Women’s Work

Writing recently about the textiles that family members had made in Family Treasures, I was struck by how privileged those crafters had all been.   All those cushion covers, embroideries, needle cases, patchwork etc were the comfortable leisure activities of people with time and materials to spare.

It isn’t always like that, of course.  Handicrafts arose from necessity.  Sewing, spinning, knitting, weaving and darning were in many cases essential skills for women in the days before you could easily and cheaply purchase your clothing.  Skilled craftwork brought income to both men and women (and indeed still do in many parts of the world today).

Over the last few months I’ve been reading two books that have focused on these different attitudes to handicrafts:  Hands to the Spindle.  Texas Women and Home Textile production 1822 – 1880 by Paula Mitchell Marks and Women’s Work.  The First 20,000 Years.  Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.  I can strongly recommend both books for their insights into historic women’s lives.  While Elizabeth Wayland Barber looks at a huge swathe of very distant time, Paula Mitchell Marks concerns herself with a narrow timeframe in the relatively recent past.Women's work booksBecause Paula Mitchell Marks is working with more recent material we are able to hear the women’s voices directly.  I’m going to tell you parts of the story she recounts from the memoirs of Sarah Harkey Hall.  Sarah was born in 1857, the fifth of thirteenth children.  She writes of her mother: “Her children were like stair steps and such a burden to card and weave, every thread we all wore, and make our clothes by hand…”  The two older sisters helped with “spin filling at 8 years old”, while Sarah was the baby nurse. “Oh! the hum of the wheel and the rattle of the cards made me weary, I knew my long weary day had begun – sitting by the cradle.” 

Sarah’s mother died in 1869 after a premature childbirth, and most tragically her father a few weeks later (suffering from a range of different complaints).  The older sisters married and moved out, so Sarah was left to look after the younger children.  Paula continues “At first, she [Sarah] simply labored to patch and piece from worn-out clothes, but she soon turned to her mother’s old spinning wheel and began spinning thread and knitting socks for sale … Sarah for a number of years had to worry, scrimp, and use every resource at her disposal to clothe and cover her younger siblings and herself.  She spun, knitted, and sewed…”

I don’t think I can even begin to imagine Sarah’s life.  But I won’t be alone in having experienced times when I was completely broke – times when I had to be extremely resourceful in making clothes and toys for the family.

My marriage ended acrimoniously in the early 1980s.   My husband then disappeared, and I found myself with two small children under 5 years old, unemployed and with no easy means of earning enough to pay for childcare, a mortgage, and everyday living expenses.  I was incredibly lucky that the state safety-net was there to support me – and continued to support me for the next two and half years.

In those years my children were dressed entirely in clothes that I had made or hand-downs from kindly friends.  Luckily, I had a huge stash of fabrics and yarns from my pre-parenting London-living days.  Here’s my daughter, Helen, looking stylish as ever, in a brown viyella shirt and blue corduroy pinafore.  Both made by me – and, incredibly it seems to me now, ironed regularly by me.1985 Style queen 1As well as sewing, I did a lot of knitting too (although I hadn’t yet learned to spin when first divorced).  Here we all are, on Glastonbury Tor.  Both children are wearing hats and jerseys I’d knitted, and I’d certainly made Helen’s trousers, though I don’t think I’d made the ones James is wearing.J & H 1985 Glastonbury TorThis pig jersey that James is so delightedly modelling here was a real winner – you might just be able to make out the curly little pink piggy tail at the back.  He’s also wearing slipper sox that I’d knitted – hmm, you weren’t supposed to wear those in the garden, James!Jam pig jumper front and backI went on to customise this pattern, and with some design help from James made a very curious shaggy fluffy red dinosaur jersey.  (I’ve been reliably informed it’s a styracosaurus.)plans for dinasaur cardiWhat really kills me about this photo is that Helen, not to be left out, has added herself in such an alluring pose just to the side of the real model. J and H Shobrroke dinasaur cardi I made things for Christmas and birthdays too.  Here’s the climbing frame cover I made.  It was supposed to mean the climbing frame could double up as a “home”, a “base”, a “safe house”……1988 Christmas climbing frame coverWhat I really focused on was making fancy-dress clothes.  This clown costume was one of the first that I made.  (Yes – it’s the same primary-coloured elephant material as above!  I’d bought a large quantity of this fabric very cheaply, and used it to make a remarkable array of toys and garments).James Christmas 1985Here – a bit later in time – are my two youngest step-daughters, Ellie and Zacyntha, joining in the Christmas fancy dress modelling show.  Ellie (on the left) was the Christmas Tree fairy, James had a conjuror costume,  Zacyntha is the Nutcracker Sugar Plum fairy and Helen (on the right) is Ariel, the Little Mermaid.1991 Christmas fancy dress costumes editedI also made odd things for sale, – anything that brought in a bit of cash.   And, of course, all my friends received hand-made gifts.  This Shetland sweater was machine-knitted.  I was asked to make two copies of a worn-out original sweater.  It was a real challenge – and I don’t think the recipient really appreciated the hard work that had gone into the two new jumpers.Machine knitted Shetland jersey (Pete)The biggest influence on my knitting in the early eighties was Kaffe Fassett.  His love of abundant pattern and colour was extraordinarily exciting and an enormous source of inspiration.  My kind neighbour taught me to spin (as I wrote in an earlier blog) and I was away!  My house became filled with fleece, wool and yarns.  It was at this time that little James told me wisely that we weren’t rich in money but we were rich in wool.  Too right, Jammy, too right!

