All the stories I have written this Winter (including these words you read now) were written beneath this quilt that I made a few years ago and which has special meaning for me. Once the snow began before Christmas, I retreated to my bed to work each day, abandoning my desk that had become piled with layers of paper and taking consolation in the warmth and comfort under my quilt, as the ideal snug location to devise my daily compositions. While the deep freeze overtook the city and snow whirled outside, I was happy there – in my secure private space, writing to you through the long dark nights in Spitalfields.
This is the only quilt I ever made and I make no claims for my ability as a stitcher which is functional rather than demonstrating any special skill. Once I made a shirt that I sewed by hand, copying the pattern from one I already had, and it took me a week, with innumerable unpicking and resewing as I took the pieces apart and reassembled them until I achieved something wearable. It was a beautiful way to spend a week, sitting cross-legged sewing on the floor and although I am proud of the shirt I made, I shall not attempt it again.
My quilt is significant because I made it to incarnate the memory of my mother, and as a means to manifest the warmth I drew from her, and illustrated with the lyrical imagery that I associate with her – something soft and rich in colour that I could enfold myself with, and something that would be present in my daily life to connect me to my childhood, when I existed solely within the tender cocoon of my parents’ affections. My sweetest memories are of being tucked up in bed as a child and of my parents climbing onto the bed to lie beside me for ten minutes until I drifted off.
For several years, after the death of my father, I nursed my mother as she succumbed to the dementia that paralysed her, took away her nature, her mind, her faculties and her eventually her life. It was an all-consuming task, both physically and emotionally, being a housewife, washing bed sheets constantly, cooking food, and feeding and tending to her as she declined slowly over months and years. And when it was over, at first I did not know what to do next.
One day, I saw a woollen tapestry at a market of a fisherman in a sou-wester. This sentimental image spoke to me, like a picture in a children’s book, and evoking Cornwall where my mother was born. It was made from a kit and entailed hours of skillful work yet was on sale for a couple of pounds, and so I bought it. At once, I realised that were lots of these tapestries around that no-one wanted and I was drawn to collect them. Many were in stilted designs and crude colours but it did not matter to me because I realised they look better the more you have, and it satisfied me to gather these unloved artifacts that had been created at the expense of so much labour and expertise, mostly – I suspected – by old women.
I have taught myself to be unsentimental about death itself, and I believe that human remains are merely the remains – of no greater meaning than toenails or hair clippings. After their demise, the quality of a person does not reside within the body – and so I chose to have no tombstone for my parents and I shall not return to their grave. Instead, through making a quilt, I found an active way to engage with my emotion at the loss of a parent and create something I can keep by me in fond remembrance for always.
I laid out the tapestries upon the floor and arranged them. I realised I needed many more and I discovered there were hundreds for sale online. And soon they began to arrive in the mail every day. And the more I searched, the more discriminating I became to find the most beautiful and those with pictures which I could arrange to create a visual poem of all the things my mother loved – even the work of her favourite artists, Vermeer, Millet, Degas and Lowry, as well as animals, especially birds, and flowers, and the fishing boats and seascapes of her childhood beside the Cornish coast.
Over months, as the quilt came together, there with plenty of rejections and substitutions in the pursuit of my obsession to create the most beautiful arrangement possible. A room of the house was devoted to the quilt, where my cat Mr Pussy came to lie upon the fragments each day, to keep me company while I sat there alone for hours contemplating all the tapestries – shuffling them to discover new juxtapositions of picture and colour, as each new arrival in the mail engendered new possibilities.
The natural tones of the woollen dyes gave the quilt a rich luminous glow of colour and I was always aware of the hundreds of hours of work employed by those whose needlecraft was of a far greater quality than mine. After consideration, a soft lemon yellow velvet was sought out to line it, and a thin wadding was inserted to give it substance and warmth but not to be too heavy for a Summer night.
It took me a year to make the quilt. From the first night, it has delighted me and I have slept beneath it ever since. I love to wake to see its colours and the pictures that I know so well, and it means so much to know that I shall have my beautiful quilt of memories of my mother to keep me warm and safe for the rest of my life.
The first tapestry I bought.
Seventies silk butterflies from Florida.
My grandmother had a print of Millet’s “The Angelus” in her dining room for more than sixty years.
Note the tiny stitches giving detail to the lion’s head in this menagerie.
A unique tapestry from a painting of a Cornish fishing village.
From the Czech Republic.
These squirrels never made it into the quilt.
I could not take this wonderful seascape from its frame, it hangs on my wall today.
You may like to read about Mr Pussy in Winter