Wednesday, 21 November 2007

what i do...

I believe fabrics play a big part in our life story and the clients who have sought me out apparently have that instinct too, looking for something they feel will become more beautiful with age.

My business is all about working with treasured vintage pieces.
Perhaps bits of wedding dress will be worked into a bolster cushion for a couple's bed, a mother's collection of doilies is used, or a piece of childhood curtains. Some people cherish hand stitching, connecting it to the mystery of an item's story.

I encourage my clients to use the pieces well and continue to add to them as they are worn and aged, to carry the story into the future.

With this in mind, I’m going to spend the next few posts thinking and talking about the ‘red betty’ quilt that I’ve shown here in a couple of photo’s. It is deeply personal to me as it is for my daughter. I might also go on to think/write about the mother-daughter relationship, as it was my mum who I watched sewing and recycling as I was growing up.

I sometimes remember funny little details of fabrics I was surrounded by as a child. Bathroom curtains, an odd vinyl seat cover or shelf cover, amazing home-sewn dresses, a fabulously illustrated character on a window blind in our caravan... I'm sure we all do.

These are such beautiful little fragments as they're sometimes so hard to pin down, yet all these little bits add up to form a story of each of our lives. The quilts I make are, I hope, a bit like this. They're little journeys or stories. For the clients who commission them they might be deeply sentimental and meaningful, with the intention of being passed onto future generations.

Well, red betty started out as an imagined story... and turned into my own. It's so precious and still has a whole lifetime to go so who knows what it will end up looking like, where it will end up, and what it will see and hear.

Monday, 19 November 2007

red betty

Oh boy. Well the thing is I'm trying to upload more images to do a big old waffle about the red betty memory quilt. But I'm just not getting to grips with the technology very well and can't get the images on here. So this image looks a bit out of focus - perhaps it's too big or something? If you click on it, it seems better. Will come back to this posting in a day or so as am losing my patience...

Sunday, 18 November 2007


“Pull the car over Brian, I want to take my bra off and let my tits breath”.

So he does.
And so she does.

Then a pair of nylon slacks and other assorted artificial fibres come clambering clumsily over us in the back seat of the car. Squooshed in between my brother and I on the way to Weymouth. Faffing about under her clothes. Her thick nylon clothes. It must have been hot under all those dodgy poly-nylon layers. The friction alone. Not to mention flammable.
The sweet smell of lipstick, face powder, Avon and alcohol masking the car fumes.

My Nan.
Who made the whole world and my memories of it, Kodacolor.

My Nan and all her colour, was among the first big influences on my relationship with fabrics, art and a creative outlook. Through clothes, colour, improvisation and her approach to life in general. She stood out in the small, grim, grey, tedious, going-nowhere… eternally 1970’s town.

It was my Mum that guided my ‘have a go’ attitude and helped me make the many soooo hideous outfits for ‘Friday Night Youth Club’. But that’s another entry. Quite a few, probably. Especially the now-disturbing Youth Club years.

OK. So. Nan - her influence on me. Any connections with the where’s and why’s of my lifelong infatuation with fabrics? Hmm. Here we go..

Well she was a very interesting character. A strong, eccentric, tactless and predatory female. Blunt and crude, sentimental and incredibly funny. ‘Colourful’ as they say.

A mix between Elsie Tanner and Yootha Joyce with a little smattering of Bette Davis in Who Killed Baby Jane. An old-school drama queen. She fascinated and impressed me. I wonder if Liberache had sex with Barbara Cartland and they’d had a lovechild daughter… who had no money…. Would that have been my Nan?! Maybe if Liberache had got Quentin Crisp pregnant (yes, I know) – or Joe Orton….

Anyway. She was poor. She had a strange marital arrangement with my Grandad. He was kind of her maid and had an imaginary friend called Percy. But I’ll do all that stuff another time as he was also a very huge influence on me and creativity etc.