Here my very good friend, Mandy, models the Kaffe Fassett Damask Flower cardigan that I made for her birthday one year.  I wonder if she still has it?  They had such large ungainly sleeves – very unfashionable now.Mandy Kaffe fassett cardiI knitted several versions of the Kaffe Fassett Persian Poppy cardigan for various friends. S J-K Kaffe Fasset cardiAnd I even came up with my own  Kaffe Fassett-style patterns.  (Alas – my photographic skills were SO poor!)  For my Wave cardigan, I took a motif often found in Persian carpet design, having realised that knitting it in the blues, whites and creams of ocean colours made it look just like waves.  It was knitted in any yarn I could lay my hands on – homespun, bought, unravelled old cardies …  silks, mohairs, wool, synthetic … all went in together.K's sea cardiWhat really strikes me when I think back to my hard-up times, is what an abundance of materials I had.  They may not always have been quality, or what I would ideally have worked with, but there was plenty.

Sarah, on the other hand, writes agonisingly painfully: “When my frock became so tattered and torn I would examine it closely to see if I could remedy it that it would appear more neatly.  I soon saw by taking out the whole front and put[ting] in a new one it would be whole but where was I to get the cloth?   All had been consumed and not a piece [left] over. … I had to do without.”

Writing about my younger life as I am now, I see that a golden cast has settled on these times.  I have lost the memories of exhausted and lonely single-parenting days.  It seems like a halcyon time.  Which it certainly wasn’t!

What did sustain me – and delightfully, I find this with Sarah Harkey Hall too – is the pleasure of ingenuity.  Making do, successfully adapting what you have to what you need is so darned satisfying!

Here’s Paula Mitchell Marks finishing off Sarah’s story: “While her reminiscences of these years reveal the tremendous responsibility and despair she felt, some creativity and pride showed in her textile labors.  Using commercial ‘ducken’, or duck – a strong plain-weave cotton fabric – for her little brothers’ trousers, she extracted a dye from ‘Shoneyhaw bushes’ and colored the material a rich navy blue, causing a neighbour to exclaim with amazed pleasure, ‘What kind of goods is it Sarah?  This is Ducken – Why I never saw that colour of Ducken.”

Good on you, Sarah Harkey Hall! 

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Edin’s Hall Broch

Last week Stephen took me to Edin’s Hall Broch.   He had discovered it on one of his longer walks, but I had never been there before – indeed, had never even heard of it.

As it turns out, Edin’s Hall Broch is a very remarkable place, and I am surprised more people don’t know about it.  Or perhaps they do.  Perhaps it’s just another closely guarded Borders/Northumbrian secret.

For those of you who (like me) don’t even know what a broch is, here is a brief summary of received internet wisdom.

There is much debate about their function and purpose.  What is agreed is that they are only found in Scotland, they are superb examples of drystone architecture, and they are round.  Nobody is sure whether they were built for defensive purposes or to be lived in as farmsteads.

But ooooh – I do love the word “Broch”!  I roll it round my lips and savour the sound – quite different from any other word I know. Stephen in Edin's Hall Broch It wasn’t really that special a day to be out.  As you can tell from our photos, the day was dull, and it was quite sharply cold for May.  But it was still a comfortable – and very interesting – walk from the carpark, about a mile and half from the ruins.

