars just as I had made beaded paisley botehs last Christmas. (I learned to make paisley botehs from the very talented Lorna of Chookiebirdie and wrote about my lesson in an earlier blogpost). So I set myself up in my woolly room with a tray of beads and some star templates (developed from Ann Wood’s original pattern) and these gorgeous little scraps of fabric …Tricky stitching …But the result was very pleasing …And I found it sort of addictive …As I stitched my way through November and early December, my bowls of stitched stars changed as stars went out to homes throughout the country, around the world … new stars were made, I got excited by different colours combinations … so much variety, so much potential …Still loads and loads of gorgeous fabrics sitting unused in my woolly room …I just had to make some GiveWraps … (These are handmade reusable present wrappers – you can find out much more about them in another of my old blogposts). Here I am working in one of my cousin Polly’s dragon prints into an orangey GiveWrap.The finished item here … the orange counterbalanced by some fabulously dark colours and very strong prints …Another orange one, but this one with soft blue-grey tones …Now for some black and brights … I loved working all these strong colours and patterns in together …And by complete contrast, here is a GiveWrap that is almost completely neutral tones … (featuring some fantastic Alexander Henry cats around the border and in the centre the Ghastlies around the dinner table).What a contrast this almost completely scarlet GiveWrap is! What a treat to work these strong patterns all in together …And of course for my mother (who only acknowledges the colour blue), a china-blue, gold and white GiveWrap …I have had such pleasure in all this making, but the icing on the cake (or far more accurately the hanging on the tree) is to see the stars and GiveWraps in their new homes …Dear blog readers, I would that I could send starry folk out to you one and all but I will have to make do with sending you stellar wishes for Christmas and the New Year! The world is full of such difficulties these days, so above all else, I wish that you may be richly blessing this coming New Year – and that it be an easier year for so very many of us …
There we were – on the afternoon of Tuesday 11th September – quietly enjoying a balmy early autumnal afternoon in the conservatory with our two cats, Eggy and Ilsa. Some serious bird watching going on too.A few minutes later I went into the garden to water the plants, and Ilsa followed, ambling off somewhere …
Suddenly – noise – drama – and there down the path I could see Ilsa in the forecourt, but ….. under 5 dogs. There was a terrible din – they were all barking furiously while the dog-owner and his young son tried frantically to pull the dogs off her. I don’t really know how to convey in text my absolute panic and horror. Suffice it to say I dropped everything I was carrying and tore out into the forecourt, yelling blue murder to those dogs and their owner.
Miraculously Ilsa escaped the dogs and fled over the neighbours’ wall, but then – perhaps in her panic – she continued into the nearby field. So the dogs followed her – as did we all. At last we were able to pull them off her, and, with her scooped up in my arms, get her away from the dogs.
At first it wasn’t clear how wounded Ilsa was, but she was breathing extremely fast, and I didn’t want to explore her wounds then and there for fear of making her more anxious. So we had a brief sort of conversation with the dog-owner (who seemed as stunned as we) and his son, and set off for the vets.
The vets were lovely – professional and quick to give immediate treatment. It transpired that Ilsa had been bitten on her rear right leg and her lower belly and was bleeding quite heavily from this wound. However, they were particularly concerned that her breathing was so fast, and feared she might have also sustained a puncture wound on her lung. So she was hospitalized for the night with antibiotics, painkillers, and tender loving care.
But she was OK. Extraordinarily for such a dog attack, she hadn’t been ripped to shreds and left as meat. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that worse hadn’t occurred. Had the dogs just been playing with her?
After leaving Ilsa at the vets, we went to see the dog owner. In part this was because I was aware that he’d had his young son with him who had been extremely distressed and tearful during the attack, and I wanted to give reassurance to this little boy that she would be alright. I’m glad that we were able to do that because his mother reported that she’d put him to bed looking like he’d seen a ghost. Poor little lad.
It transpired when talking to the dog owner that he’d been walking staffies and pit bulls and a chihuahua, and it had been a single disobedient staffie that caused the damage to our cat. I really want to emphasize this because it’s not really what we are led to expect about such dogs. The dog owner immediately said he would pay the vet’s bill.
Of course, the problem only occurred because he was walking his dogs off the lead past our group of houses …..
The next day we brought Ilsa home. It turned out that she hadn’t experienced any lung damage. And we were reassured that her wound should heal fine – but take time as she was pretty bruised.