Nan would start the day with poor old Grandad taking in her tea etc on a tray (he slept in a different room). He’d take out the potty from under her bed and she’d start planning her look for the day. In front of her bed was a big (to me) dressing table. On her bed were dolls in shiny dresses, looking like cute pubescent drag queens in Music Hall costumes. The room was tacky and stuffy. Was aromatherapy big in the seventies? ‘Cos my Nan’s room smelled of the potty from under her bed, boiled eggs for breakfast, Avon perfume… and a whiff of adventure.

Once she’d chosen her outfit and dressed, Grandad would tidy away the clothes strewn everywhere. The outfits were always well co-ordinated. Capes were favoured. Nylon slacks were a staple. When flares went out of fashion, she simply took the slacks to the dry cleaners and had them taken in to become ‘straights’. She’d wear something like lime green slacks, fluorescent orange nylon jumper, a bright green cape and a green turban. Then a big old handful of plastic jewellery. The pattern emerging is that of a propensity for nylon. Needs must, I guess. And it doesn’t need ironing. Not that she’d have been the one to do it... (My Dad went on to become a fireman – not surprising, perhaps, after growing up around all that static electric and nylon friction)


After a morning visit to the pub Nan might bring a few of her chums home. These were mostly Pat, Joan (not John) Lennon and Gay Les. Pat was a salt of the earth woman from Blackheath. Gay Les was very much like Lionel Blair. Thin, energetic… wore a brown leather flying jacket and a white silk scarf. If he wasn’t so camp I’d have likened him to Russ Abbott in the flying gags. Which is appropriate because… they did love a party with a happy atmosphere. Unless they’d been squabbling. If not, Grandad or Joan would say ‘Backs to the walls, chaps’ and he’d merrily goose them all. Records went on, mouth organs came out. Her and Grandad might row – she’d throw a slipper at his head if he couldn’t (wouldn’t) hear her.

Joan Lennon would aggressively wave her walking stick at people and drive wrecklessly whilst under the influence – her motorised wheelchair. But it never really mattered because their other good friend was Lick ‘em and Stick ‘em, the psychic traffic warden.

One afternoon Nan, Joan, Lick ‘em, Dad and I were in the front room at Nan’s when Grandad came running in, soooo excited. He’d spotted a UFO. Lick ‘em (the psychic) (sidekick) was beside herself with anticipation. A lover of all things voodoo, this was such a thrill. We all ran out to see it.

But oh, it was the sun going behind a cloud! And they were a group of romantic alcoholics. Sorry, I got p-sidetracked myself here.

sea of sellotape

Nan's living room was riotous in it’s d├ęcor, of course. No home for taste, but a welcome nursing home for tired plastic. Where white elephants went to die. But it was all loved first.

Greeting cards were lovingly cut and the pretty bits sellotaped onto everything. Along the curtain pelmits, flower pots, books, cookie jars, all decorated. After a while, the strips criss-crossing the pretty cuttings went brown. Everything went a bit stripey.

The clumsily patterned brown and mustard carpet oozing with spilled booze and boiled sweets. Chintzy sofa and chairs clashed awfully and gaudily. The china cabinet full of tat. I want to remember antimacassars, doilies and sparkling crystal, but it wasn’t like that. There were some fantastic flowery antimacassars on hers and Grandad’s chairs, but the rest was just plain, cheap, fairground tacky stuff. (By the way, antimacassars are those fabric things that go on the back of sofas and on chair arms etc to protect them from Brylcream.)

The magic and sprinkles of glitter came from her simple embellishments, the atmosphere from their intriguing relationship and lifestyle, her mesmerising, exuberant personality.

It was always way too hot in there. The fire was nearly always on and the orange glow from it added to the whole heady mix.

On the bright red windowsills were plastic flower pots displaying plastic flowers, with bits of greeting cards or photos dutifully stuck on. Even the photos with people’s heads chopped off. To Nan they were all fair game. The photos I'm showing here are all her very own lovingly made artwork.