After a short walk through a forested area, you cross the Whiteadder Water by the Elba Footbridge.  The Whiteadder Water then runs parallel to the walk as you climb the hill up to the broch.Crossing Elba footbridgeThe Whiteadder Water is magnificent here, swirling dramatically over craggy rocks.  But, wait – is there a yellow conspiracy afoot?!  There’s masses of gorgeous clumps of golden scented gorse, many of the trees are in that early flush of colour when the leaves are transparent yellowy-pale-green, – and to cap it all we saw a Yellow Wagtail bobbing around on the rocks in the stream! Looking down at the Whiteadder waterWhere the scenery wasn’t yellow and green, it was silvery-white.  The lichen is as much an ornament on these blackthorn trees as their own blossom.Lichen on treeOur route takes us on up and up.  The sheep gaze down anxiously at us from the ridge, not sure whether we are friend or foe.  Don’t worry, sheepy friends, we’re travelling up to the right of this pylon.

Ah yes, this pylon.  We were happily admiring the beauty and wildness of the place when we realised that there was a huge great plonking pylon – no, a chain of pylons striding across the valley.  How fascinating that we’d subconsciously “subtracted” it from our awareness.  How strange too that we object to wind farms but seem oblivious to these earlier man-made monstrosities.Pylons, sheep and gorseThe way is well-signposted.  But look behind the sign, and there’s a telling indication of modern farming.  That’s the old drystone wall broken and crumbling, and it’s been superceded by an ugly barbed-wire fence (which you can just see in the foreground of the photo).  How very sad.Route sign to Edin's Hall BrochNature gives and it takes.  En route we found evidence of the harsh reality of nature red in tooth and claw.  Somebody’s dined here….perhaps the sparrowhawk we saw wheeling above?Nature red in tooth and clawHowever the kindly sheep have left me some lovely bits of fleece to collect – it’s the softest and cleanest fleece I have found out and about for a long time.  Wish I could catch a sheep to take some more fleece home with me!fleeceFinally, we get to the top of the hill, and there – amid a lot of other stone ruins (it’s a prehistoric hill fort) – is Edin’s Hall Broch!  (You get a really good idea of the whole site with this aerial picture on the Welcome to Scotland website.)Approaching Edin's Hall BrochThe people who built this place knew about dry stone walls – they could teach modern farmers a thing or two.  Just look at the size of the stones at the base of this building!huge stones at base of wallsThe size of the walls too is enormous – at their maximum they are over 5 metres wide.thick wallsThere’s a proper entrance, and what must be a front door slab lying on the ground beside.entrance to Edin's Hall BrochOn either side of the front entrance, there are guard rooms.entrance to guard roomsSet in these huge walls around are well-built steps and more rooms. stone steps Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this place is that this is one of only a handful of brochs in the Lowlands.  They are mostly found in northern western Scotland.   And this broch is not like the northern brochs – it’s too large in diameter for starters, so there are doubts that it was ever roofed.  As you will see on the information board reproduced below, Historic Scotland have come up with the hypothesis that somebody in the 2nd century AD travelled south bringing broch-building skills with them and adapted them to this Border locality.Historic Scotland information boardWho knows?

What we do know, however, is that when this site was first excavated in the late 19th century, a number of artifacts were found (these were donated to the Museum of Scotland).  They include a stone spindle whorl, a piece of jet ring, an amber bead, an oyster shell, bones and a fragment of a glass bracelet.  Very much the normal sort of possessions of people’s lives – food, ornamentation, and the means to clothe oneself.

I’d read about spindle whorls recently in Rebecca’s Needle and Spindle blog.  She describes so clearly what an vital part they had to play in basic survival tactics – and that would have been especially the case in these colder northern climes.

So – I’m once again stretching my imagination back to the people who lived here, and I’m finding that they (like me) enjoyed a bit of bling.  Ancestors of the modern sheep grazing around would have been of value to them for clothing – just as they are to me.

The modern world interrupts my old-times reverie. Well – a slightly more modern world.  Down through the trees, on the other side of the Whiteadder Water, there’s a glimpse of an intriguing house – actually another Round House.  Apparently it’s The Retreat, built in the late 18th century by the Earl of Wemyss as a shooting lodge.  You can’t help wondering if he was referencing the round broch on the opposite hill in his choice of architecture……  It looks very comfortable and well-appointed compared to the exposed stony broch of the ancients.looking down at The Retreat

Field of the Cloth of Gold

As the seasons pass, the fields outside our house change colour – sometimes it’s because of the weather, sometimes it’s because of the crops growing there.   Sometimes it’s just the light.  It is extraordinary how different our view can be because of this colour change.

