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My Quilt

March 21, 2011
by the gentle author

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.

From Thailand.

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

27 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    March 21, 2011

    The quilt is delightful, but what is more so, Gentle Author, is your ability to honour and celebrate your mother, and the often anonymous lives and work of women who have lived before us. I hope you are always comforted by the object, and its meanings.

  2. Susan Lendroth permalink
    March 21, 2011

    I was going to say “if only you’d found a needlepoint picture of a black cat,” but then I realized it would have been superfluous with Mr. Pussy reclining so regally on your quilt each day.

  3. jeannette permalink
    March 21, 2011

    quadruped assistance with the sewing always helpful.

    i think this is a marvelous idea, such a thoughtful homage to your parents and their love for you, as well as a — resurrection? — for the tapestries, the variety of care and vision that went into them. lemon velvet! chosen i s’pose as mr. p’s almost perfect ideal backdrop.

  4. jeannette permalink
    March 21, 2011

    sorry to spam you, but this artistic young lady gets all her incredibly chic furniture and accessories from thrift shops in the california desert, and has raised the art of ’60s and ’70s amateur portraits in oil of loved ones, with the weirdest hair, to an art. i like your tapestries better as her collection of 75-cent oil portraits are kind of spooky, but they’re quite wonderful too.

  5. March 21, 2011

    thanks for sharing this very personal aspect of your life with us – it gives us another dimnesion about the development of your writing; the designs you have chosen to add to it are all so unique, just like the individual stories you tell, which weave a whole

  6. March 21, 2011

    I read your post first thing this Monday morning and it really was the best way for me to start my somewhat uninspiring week. Your quilt (and story) is AMAZING and a wonderful tribute to your mum.

    I learned needlework at school and kept it up intermittently in adult life. My favourites are crochet and cutwork embroidery. I’ve got a huge bag of half-finished projects – when the girls leave home and I have less work/study obligations, I shall indulge myself in day-long sewing sessions.

  7. March 21, 2011

    Hello the Gentle author
    What a wonderful quilt and a beautiful and poginant story.
    The love for your parents is something wonderful and special and especially for your mother.
    My Mum is only 65 and in the advanced stages of Alzheimers disease, she was only 57 when diagnosed. My love for her now is more than it’s ever been, she is so vulnerable and the love for my Dad I cannot measure as I watch him care for my Mum 24/7.
    I fly back to London Thursday and can’t wait to see them.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Your Quilt is sewn with threads of Love…joining you…tangibly to your parents…
    Wonderful simply wonderful.
    LOVE PEACE enJOY your masterpiece

  8. March 21, 2011

    What an extraordinarily heart-warming and beautiful creation. And what a wonderful notion, to create something entirely unique to commemorate the warm feelings of love and security you recall from your childhood. A fitting tribute to your parents. I’m full of admiration.

    Many years ago, in a moment of existential angst and career crisis, I abandoned everything that I had worked so hard to achieve, returning to Wales and taking a job at an isolated rural site as custodian of a castle. To keep myself sane in my little wooden gatekeeper’s hut… so stifling in summer and icy in winter… I began to stitch a needlework cushion. I mapped out the design in felt-tip on the canvas and got working. It was an image drawn as though from an early child’s primer, and was a crocodile. In the upper left corner of the cushion I stitched ‘C is for…’ with the legend ‘Crocodile’ emblazoned in the lower right. I thought the project would be calming, but in fact I’d never stitched needlepoint before and so the effort and the tangled skeins at the back of the canvas nearly drove me to distraction. However I refused to give in and I completed it. The cushion is a handsome enough thing, though I never picked up a needle again.

    I think your idea much better, and I greatly admire the beautiful result.

  9. Kerry permalink
    March 21, 2011

    Your story was the first I read this morning and I’ve done so twice already. Each time, as I read of your mother, I find myself very connected to you, despite having never met and being a recent follower of your blog. One year ago, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and we’re struggling to make sense of it all and plan our road ahead. As I’m sure you’re familiar, that’s not always possible or easy. Thank you for the tribute and please know that, not only has your quilt brought you comfort, it has me as well.

