I was on the road. I was making numerous journeys for work, conferences and holidays.
In 2004, I collected some materials when we visited New Zealand, where along with the many delights of landscape, botany and birdlife, I found irresistible fabric shops. The collection of New Zealand fabrics grew as we travelled around the Islands.
Then, I kept buying fabric…
With visits across Europe, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore, Norfolk Island and Hong Kong, I gathered a large pile of fabric between 2004 and 2014. Every piece of material carries a memory of where I bought it, who I was with, what I was doing, what I saw and experienced in that country.
I kept – I still keep – all my fabric in an old wooden luggage trunk. Every few weeks I would get the bags of material out of the trunk, take all the pieces out of their bags and arrange them on the bed, because that is the largest uncluttered surface in the house.
These fabrics are memory-holders. I would lay them out chronologically so I could see the order of travel across time (this is the first trip to NZ, the second trip to NZ…). Or I would arrange them geographically, grouping fabrics by where they had been bought so that fabrics from multiple visits to a single place were together (these are from Bangkok). Sometimes I would pick out fabrics by the person I was with when I bought them (here is material I bought when I was with Lisa and Nancy.). Most of the fabrics show patterns with plants, birds or animals, so frequently I would arrange them by biological groupings (these are birds of New Zealand). Then I would press them, to keep them crease free, check them for damage, and pack them away again.
As the collection grew, the question grew in volume in my head “What to do with the material?” I was in state of obsessive collecting, but unable to decide what to make as the range of fabric types, colours, weights and patterns grew. Some of the fabric was clearly unsuitable for patchwork but had to be bought anyway as it too lovely to leave in the shop. That is the trouble with obsessive collecting; it knows no bounds.
In the end, I had to set myself a very small limit of how much fabric to get on each trip.
I made jackets, skirts, kimonos, curtains, cushion covers and pillow cases….
But eventually I realised that I need to make something large so I could celebrate as many journeys as possible. It had to be a bed quilt. And suddenly I realised – I needed to arrange the fabric by colour and pattern. I started to cut and piece the sections, thinking about symmetry, reflection and rotation. As I moved the pieces around a story started to emerge.
The central section needed to use the large piece of Japanese fabric with carp leaping up a rocky stream. I had bought this when visiting a quilt and patchwork exhibition with my mother so it held happy memories.
I surrounded this with some other Japanese fabric that I found while in Australia on a work trip with Stuart and on a work trip to Colorado, where I visited a fabric shop with Lisa and Nancy.
At the pillow end, I wanted to show the forests and birds that lived near the stream with the fish. I used materials from New Zealand showing ferns, tui, bellbirds and dragon flies to evoke the moist richness of a forest.
Then, I imagined that the stream ran down to the sea, so at the foot end, I used fabrics from Norfolk Island, New Zealand and Australia that show the colours of the sea, sand and shells, or picture coastal wildlife.
I then made four narrower strips with fabric showing fish, birds, ferns from many countries and fabrics based on New Zealand Maori motifs. I joined the strips in pairs end to end, to give rotational symmetry, and then placed on either side of the central strip to provide reflective symmetry across the patchwork.
I realised that the patchwork section I now had would be too big to machine quilt, so instead I would need use a mix of embroidery and tie-quilting. I decided to use buttons as a decorative item and to hold the tie quilting. I have a large button box with many old buttons.
In addition I got some old family buttons from my mother and my mother-in-law. This meant I could add family memories of parents, grandparents and great grandparents using buttons from raincoats, summer dresses and baby cardigans from my mother in law’s and my mother’s button boxes. I used embroidery silk for some handquilting, to attach the buttons and made the quilting knots, and on some of the sections I brought the thread ends to the front of the quilt to dangle like lichen in the forest or seaweed on the seashore.
The work was getting larger, I was still travelling and collecting more material, which I wanted to incorporate. Also, as I had never made a quilt before, each stage of the quilt required a technique to learn, with new problems to understand and resolve.
One thing that seemed very difficult was how I was going to finish the edges. I could not see how to stop and achieve a hemmed edge.
I also had the problem the materials that I had not yet used, which were from other places I had visited. I wanted to add them, but their colours did not match well with the central panels.
Despite the fact that the completed panels now covered the bed, my “solution” to these problems was to prevaricate on how I was going to stop and make the work even larger. I would add two additional panels, on either side, which would come down to the ground. These use materials from Singapore, Bangkok, Australia, Norfolk Island, and New Zealand, celebrating visits to friends and relatives as well as stop overs during the travels.
So now, it was even bigger and harder to work with… I was problem solving piece by piece… and was hand sewing because it was too heavy to control going through the sewing machine… This was because (any quilters reading this will be head in hands now) I had already layered the patchwork, quilt wadding and back, started to join it with quilting stitches and buttons, starting from the middle of the quilt… and then decided to add the side panels… I managed it. But this is the wrong order – I made my life difficult.
But it looks lovely, so I am pleased I added the extra sections.
All the sections had been added, all the quilting was done, all the buttons added. I just needed to work out how to do the edges. I looked up how to finish the edges – I needed to make some binding strips. So I did that. They would need to be top stitched right round the edges of the quilt. It would need to be machine sewn, to be robust enough, but with the weight of the quilt, that was going to be difficult to do well. So I was very uncertain about how to continue. Then, in preparing to pin the binding to the quilt, I tidied the edges by cutting away the surplus quilt wadding that extended beyond the patchwork. And, I cut into the patchwork by accident…
And that, although I was so upset at the time, was a good thing. Because that made me stop, and then just say “Well – I just ruined it, so if I make a mistake top stitching the edges, it doesn’t matter so much. It will still be a quilt.”
I patched the patchwork, I sewed on the binding… It was done. .
It is done, and in use! And even though I can see the flaws in it, no-one else minds them. Either they can’t see them, or perhaps they don’t matter, or for some people they are evidence that this is a hand made item, a folk-piece not an industrial item.
My quilt: Achieved! It is on the bed, cosy, beautiful, useful, and joyful.