Oh, poor little Ilsa. This what a cat does when it feels terrible – burrowing deeply into nice safe soft places (my unspun fleece basket) …Nevermind we thought – she needs to take her time as the vets said. But she’ll be back to normal soon.
But she wasn’t. Over the weekend she deteriorated and next week she was so poorly we headed back to the vets, only to be told that the antibiotics hadn’t worked and the wound was infected. So they whisked her back into surgery, put drains in her infected belly and gave her different antibiotics. Her poor belly looked awful …We’d been warned that suppurating drains make a terrible mess, so drugget preparation was necessary. Our sitting room became a hospital ward (cat litter included) …Perhaps nastiest of all (to her!) she’d come home with the dreaded cone …Now a cone is horrible on all small animals, but is also a particular problem if you happen to have a very flat face. Drinking required almost full immersion …Perhaps most worryingly she stopped eating, so we embarked on a program to syringe liquid high energy food into her mouth at regular intervals over the day and night. I made myself a bed in the sittingroom …Despite all this love and care, she was getting more and more unwell, so back we went to the vets as a second weekend approached. We were at this stage more than slightly dazed from lack of sleep and worry about Ilsa and the growing vet bills (no, of course we didn’t have pet insurance) …
Horrific news. Her wound was now so infected that the vets had to clean out a great hole of necrotic tissue (mercifully not on any of her organs) and she needed to spend the weekend at the vets on a drip with more antibiotics. Her huge wound required sluicing out a couple of times a day.
We were allowed to visit Ilsa on Sunday in the surgery, and frankly it was almost more disturbing than not seeing her. They were looking after her beautifully – faultless efficient medical care, very lovingly administered …But our little cat wanted to come home!We finally got to take her home on Monday, but had to return her to have her wound washed out every day that week.
The good news was that she didn’t require a cone, and coped very well with living with her horrible hole …How we welcomed the news after a week of regular expensive sluicing trips that she could have her wound stitched and stapled! It doesn’t look very pretty …But she really did seem to be so much happier – and so were we!Apart from anything else the dog owner had given us a decent contribution to the vet bills. It nothing like covered the whole expense of course, but at least made us feel that he recognised the damage that his dogs had done.She was starting to get back to normal pursuits, joining Eggy in the woolly room with me …And even taking tentative steps outside – tail up, a happy cat!Even back to a little mousing with Eggy …Whew!
Today Ilsa went to the vets and had the staples removed. The stitches lying under the staples come out in a couple of days. She’s been pronounced nearly back to normal – well, almost. The bite damage to her leg is lasting and she will never quite have the mobility she once had with that leg – and there’ll be a scar! But hey …
It’s been an overwhelming month. Partly the horrifying initial attack – though that did not turn out be as bad as we originally thought – but even more the rollercoaster of worry about her increasing infections and the rising costs of veterinary care. We felt out of control.
So we haven’t been out and about on long trips, but there has been quite a bit of quiet sewing and crocheting …
After my malaise earlier this summer which I wrote about in my last blog post, I was suddenly inspired to ask my cousin, Polly, if she had any of her fabric prints that I might embroider. (You can read more about her fabric printing in our earlier GiveWrap posts). These are some of the prints she sent me …I was very taken with the deep orange print with swirly yellow lozenges. It’s quite small, but once pieced together with similarly toned fabrics gave me an interesting start …The lozenges spread out …Until I reached the point where I am now with the piece propped up on a tall chest of drawers while I decide about the edging. I can either go for the darker spotted fabric (on the right) or the lighter fabric (on the left). What do you think?That embroidery was very pleasing to do – calming and meditative – and helped keep me occupied in difficult times.
I also crocheted these little Toft elephant friends for some little girls who have a new baby sister – a very belated welcome present to all the family. When I wrote about my listlessness earlier this summer, somebody wisely told me that there is nothing like making presents for others to give you your mojo back. Thank you, friend, you were quite right!What a relief to be back to normal!(Cats find mice in the darndest places!)
In the fourth century AD, Christian monasteries sprang up in the deserts near Alexandria in Egypt. In these harsh conditions monks struggled to live ascetic lives of prayer and deprivation in the belief that this would secure them eternal life. One can easily imagine how these monks might lose heart and be distracted from godly prayer – particularly in the sleepy postprandial times of the midday lull. One monk, Evagrius Ponticus, wrote about the tiresome demon behind these temptations of listlessness and lassitude, calling it the Noonday Demon.