  10. Jill permalink
    March 21, 2011

    What a labour of love, in every sense. Mr Pussy is also basking in that love. Black cats are very special.

  11. Ana permalink
    March 21, 2011

    All I can say is wow. I’ve never been one for needlework, being hopeless at it in high school (i’d have anxiety attacks before class because we had a nasty teacher who’d write students like me off for being slower in sewing skills), so haven’t really thought it a huge deal. I don’t know anyone who does tapestries, but this gave me pause. It’s an incredible quilt for its variety, colour, quality and sentiment.

  12. March 21, 2011

    Beautiful thought provoking post and the lovely images enhanced as always by Mr Pussy. Happy first day of Spring Gentle Author

  13. Joan permalink
    March 21, 2011

    How beautiful . Your blog each day is like sitting down for a cup of tea and a good chat with a dear, very interesting, friend. Thank you!

  14. March 21, 2011

    Thank you for a beautiful and wise story. Your quilt is magnificent.

  15. Anne Forster permalink
    March 21, 2011

    Magnificent, I’ve always had a yen for needlepoint. It’s many years since I took up a needle but there are still some examples about. My daughter also used to stitch when she was young.

  16. Helen Simpson permalink
    March 21, 2011

    This is one of the most beautiful and poignant of your essays. The quilt is, quite simply, amazing – and such a clever idea to stitch all those tapestries together. I love it. I love your writing. Who are you?!

  17. Anne permalink
    March 21, 2011

    What an exquisite quilt! I stared at these photographs for ages and find it truly inspiring that you finished such a large needlework piece in one year! What a wonderful tribute to your Mother. This is one of my alltime favourite blogs and each time I check in, I am delighted and surprised.

  18. March 22, 2011

    beautiful story, beautiful quilt, and adorable kitty cat. Thank you so much for sharing it all with us.

  19. March 22, 2011

    A fantastic, magical quilt for its physical beauty and the story behind it

  20. March 23, 2011

    I love your quilt. Of course every piece has a tale and you think of the person who did all those tiny stitches, then the whole piece in remembrance.

    Yes it’s inspirational.

    Also love your Blog. My dad was born and spent his childhood years in Hackney. His mother’s family being hand made shoemakers for generations. Uncle Alf being the last shoemaker. His father came from Somerset so total culture shock to him.

    Lil Bit Brit

  21. March 24, 2011

    Thank you.
    For sharing your thoughts and beliefs and the caring for your mother.
    For finding beautiful handwork and using it in such a lovely way. I am a quilter and can see that every ‘block’ has a special meaning – not only for you, but for someone else to have spent time stitching each and every one of them.
    Hugs and blessings from New Zealand.

  22. March 25, 2011

    This quilt is really warm, inspiring, moving, beautiful. I hope you’ll find also a new project like this, something for remembering your parents once more. It’s great to use our hands for such things. I’ve put this link on my blog. Thanks for sharing…and a great ovation for this blog! Tiziana, Italy

  23. the gentle author permalink*
    March 25, 2011

    Dear Tiziana – the new project is Spitalfields Life…..

  24. September 25, 2012

    I have just found this post and how delightful it is! I love quilts – and tapestry work – altho have never tried either myself. Your quilt is stunning, and so is the story behind it. Thank you for sharing this lovely tale with us. I hope to meet you one day, GA!

  25. Sonia Murray permalink
    September 26, 2012

    What a beautiful quilt, and a lovely way to honor the memory of your mother! Thanks for sharing! The squirrels are such an intricate piece of needlework, they would make a gorgeous pillow, and deserve to be displayed. Your blogs are always a joy!

  26. September 27, 2012

    Thank you for sharing the beautiful story of your quilt.

  27. Kathleen Ciclovan permalink
    May 12, 2015

    dear Gentle Author,

    What a surprise to read about and see the pics of your tapestry quilt…..I was browsing to see if anyone else had made one….as I am in the process of making four….and began collecting the forgotten works of others as you did… I have enough to make one romance, one animal, and two religious themed ones….I even have “The Angelus” as you do. I hope my quilts will be as gorgeous as yours. Kathleen

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