We spent our first night here in July 2010, and this was the view looking from our home out down the coast to Bamburgh Castle.  Gold – and a rainbow to boot!  The crops – wheat, barley, oats – were ripening.  One field had already been harvested and ploughed up for winter sowing.  You can see the reddy-brown soil of the locality.  But the overwhelming colour and feel of the place when we first arrived will always be gold for me.golden fields and rainbowBy October, the fields were green.  The farmer had sown winter crops, conditions had been benign, and the young crops were growing well.  There were still plenty of small creatures about for our cat Poe to hunt.Poe exploring green fieldsThen in November, and on through the winter, we got snow.  Sometimes, it was a white out.snow white outSometimes, it was that blue-white, picking up the colour from the brilliant sky-blue and sea-blue.blue white of sky and sea and snowIn other years, we’ve know that sort of semi-snow state where it’s not white or green or brown.Sunrise on snowy fieldsEarly spring is an intense green – and blue.  I just love days when the forget-me-nots pick up the blue of the sea like this.  (Think it’s a hare in the field).Hare running on green fieldAnd the plants get greener and bigger.   Field, garden, lawn – all an abundant luscious green.abundant luscious greenThen the crops start to  change in colour – they’re on their way to gold via a sort of fresh lime-green.   At the same time, stronger and bolder colours take off in the garden.lime green fields and the odd poppyThen back to gold again.Poppies in front of golden fieldOn light evenings the colours shift. Some nights a dense blue dominates.deep blue of moonlight Golden fields are harvested.Harvesting golden fieldsThe stubble turns a softer faded gold.Golden stubble fieldOne year the farmer had planted broad beans in the field nearest our house.  These were left until late, late in the season when the beans were hard as pellets, and then they were combine-harvested like the other crops.  Apparently dry beans such as these are sold to Pakistan.  A dirty scuffed brown view for a long time.Dirty scuffed bean plantsThere’s also spring muddy-brown , with just the hint of green as the new shoots burst forth.  We had had heavy rain just before this picture was taken, and then hot sun resulting in mist steaming off the fields.steaming brown fieldsThis is the best brown – the rich chocolatey brown of the freshly ploughed field.Chocolate brown field being ploughedIn the right light, a field will take on a completely different colour.extraordinary golden evening light on fieldThis year, the farmer has planted rape for the first time (that we have known).  It has just come into flower.  A Northumbrian field wearing a cloth of gold.field of the cloth of gold and double rainbow

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.

Duddo stone circle

Earlier this week we walked to the Duddo stone circle. Duddo stones I am in awe of this place.  It is just magnificent.  On this visit – as on the other times we have visited – we had the place almost completely to ourselves.  Nobody else but the birds – larks singing, the odd cuckoo, an old pheasant croak.  Oh yes – a lone dog walker who turned round when she saw us at the stones and left us to enjoy the place alone. Stephen sitting against stone This is not a remarkable stone circle in  itself – it is small, and the stones are very worn and not really imposing.  But without doubt this is an extraordinary place.   Is it the location, the amazing views, the knowledge that this place meant so much to earlier peoples that they took the trouble to build this stone circle here?  A combination of all these, I would guess.Duddo stones from a distanceYou approach the stones along a flat dry path, some 20 minutes or so away from the road.walk up to Duddo stonesLooking down from stones to dog walkerWhen you get to the top, you can see that you are on a small mound in the centre of a landscape bowl that slopes away off into the far distance.Stephen looking over viewFrom the top you can see for miles and miles.  Right on the western horizon are the Eildon Hills, beloved by Walter Scott (called by the Romans Trimontium).looking over to EildonsTo the south is the looming Cheviot range. looking towards Cheviots To the north is the ridge that runs above the Tweed, separating Scotland from England, with Berwick at its most easterly point.  Looking northRadiocarbon indicates that the placing of these stones may date to as early as 2000 BC.  This site is very very old.  Duddo stoneThis is now a five stone circle.  Originally there were two other stones in the circle, but these were moved when – can you believe it?! – a determined farmer ploughed across the interior of the circle, disturbing the cremated human remains later found buried in the centre of the circle.Duddo stone 2The stones are worn, sculpted by wind and friendly sheep into the most fantastical of shapes – perhaps a bit like hands?Duddo stone like a fistSurely this is a fist?

In my mind’s eye, I stand on tippy tippy tip-toes and stretch my imagination back to the people who made and used this place.  It’s a gathering place, with crowds of people travelling over from the distant hills to stand at the foot of the mound, looking up at the stones and the rituals taking place there.

But Stephen reasonably points out that this area may have been wooded, not the open plain that we see today.  We just don’t know what the land was like then but the forest clearances do date to the period when the stone circle was set up.