Over the last few months, I too have struggled with this darned Noonday Demon – though in my case, it has broken all the rules, and will not stick to the stipulated noonday hours of ten to two …
I did complete my doodle stitchery as I wrote in my blog post last month. But otherwise I seem to be just flitting from project to project, unable to find the energy or drive to complete anything in particular …
At the beginning of the summer I started another Judi Dench tapestry, this time replacing the greens with blue tones …It came on a couple of train trips with me, and then I lost interest and it got put to the side …So I thought I would try some spinning … I got out my best most glorious colours …And yes, I did find the spinning very comforting and pleasurable, and got quite a bit done. But I lost interest when I saw what how the dark tones submerge the brighter colours in the finished spun yarn …A pile of my most beautiful fabrics came out one weekend when Stephen was away …I did a little machining …Played with some other fabrics …But it just didn’t grab me. So I put it all away – and the only being happy with the whole event was the cat …I know! I declared to myself. I’ll go back to my first proper knitting love! I’ll do some Kaffe Fassett knitting! And I was indeed very happy with this blue/green/purple strip of knitting – but then unruly thoughts niggled at me … Was this planned knit really going to be useful … Kaffe Fassett knits are so cosy with all that stranded knitting at the back. Do I really want to wear that sort of cardi any more …It got put to the side, ending up next to the wastepaper basket – oh dear, what indignity!I got books of inspiration out …I was sent fabulous fabric scraps by generous friends … but nothing seemed to spark my creative wires …I did complete one other piece – oh yeay! I was asked to stitch a Berwick Worm for the Tweed 1000 celebrations …This is a community stitchery being worked to commemorate the Battle of Carham of 1018. That almost unknown battle resulted in the Scottish/English border being set as it is now, adjoining the River Tweed, rather than near Edinburgh. The pieces being worked are all linked with the history of the area.
There are many stories of Worms in the area – probably the best known is the Lambton Worm of County Durham. The Durham locals have a song about their worm which you can hear here beautifully sung by a famous County Durham boy, Bryan Ferry. It’s a great worm story!
The worm got fat an’ grewed an’ grewed,
An’ grewed an aaful size;
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An greet big goggly eyes …
I was so very chuffed to be allocated the Berwick Worm. I got out my fabrics, and started stitching …Sadly, I have to say my heart wasn’t really in it. Although I think he’s quite a pleasing worm and I’m not in any way ashamed of my contribution, I didn’t find it quite as unputdownable as the best projects are …The one other long-term stitching project that I have toyed with this summer is an old friend which I started last year when I first learned about Alabama Chanin’s embroidered clothes. I wanted to make a garment for myself but decided to start with a sample piece – and here it is at the beginning of the summer …I have picked it up recently and enjoyed adding quite a lot more different stitches to the background …I’m not alone to struggle with this problem. Others call it different names – for Ann Wood, for example, it’s Natsubate. Some know it as Accidie. Myself, I like the personalization of that imp, the darned Noonday Demon.
Perhaps it’s just this very long hot dry summer that we’re experiencing in the UK right now. And I only need for the heavens to open to right my energies? With the political temperature soaring all over the world, it seems more than a trifle shaming to be so concerned with the pace of my creativity.
It’s just the small things though, isn’t it, that are really important?
Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to rest.
Wendell Berry: Sabbaths 1999, VII
Ever in hope I have started a new knitting project! There is nothing like a knitting shawl for comforting ease of project and I have several very long car journeys later this summer when I will need some knitting. I had to undo a shawl that I didn’t think was quite right for me to reclaim this beautiful Old Maiden Aunt yarn. ( It’s a beautiful 4ply baby alpaca, silk and cashmere combo called ghillie ghu.) I’m hoping to knit it up as a Karie Westermann Bibliotheca shawl.Wish me luck – I so wish to find a project that will be absorb me!