When we (my cousins and I) went for Sunday lunch, Nan would give us a glass of sherry. Because we were only 8 or 9, 10 or 11 years old, we’d pour it into the flower pots. Geraniums seem to survive anything. But these little trinkets – a sweet jar for after dinner, next to the fireplace – would then be imbued with special memories and connections from whatever token she’d stuck onto it. Precious treasure then. How very optimistic of her.

For my 2nd year show at college (in the nineties) I did some sheets of graphics about Nan & Grandad and covered them in strips of sellotape, just like she’d done. It was interesting to try and protect the images I’d made in this way. Everything about it was a bit cock-eyed really. I was sticking stuff straight across precious images, which couldn’t be a good move, could it? Then rather than protecting them, the sellotape went brown and looked stripey. It was almost meditative applying the tape lovingly, strip by strip. But crap to look at!

But then again, totally unique and almost ‘organic’ in it’s way. Certainly tugs my heartstrings now to think about it. Hmm, so… that makes it very effective and graphic then?


So - I was just glancing round her room (in my mind), at the books next to her. Grandad previously worked for Blackwells so they had a number of mis-printed books with upside down pages. Jeeves and Worcester, gardening books. Poetry books, funnily enough. La-la-la-loved a bit of sentimentality on the quiet. Clearly, she didn’t choose to be as tough as she’d had to be. I really think she was a serial optimist.

One of the books to her side was a medical dictionary. Perfect for her every whim. She’d look up whatever came to mind on a particular day and use the ailment for about a week to get her four sons running round after her whilst she hammily rubbed her chest. She had such terrible angina/acid/dizzy spells/pains... Underneath the books was a pull-down section that held Advocat, brandy, sherry and her other companion - her little jar of gall-stones. She was so proud of those – always waggling them at us. Funny little things.

She was a frequent waggler. She’d waggle her little finger when describing certain sexual experiences/men’s privates or poke you in the back of the neck with her fingers – she particularly liked to pinch the back of your neck really hard whilst crossing the road.

Being young, there was a lot of being on the floor. The motifs on the dreadful carpet were probably bigger than me. It never changed. Her lurid orange 60’s lamp got smaller as I got taller. I used to hide behind the sofa when they’d talk about scary things from the news. Study the pattern in close detail.

The plastic strips covering the under-stair cupboard where there was a small box of a few modest toys. A Mary, Mungo & Midge book. The 50’s tables in the kitchen and the now cool retro cupboards, which smelled of flour and butter. Stale.

The crummy cheap print of the Haywain reminded her of where she came from Everything reminded her of something. She had really very little. Anything she had was for a reason and she’d made it as beautiful as she could, with as little as she could.


I went through a box of Nan’s old photos today. Oh God. It’s shocking now to see how awful her home actually was. The curtains in the bay window where we had lunch and tea were horrific. Thick, dull, ochre nylon. Really thick, no pattern. The sofas and chairs seemed to live forever from photo to photo. Their awful stretch-nylon covers came and went. Presumably there wasn’t much choice in how they looked. In fact, the images spell out poverty more than I’d ever realised. What a dull grey place she lived in. No wonder she dressed up and had a drink and a hoolie most days. Made the colour, added the sprinkles in her head. But it worked. It’s how I remember it all. I’ve said previously that she fascinated me. Her colourful personality, language, her wit, her constantly entertaining personality and daily adventures were compelling. I’d hear amusing stories about her from other people. To me, she was exotic, colourful, inventive and inspirational. I thought she was so glamorous. Even the smell of make-up and alcohol seemed fabulous to me. I wanted to be just as interesting and glamorous as her when I grew up. A beautiful creature - gaudy and arresting.

Was it Quentin Crisp who talked about a bag lady that used to get dressed up every evening behind Harrods in Knightsbridge before spending the rest of the night ransacking the bins? When asked what she was doing, she stated that a lady should always dress for dinner. Of course.

I won’t slap on a neat summing-up ending here. I know I share her flights of fantasy and enjoy kitsch, trinkets and colourful people, it’s not rocket science.

I’ll do a big old waffle about fabric next time.

Night night. Nanna loves ya.