C&G Interview

Do you come from a sewing background?

Yes, though not quilters! My mother sewed a lot of clothes for me when I was young and she had taken a tailoring course at some point. We lived with my maternal grandparents at various points and my grandmother, who had been in service as a young woman, was the sort of person who expected to buy sheeting & hem it herself. I think I learnt more about sewing successfully via my mother than the needlework teachers that I had at school. I recall making ‘Come Dancing’ style ball gowns for my best doll from M&S petticoats that my mother had given to me. She remembers telling me to neaten the inside seams with oversewing so early on I was exposed to the idea that there are proper ways to do things. When I look back from where I am now, what I think was important was that I discovered how to persuade fabric to do what I wanted. Knowing that gives me confidence at tackling many projects.

In passing, this reminds me that one definition of skill in any craft is about having mastery over the relevant material, whether stone, clay or, in this case, fabric. As a teacher, I have often witnessed very different levels of ability at handling fabric amongst my students. Some definitely have a natural feel for the cloth they work with while others, even with sometimes more years of experience, seem never to have acquired an equal refinement of touch.

How and why did you start patchwork & quilting?

I trained in Dress Design at Manchester and for a while taught dress-making and pattern-cutting evening classes. When I became interested in P & Q it was because I thought I would make quilted garments, jackets, waistcoats etc. One of my earliest inspirations was Eirian Short’s book on Quilting: technique, design and application (pub. Batsford). Another that I can actually pick out was seeing an issue of Vogue Pattern Magazine where all the backgrounds of the fashion photos featured antique American quilts, obviously part of the Bicentenary celebrations in 1976. It all just seems to have trickled along from there.

Sometime after that in the late seventies, I needed a class to get some teaching practice done for one of my training certificates & the centre allowed me a six week short course on Patchwork, Quilting & Appliqué, so that was my first excursion into teaching these subjects. For a number of years my teaching was quite varied, depending on what the organisers wanted but gradually I taught less dress & more P & Q.

Where do you get your inspiration?

This is a difficult question to answer sensibly because my immediate response is “From anywhere!” I know you will want something more helpful than this.

Of course, what I mean is that no place or thing is excluded from being a possible inspiration. I don’t always know where inspiration will arise – it can take me by surprise. It is a well spring in my mind and sometimes quite definite ideas will come to me almost ready formed into quilts. The finished item may not always end up exactly as I first imagined because there comes a point at which the actual object upon which you’re working takes over. Then you have to pay attention to what it demands rather than stick to the original concept. For me this is one good reason for not having a graphed out plan of the work in hand – I feel it’s easier to notice when the work is doing something different and to respond to it, by giving up the initial plan.

However, another factor has occurred to me when I am standing speaking to a group about my work. This is that quite often I hear myself saying “This quilt was inspired by this fabric that you see here.” On quite a number of occasions the fabric/s in question has been a gift from a fellow quilter. I suppose this ties in well with the answer to the first question about responding to material. And it may well be the case that when a quilt changes course as it’s growing, it’s because of particular fabric choices, perhaps when the imagined perfect patch hasn’t been available.

What is your favourite technique?

How is it that these short questions can be so tricky to answer? It’s like being asked “What’s your favourite colour?” (BTW, I don’t have one!)

Seriously, it’s hard to pick one technique because if I had to execute a piece just in my one favourite technique, that would preclude me from doing much of the work I’ve produced to date. When I’m tackling any project, the answer is the technique that helps me to realise my idea. This can often include techniques such as spraying, dyeing, embroidery etc. and my quilt, Regeneration, Mount St Helens, in the web site gallery is a good example of how a diversity of techniques contribute to the whole – hopefully without it becoming a Christmas tree of effects!

I do like to sew appliqué, especially by hand. I think learning to slip-stitch linings into jackets was good preparation for needle-turning. Appliqué is well suited to the making of pictorial quilts and I’ve made quite a lot that could be described by this term, such as These Ancient Stones or Tiger, Tiger … and his eleven friends in the web site gallery.

Nevertheless, another aspect that intrigues me is the way patchwork allows geometric shapes to transform into other images, so I wouldn’t want to cross patchwork off the list! The quilt about the Mount St Helens eruption uses a single large Delectable Mountain block as the underlying structure and I’m currently suspended in a project which is repeating this concept of having a traditional pieced pattern that matches the theme of the quilt (sorry, no pictures available to date!).

Then as for quilting – well, I never expected that a person with as little patience as I think I have could become a fan of hand quilting. However, though I really enjoy the physical activity of hand quilting in my frame as well as the finished look of the item, life is too short to hand quilt everything that I make.

What do you think about the painted art quilts as compared to the traditional?

I have often painted, sprayed or dyed fabrics myself, when I can’t buy the fabrics I need – or know that it’s so unlikely they’re out there that I don’t bother to go and search. It can take less time to press on and do it yourself than fight your way through the traffic! Besides, then you get something uniquely yours.

So to step on from that to painting the entire thing seems to me small in principle. Of course it’s a much riskier undertaking – how much more fabric might you waste if the painting doesn’t become what you aimed for, how much more physical effort and time are invested. And unlike painting on a canvas or board, if you plan to stitch into the work, you can’t just say, “Oh well, I’ll just paint over that again”, if it isn’t working out. There comes a point where you’d have to begin again.
I suppose you can see that I don’t have any theoretical problem with painted quilts, though I understand (from IQSC) that they can be a challenge to store, depending on the amount and type of paint applied. If quilts end up being on a wall, as most of mine do, at once the old definitions start to break down, don’t they?

What do you see as the way forward?

A crystal ball might be useful here. I haven’t got one.
I hope there will always be space for those who celebrate the traditions and keep them alive with joy but without becoming policeman-like about it.

Nevertheless, I feel that we owe it to the craft to keep it alive by making contributions from the ideas and materials that are available to us but which didn’t exist in the past.

Everything that we admire in the past was once a new thing and perhaps not necessarily admired initially. We should remember that when something innovative and challenging appears. At the same time, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that because a thing is newly possible it is automatically good or worth copying.

I hope there’ll be places, events that encourage the showing of inventive work and let us expect that some of it will prove to be brave but brief, whilst other works will join the ranks of the applauded and imitated.