Or stitching a doodle … I’m not really sure …But I do know that I started this piece in the most playful of manner, with just some pieces of fabric machined together – perhaps originally I was thinking of making a GiveWrap? And then I took a turn off (veered to the right as it were), and starting adding pictures and scraps, and embroidering, stitching them …
Some were strong images cut out from fabric … And others were just pieces I found in my scraps, exactly as they were…Scraps from all sorts of places. Those strong green flowers came from my dear friend Mandy’s cast-off dress. And the vibrant yellow silk lines were an unintended gift from my cousin Polly – beautiful scraps of sari silk used to wrap up a GiveWrap …Happy stitching through the winter months, playing idly with fabrics and keeping the cats company as they bird-watched. My favourite times …My stitchery grew. I had started to add faces …I am fascinated by stitched faces. One of my favourite feeds on Instagram is Spiritcloth who with such skilled dyeing and stitching produces pieces like this …So small green faces crept into my work too. I never quite knew how they would appear. They always started quite similarly – just a couple of scraps of green fabric, pinned together …I was nervous about stitching them, but I needn’t have been. They took on a life of their own. Some were catty …Some were sleeping …Another had a fawn-like appearance, I thought – especially when it became clear they wanted beards …So they all got beards – some wispy …Some luxurious, as with the Roi Soleil …The cat has a fine beard too, complementing its whiskers!And a few beardy wisps too for the sleepy one – perhaps to complement those wisps of hair …My piece was now growing, and I was no longer thinking of it as an idle doodle. It demanded to be seen as a whole – with backing (a lovely cotton Ikea duvet from a local charity shop) …And, once I started to see it as a whole, I had to think of balance. It needed some more of those strong yellows – and it needed poetry …
There usually comes a point when I am stitching when words come into my mind that I might stitch into the work in hand. Some of my embroideries have been stitched around text as in my Love Letter to Europe …With others, the words sort of drift in as I stitch away. So it was with my Chinese Vase embroidery. For a long time it was just fabric pieces and embroidery … Then – as I stitched – some of Eliot’s words from the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton) came to mind: “as a Chinese jar Still moves perpetually in its stillness.”It was T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets (Burnt Norton) that came to my mind again as I stitched those little green faces …
A little fiddling around with size and placement: “Go said the bird … for the leaves were full of children … hidden excitedly, containing laughter … quick said the bird … find them, find them …”And then some stitching …At first I was disappointed that it’s so hard to make out Eliot’s words and I wondered about re-stitching them. But I decided that the almost-hidden words was in keeping with the sense of looking: Quick, said the bird, find them, find them …
My stitchery was drawing to an end. Time now to add the backing, and quilt it with some comfortable sashiko stitching …The cats approved …As the border stitching drew to an end, I thought – well, perhaps I’ll just add a little extra stitching here … and there … and there. I realised that I’ve grown accustomed to having this stitchery around to pick up for a little stitching here or there. The time had come to finish it.
By happy coincidence I was introduced at this time to the old Navajo belief that the spirit of the weaver literally enters the cloth they are weaving. In an article on the Spirit of the Cloth in the Spring 2018 edition of Spin Off magazine, Rebecca Marsh describes how the Navajo weave a spirit line from inside the border to the edge of the of the weaving to allow the weaver’s spirit to leave the cloth.
I needed a spirit line!
My spirit line – my escape from this stitchery – was to add my initials and the date.
When we moved to Northumberland in 2010, one of the things on Stephen’s list was to learn to play the Northumbrian pipes. I won’t go into the Northumbrian pipes in detail (you can find more about them here), – just suffice it to say that unlike the Highland pipes which are blown, the air in the Northumbrian pipes is produced by elbow action. And they aren’t easy to learn to play!
(But they produce an enchanting light sound. According to organologist Anthony Baines, they are “perhaps the most civilized of the bagpipes …”)
Most impressively Stephen did learn to play them, and joined the Alnwick Pipers group, later setting up a local group, the Spittal Pipers. These groups play for pleasure, and also at shows and exhibitions. In 2016, for BBC Music Day, the Spittal Pipers were asked to play on the Union Chain Bridge. They assembled early on an exceptionally cold June morning …All wearing their fine Northumbrian plaids – bar Stephen, who didn’t have his own, so was lent one … err, a lady’s one. The difference is that the lady’s plaid is a short shawl, while the gents wear a magnificently long piece which sweeps right round the body.This year I decided it was time to give him his own plaid, and approached a fellow member of the Tweed Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers, Janis Embleton of Flight Weaving for help because I knew she’d woven a shepherd’s plaid before.