It’s almost impossible to shift one’s mind from our world of take-away meals, worries about the NHS, fascination with social media, celebrity obsession, Ikea etc  to the people of four thousand years ago.Duddo stone with graffitti I wonder what the ancient peoples here would have thought about this modern graffitti?

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

The Black (and White) Dog

My father died earlier this week.  It is deeply deeply sad, and he is much mourned by his family and friends, but it was also a blessed release.  He had been unable to walk for some years, and towards the end we discovered that he was suffering from Lewy Body disease.

This is a surprisingly little know neurodegenerative dementia considering that at least 5 percent of 85 year olds are thought to suffer from it.   It shares the mental symptoms of confusion and loss of memory with Alzeimer’s, but the really distinguishing feature for many of those suffering from this disease are the visual hallucinations. For many these are visions of animals.  In my father’s case, it was a black dog.

I don’t think the black dog was really surprising because there had been a black dog in the family several years ago.  Brackler was of mixed  Springer and Labrador parentage, and originally came to live with Hugh (my first husband) and me in Devon in 1978. He was a fine dog – almost completely black, apart from a white flash under his chest.  Apart from this, he could easily be mistaken for a pure Labrador.Proud Brackler 1980 Sanctuary LodgeHowever, he had inherited a wild untamed need-to-explore trait from his Springer mother, and when my son was born in 1980, I couldn’t cope with Brackler, so he went to live with my parents in Kent.  Memorably, Hugh and my father met to pass Brackler on to his new owners at Guildford Cathedral – a place forever etched in my father’s mind as completely miserable because Hugh was so extremely upset to have to part with his dog.RHE Brackler 1987 BSBrackler went on to live an extremely happy life with my parents.  When they moved to Budleigh Salterton in 1987, he took to amazing sea swimming.  He would swim the entire length of the bay from the red cliffs at the west of the beach to the River Otter without break.  A very powerful dog.  My father adored him, and grieved terribly when he died in 1992.  (They went on to have another dog, Pellow – featured in the photo below.)9 RHE Pellow 1994 BudleighA couple of days after my father’s death, one early afternoon,  we were visited by a black and white collie dog running round the Seaview properties.  It was racing around, up into our gardens and off into the fields – a sloppy walker I thought, not walking with their dog conscientiously.

But later in the afternoon, by teatime, it was back – in our garden, nosing around the fat balls that we crumble up for the birds to eat on the path. It ran away when I went up to it – clearly shy and anxious. It had a broken leather lead round its neck, looking as though it had been tied up and pulled free.

It kept on running off into the fields and back into our garden – was clearly hungry. So I went to our neighbours’ house to get Jan and Craig to help me catch it.

They are very experienced dog-owners who originally hailed from Gateshead, but have been tempted to Spittal like us because of the beauty of the place.  Jan says she’s half gypsy. She’s a carer, and if I was old, ill or dying, I would like her to care for me – she’s a wonderfully warm woman.

Anyhow, we couldn’t catch the dog. It kept on running off into the fields – miles and miles away, we could just see the small black dot. We were worried because we are quite close to the main eastcoast railway line. Then it would come careering back.

Eventually, Jan got close enough to give it some food. It scoffed everything really quickly. She managed to stroke it – then it bared its teeth, so she left off.

We rang the police – but they won’t help as they no longer have facilities to house lost dogs. I rang the local council dog warden. Somebody else locally had reported the dog. They also wouldn’t help – unless we caught it, and then they would come and take it away.

We just couldn’t catch it, so eventually we tempted it into our greenhouse with food and water, and left a blanket in there for it to sleep in. The idea was that in the morning we hoped to find it asleep, shut the greenhouse door and phone the authorities.

As we hung around in the twilight trying to tempt the collie in, I told Jan that my father had just died. Lightbulb moment! “That’s why the dog is here! It’s come from your dad, he wants you to know he’s alright!”

Stephen and I had a small chuckle about this later in the evening – but it felt curiously comforting.

In the morning the dog was gone

I’m with Hamlet on this one:  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

RIP RHE, born in Melbourne’s Surrey Hills, 9th March 1926; died in England’s Surrey Hills, 31st March 2015.RHE snow 1966

One of my favourite photographs of my father, taken in the garden of No 5 embassy house, Tokyo, during the snowy spring of 1967.  Behind is the Diamond Hotel which featured strongly in our childhood dinner conversations as we could see it very clearly from the dining room, and my father would regularly comment on the seasons with the (to me) immortal phrase:” Soon we won’t be able to see the Diamond Hotel any more.”  It was code for spring approaching.  It is lovely to remember him smiling, happy and having fun!

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