However, Stephen didn’t need a thick plaid designed to keep you warm and dry in all-weather shepherding work. He need a formal Northumbrian plaid to match in with the other plaids in the Spittal Pipers’ group. So we turned to Stephen’s fellow piper, Lyndon, for advice – and the loan of his plaid. Here he is being fitted in Lyndon’s plaid as a guide for length …When we knew exactly what we wanted (more or less a copy of Lyndon’s) and had a set of measurements for Stephen’s height, I went back to Janis to ask her to make the plaid. She came up with a most generous plan. She would weave the plaid, and I would finish it off – tassel, wash and pleat …
Janis works on a vintage Ulla Cyrus Loom, passed on to her by a fellow weaver some years ago. To my ignorant eyes, it is a most beautiful – and very complicated – piece of woodwork. Parts are worn smooth and darkened from repeated handling, but it carries a story of the love and care it received from one weaver – and now another.
She sent me these fascinating photos of the loom when it was first set up to weave the black and white Northumbrian plaid. My goodness, what meticulous hard work is involved in setting up the loom for a large piece of woven cloth!Later, she welcomed us to her studio to see how the weaving was progressing. By this time there was a substantial piece of cloth already woven …She invited me to have go with the shuttle, and I can assure you it’s not as easy as it looks!I was struck by the complexity of the loom – all those interconnections …And in many ways, it felt as though there was an organic integrity between loom and weaver …When the plaid was completed, I visited again for a lesson in tassel-making. First Janis showed me how to remove the cotton bands which edge her weaving …Then the fringing was trimmed to the length we wanted …Starting to make the tassels with her dinky little tassel-maker …I finished the tassels off at home, and then came the terrifying moment when I had to wash the plaid …Despite testing for colour run before she started work, Janis had discovered the black wool was leaching colour onto her hands, so I was advised to handwash the plaid first in cold water – it did indeed come out quite black …Then it went in the washing machine for a 30 degree wash. Scary! How relieved I was to have it out blowing on the washing line, soft, clean and slightly shrunken!Now for pleating. Lyndon’s plaid was pleated with narrow folds over the shoulders, fanning out to wider folds at the hem of the plaid. Hard to find a clean floor long enough to lay out such a huge piece of fabric …Tricky – especially when I got help …Now for some very careful pinning and tacking all the way down the pleats. I copied Lyndon’s plaid and machined the pleats in place at judicious intervals (over the shoulders) …Finally the whole process was finished off with some very damp ironing using a white vinegar/water solution. I discovered this pleating trick from a very helpful website on historical sewing . Apparently this was the old-fashioned method to secure pleats in place. (My solution was 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water.) And yes – the room did smell like a fish and chip shop, but the smell has now vanished!Time for a fitting. Here’s my Northumbrian piper in proper piper’s plaid! Just magnificent! And here he is playing the pipes!This has been such a happy project. The plaid isn’t just a beautiful piece of work by a very skilled weaver, it’s a record of history – and in particular, for Stephen and me, the lovely folk who helped bring it together. Thank you so much Janis for so generously allowing me to work on this project with you – it truly made it memorable. And we can’t thank Lyndon and his wife Heather enough for their patient advice every time we needed to consult on some technical aspect of pipers’ plaids.
Visitors to our house at this time of year may be struck by what a lot of Christmas cards we receive …
Well, I have a confession to make: one of the most treasured parts of Christmas for me is getting out my old Christmas card box. Inside I have a large collection of old cards – and some of these old cards come out to swell the numbers (so to speak) year after year. It is not that I want it to appear that we have a huge number of friends! – no, it’s because these are old cards that I love so much that I return to them year after year. Just to open the box makes me feel all tingly …Like many parents I have saved the cards my children made when small. I find them fascinating to look at again because they reflect so clearly their changing interests as they grew up. Helen aged 8 was drawing cats just about everywhere …Several years later she was still adding cats to the Christmas ensemble. This is one of my favourite cards because I so love the joy she has captured on the surrounding faces – and especially Mary’s clasped hands.But then – one year we got this! (She was 17 by now). I wonder if you know who features here?!! At 9 my son James was all about dinosaurs and monsters ….Apart from my children’s cards, there are cards I save because I just love the pictures. I’m always a sucker for a beautiful angel …And this is an enchanting nativity with that little bare-buttocked angel worshipping in the foreground …I love representations of the Madonna and Child that capture some small realistic moment in a child’s life, like this baby playing with his mother’s beautiful coral beads …And what a contented baby this is, playing with his toy apparently quite happily so that his mum can get on with her reading!There are Christmas tree pictures I have kept because I thought one day they might offer inspiration. I am very taken with this embroidered tree …And I really like the clever simplicity of this paper tree, just a sharp fold in the centre of the card …I’ve always planned to copy in some way this beautiful Matryoshka card that we bought in New York’s MOMA …Other cards catch my eye for their humour …Or their charm …Some are topical …Some are just fun …And some are I think slightly weird (but still very fascinating) …There is often a knitterly card from my cousin Lucy (who, like me, loves to knit) …And we often get the most beautiful rabbit cards from my sister Marian – who keeps rabbits, of course …I’m a cat person myself so couldn’t resist keeping this card from an old work colleague …In some circumstances there is a family joke behind the keeping of the card. The maths teacher (no, not Stephen!) who made this card was definitely not known for his happiness!This looks such an unremarkable little card …But inside – written in haste – the teacher’s thanks for timetable support look more like tit – oops, oh dear!This little card completely changed the way we see Christmas – why Father Christmas drops presents!! We must hurry outside to check there’s none around here!There’s another group of cards that have changed in relevance to me over the years. These are cards that I originally kept because I loved the pictures. Then, over the years, I came back to look at them only to find the people who sent them had died, so these cards have gathered an extra most poignant significance. The oldest one is from my grandmother – a tiny little slip of a card, but inside she has written in her very elderly shaky hand about the imminent birth of my first baby (her first great-grandchild) …I kept this most beautiful card from my ex-husband, Hugh. We had a most acrimonious divorce, but his suicide in 2007 made me look quite differently at anything tangible we had left from him …This card came from my father, and I kept it originally because – as I described above – I so love Madonna and Child scenes where there is a glimpse of playful interaction between the mother and babe. It is now extra treasured because my father passed away in 2015 – and also because it is a painting which belongs to his old Oxford College, Magdalen. He was very deeply proud of his time there …A work colleague of mine at Exeter Library sent me this card. Angela always found the most distinctive and beautiful cards. She passed away in 2011 – she was almost exactly the same age as I am …I so love this beautiful bird of peace card, sent to me by my dear Devon friends, Eileen and Len, some years ago. Len passed away in 2016 – this card brings back very happy memories of a really lovely man …One of the most poignant cards I have is from my Uncle John. A talented artist, every year he would have one of his drawings made into Christmas cards. He was very ill with throat cancer when he sent this card and wrote inside how he could no longer “write, call, eat or drink or talk and am v. frail and shrinking.” He died soon afterwards …His is not the only card that I treasure because he designed it himself. His daughter Polly always sends round wonderful cards. We have enjoyed making shared GiveWraps for the last few years, and this card is very definitely GiveWrap-inspired!Other Christmas cards of hers hark back to an older Christmas – womb-like and mysterious in ivy …And I too used to make Christmas cards! These are ones I made for the Westcountry Studies Library in Exeter. My work there entailed looking after their historic collections of prints and drawings, so it was a bit of fun to take an old picture and add a festive Father Christmas element …What I love about handmade and hand-designed cards is that everybody plays to their strengths. My mother is a truly most gifted needlewoman – so her cards were always hand-stitched …My brother Henry makes a fine card, interplaying his photos of the season to give a glorious colourful montage …And Anya, Stephen’s ex-wife, always sends a strong print. This is Mick Jagger, The Christmas Cockerel! Isn’t he a fine bird?!Every year Stephen’s cousin Peter cooks up something witty and imaginative – I’ll let this one speak for itself …He comes from a family tradition of fine handmade cards. Together his parents, David and Bar, created some wonderful cards. David was the poet, Bar the artist. The front is not very prepossessing …But isn’t the inside clever?!This one is probably my very favourite of theirs …I love all these cards that I have shown you but my very favourite cards always came from Stephen’s Aunt Barbara (another Barbara) – she was a print-maker.And perhaps loveliest of all, because most simple – and most powerful – in its colour and message …There is something else in my Christmas card box – something that doesn’t really belong there because it’s not a card, nor is it Christmassy. This is a cutting from the Crediton Parish Magazine sometime in the 1980s, – a prayer for the New Year. While my Christmas card collection is in many ways about looking back through my family and friends, this extends my thoughts to those I do not know whose experiences over the past year may have been very different to mine. Call it perhaps a Quaker-like meditation for holding all those others who we do not know in the light …Belated Christmas wishes and Happy New Year to you all – may 2018 be good to you! May you flourish like the bay tree!
When my parents moved to their Surrey nursing home several years ago, my mother had to clear out her sewing and knitting things to make space in their new smaller home. She passed all these goodies on to me.
Among the many bags of wool, patterns, fabrics and threads etc was this tapestry that my father had stopped working on. Sadly towards the end of his life, he lost interest in so many things. I put it away, along with all the other things my mother had given me, and forgot it for a while.
Then, this summer, remembering what pleasure I had had stitching tapestries in previous years over the long light days (when I can see clearly!), I looked to see what I might stitch this year. This tapestry came to hand. Sufficient time had passed since my father’s death in March 2015 for me to feel ready to pick it up again.
It was somewhat unusual for a very conventional man of his time (born in 1926) to do tapestry work, but his step-father was also a very talented stitcher, and perhaps that was what inspired my father. Whatever, in retirement, my father did a lot of tapestry work, making pieces for many members of the family. I wish I could show you a picture of him stitching, but although I have combed the family albums for such a pic, alas, I cannot find one. But I have found a pic of him knitting – KNITTING?!! I never knew he knitted! It’s a lovely happy pic of him with grand-daughter Bel.Before I could start work, it was important for me to look at his other work to pick up ideas and influences. As you’ll see, he had such a distinctive way of working. I sent a call round the family – and these are a few of the pieces that turned up.
This tapestry cushion was made for my uncle and aunt’s wedding anniversary in 1980, and now belongs to their daughter, Polly. It’s very characteristic of his work in that he includes initials, dates – and lots of Latin, Greek and Japanese quotes (all languages he was very familiar with). He’s made a most distinctive feature of the Japanese character at the centre – very bold, and very effective.I don’t need to offer any translation, because Polly had the initiative to ask him for one – Brilliant foresight, Polly! Another early piece (also of his own design) is this cushion which he made for me in 1982 to mark the occasion when I gave up smoking (and oh, boy, was I a dedicated smoker, so it was indeed a big occasion – and shared especially with my father as he too had given up smoking a long way back). You can see how very skilled he was in featuring words and characters. The Greek text at the centre – πᾶς γὰρ νοῦς αἱρεῖται τὸ βέλτιστον ἑαυτῷ – is from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics: Everyone chooses the right path for themselves. According to my father, the Japanese characters round the side mean: Good health. No smoking. This cushion is very dear to me.I don’t remember this Viking cushion below commemorating any particular event (sadly wonky – I have taken the pillow out to reveal the text and side patterning but it does not really show the cushion to its best). It’s interesting because it shows a change in his style of working. At some point, he started to purchase pre-designed tapestries, but continued to make them his own with the quotes and initials that he added. What prompted him to add, I wonder, La vie est trop, trop est pas assez (Life is too much, and yet not enough) and La Vie et un poème, un poème inachevé? (Roughly meaning life is like an incomplete poem, not going as one would wish.)The other striking thing about this Viking tapestry is that he started to break tapestry rules here. I cannot trace the original kit, but I am sure that the designers did not encourage stitchers to work those wheels in that casual manner. And look at the freehand patterning in the border just below the wheels! How very effective!One of his finest tapestries is this piece which he made for my mother to celebrate their ruby wedding anniversary on 25th October 1992 – alas, so difficult to photograph because it is behind glass. On the back he has stuck a note (that’s so typical of my father) informing us that he bought the kit in Esztergom in Hungary in 1988. It’s a beautiful design, but how much lovelier it is for my father’s addition in Latin: Uxori JME Dilectissimae. (for my most delightful wife JME) He’s smuggled his initials (RHE) into the piece too …And this is a beautiful tapestry that he did for my cousin’s wedding in 1994. Again a pre-designed pattern to which he’s added their names and the date.He obviously liked ducks because two of his granddaughters got duck embroideries from him! This is the one he stitched for granddaughter Bel in 2000. A fine duck embroidery. I couldn’t translate the Japanese character, but I am indebted to Robin for her very helpful comment below this blog that “The character in the lower left corner of the duck tapestry represents “snipe”, pronounced “shigi” (with a hard ‘g’). If you see that the character has both a left-hand and right-hand side, the right-hand side can also stand alone, representing “bird”, pronounced “tori”.” Such a pleasure to know my father’s purpose in adding this character – thank you, Robin, very much indeed!And my daughter Helen got this one which most conveniently lives with me so I was able to refer to it for patterns and designs for my project.Two more fine tapestry cushions live with my sister in Cumbria. This beautiful 1981 work is a wonderful mix of patterned motifs and borders set in a particularly lovely colourway – and with the usual sprinkle of quotations. I couldn’t translate the Japanese character in the centre, but I have been informed by cousin Hermione that this character means truth or reality. As for the Greek, thanks to her sister, Katy, I now know that it is from the Corpus Hermeticum: God is without sin; it is we who are sinful. Not biblical (as I originally thought) but from the Gnostic tradition. (Perhaps a more fitting biblical quote might be: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy – can you see that tell-tale hole? )It’s a challenge to do justice to this next cushion because the writing sits on the rounded border. Many thanks to Hermione, I know now that the Japanese characters refer to the seasons. Top left is spring, top right is summer, bottom left is autumn and bottom right is winter. That fits so well with the Latin. It’s from a very famous Horace poem Diffugere nives (The snows have fled), and has a familiar melancholy tinge: Immortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum quae rapit hora diem. (Housman’s translation is most elegant: The swift hour and the brief prime of the year Say to the soul, Thou was not born for ay.) A particularly lovely cushion, I think – and Horace was a favourite poet of his.So it was with all these very distinctive tapestries in mind that I picked up my father’s work earlier this summer. My first task was to find some proverb or poetry to add to the piece. I searched through poetry books, collections of quotations, and then suddenly I saw it – why up there on my noticeboard! Almost top right.No need of the list – the lines from Lao-Tze were just perfect: What the caterpillar calls the end, The rest of the world calls a butterfly. It related to the picture, and there were just the right amount of words for me to fit them around the embroidered butterfly.Now for some elaborate calculations to work out exactly how to fit the words to the tapestry. I decided to use the same font as that used on his Viking cushion. So now for a bit of stitching …With the Lao-Tze text surrounding the butterfly completed, I was ready to think what more I might add to his embroidery. I knew that I wanted to add some words that explained how I was finishing what my father had started. This time there was less room for expansive text so I consulted an old book of embroidery designs that I had given my father for Christmas in 1979 (also part of my mother’s gifted treasure trove) …And came up with this: Started by RHE c 2000. Finished by KMD 2017.I thought that would fit in nicely in the space between the butterfly and the lower border.As well as this embroidery, my mother had given me all her old notes and designs. It was very moving to look through these – patterns and notes dating back to her teenage years. Here is a pattern she had copied from her childhood bedroom carpet.Along with careful drawings and colour plans, there are odd bits of schoolwork …But, most usefully for me, there were also her designs for when she was first starting to make embroideries for her new husband. She had met my father in Tokyo in the early 1950s. He was a young diplomat at the British Embassy, and she was looking after her brother’s child (her brother also worked at the British Embassy).Ah – a fine Japanese character! Just the sort of thing I could well incorporate into the butterfly tapestry! But I had no idea what it meant … Luckily, my daughter’s friend, Yuki, was able to help and with a little Instagram communication she was able to tell me that it’s a Buddhist symbol meaning good fortune, happiness and in olden times was also associated with giving alms. It was just perfect for my generous and very kind father.At this point I happened to put my developing embroidery on my Instagram feed, and among many interesting comments, I had one from a French friend: A quatre mains! she declared. Why just so, thank you, Isabelle, because this piece is a sort of duet. And it fits perfectly, balancing the Japanese characters on the top right so well.As the embroidery progressed, I was regularly consulting the other tapestry pieces I had to hand. I’d copied the little motifs that my father had embroidered round the duck to fill in the gaps of my butterfly text (those little blue flowers amid the orange) and then I came back to these small flowery motifs again for the finishing touches. I wanted something else in all that empty space – after all, my father was known to cram patterns in very effectively!The motifs at the bottom found their homes easily,But I struggled to work out where to put them at the top, eventually having to fiddle around with some paper cutouts.Through the lovely light summer months, there were happy days of stitching …Visiting Red Admiral butterflies … a sort of blessing on my project …Steadily, slowly all the background was filled in … (great train journey occupation) …And then I just had to stitch a small border pattern.Finally, there is was – completed!With a handsome red velvet backing.I made a special cotton inner cushion for it, and stuffed it with clean fleece – my father would definitely approve: he loved my fleece habit!And here it is – comfortably among our other tapestry cushions …It’s been a most happy summer stitching companion – I have so enjoyed working on this project. It’s brought back many very happy memories of my father and made me reflect on some of the ideas that were important to him – all those quotations! I think he’d pleased with what I did …
(The Red Admiral butterfly tapestry was designed by Elian McCready for Ehrman Sadly she passed away in 2010.)