The Laura Ashley project begins to gather pace…

Laura Ashley Quilts
Laura Ashley Quilts

There hasn’t been much activity on my blog for the last week because I have been so busy with my day job.  A big part of it was a bit of a treat as well: three days of being taught on my EdD on narrative and life-writing.  Three days of being a student rather than a teacher is delightful, and I am not one of those teachers who needs to take over in any seminar room or lecture theatre I go into.  I like to listen for once (I then did two days straight seven hour teaching days and got to do all the talking I wanted, so the balance of my universe at least was restored).

The point of this preamble is that as part of the teaching for this degree we do a performance piece on the final day in which we perform something about the experience of the previous two days.  I am an Anglo-Saxon through and through and so I can find this excruciating: not everyone was born to perform, but on this occasion the standard was really high and everyone could relax.  Hurrah.  The unit was on narrative interviewing and this is where I want to start to collect stories about women’s experiences of Laura Ashley, both of using the fabric in patchwork and in their lives.  Even before I have really started doing the work people have started giving me their stories (and fabric), so I have a head start.  I decided to work with this to do a sort of monologue.  It is, in case you are interested, an example of a performative text: a report of research findings written in a way to evoke an emotional as well as intellectual response (roughly…)  So, I thought you might like to see it.  You have to imagine a dramatic reading, though, and I did act it out which will not be reflected in written text.  Imagine Dame Judi, or Juliet Stevenson reading it (if only…)  Malcolm, Jo and Catherine were on the programme with me.  Tami Spry is a genius performative writer from the US who is a great inspiration to me.  When she does her performances she always wears fantastic quite high shoes, so I took my cue from her both in the writing and in wearing a fantastic pair of tangerine shoes!

What I learned from Tami Spry

After our mother’s skin the first thing we feel is cloth.

And cloth is the last thing most of us feel when we leave this world:

The bedclothes.

Constantine and Reuter write in the most expensive book I have ever bought:

Whole cloth is planar and pliable; it can be given volume.

One can animate cloth: drape and crumple, and fold it;

Compress, pleat and tuck it;

Festoon, swag and swaddle it;

Bunt it and cut it;

Tear, sew and furl it;

Appliqué, quilt, and fabricate it.

Cloth is ductile; it expands and contracts.

Cloth can be embellished with stitches, dyes, or print.

cloth can be burned or scored.

It is for each generation to expand the vocabulary of approaches to cloth. (p. 9)

Cloth is so tightly wrapped round the lives of women that we can hardly breathe.  And yet our neighbours throw gossamer threads.  Gossamer threads.  And no matter how high our father might build that garden fence, that gossamer thread has always already been thrown.

Our whole lives and the places where we live and breathe and have our being, are as Ingold reminds us, entanglements and enmeshments, apparently solid surfaces but close up, meshworks, always pull apartable.  Threads always available to spool off and join other enmeshments.  Every piece of lace, real lace, not Nottingham lace, is constituted by a single thread held in stasis in the world by two knots, beginning and end, fragile and vulnerable to the finger that pulls at the loose end.

Jo says, ‘your experience gets woven into the fabric’

She is talking about what happens when you wear your clothes.  The dress that you wore for that rite of passage will always carry that trace every other time you wear it.  Wash it, scrub it, hang it out in the burning bleaching fading strafing sun, iron it, press it, bleach it, dye it, cut it up, cut it down, change the hem, change the buttons, it will make no difference.  That experience remains imprinted on it.  Catherine says, ‘You wear the experience again.’

I am expecting to hear about baby quilts and wedding dresses and bridesmaids dresses, and curtains for starter homes.  I am expecting to hear tales of celebration: daughters making good marriages, fortunes made on the property ladder, babies made under Laura Ashley hexagons from the  very bold.  I have already been told these tales by women with shining eyes revisiting such happy times in their lives, times of great possibility, times of open moments, times of being alive.  I have been given great scoops of joy by women even before I begin to listen carefully, respectfully, diligently to their stories.  They have given me full measure, pressed down and then given me more.  So much love, so much joy, so much fun in their eyes when they remember their urban milkmaid outfits and perhaps, sweet, unforeseeing selves.

And I wonder if I will hear the smaller quieter stories.  The counternarratives to the golden hours.  The other side of being a snowy white middle class, menopausal woman.

I was wearing a Laura Ashley dress the first time he hit me.

I remember standing there in my Laura Ashley dungarees with the baby, watching as he walked away.

I remember holding her in my arms in the Laura Ashley cot quilt my mum had made, and knowing she was dead.

I remember sitting on the sofa in that old frock, cutting up all those stupid, stupid milkmaid outfits and making a patchwork quilt with them as my depression really bit.

Constantine and Reuter again:

Cloth.  What an elegant substance it is, at play with the breeze,

In combat with the wind

Protecting and wrapping and shielding and comforting.

…Cloth, that old silent companion of the human race, has always kept very special company with artists (p. 9)

Malcolm says no matter how careful we are when we handle talk, no matter how pristine the white gloves we wear, we will always leave our finger prints on the glass, our maker’s mark.

Of course, of course,

The glorious Eve Sedgwick urges us to read Renu Bora, who celebrates this very point.  Because Bora alerts us to the instructive distinction between texture and texxture.

You may wish or hear this again.  Between texture with one x and texxture with two.

Texxture, (with two xs) Eve tells us,

‘…is the kind of texture that is dense with offered information about how, substantively, historically, materially, it came into being.  A brick or metalwork pot that still bears the scars and uneven sheen of its making would exemplify texxture in this sense.’. (p. 14)

These women I will interview have been creating texxxxxxxture for years with every stitch they have put into their quilts.  I want to let that texxxxture sing out.  I want to celebrate our  making with them

Pattie Chase says:

A woman made utility quilts as fast as she could so her family wouldn’t freeze,

and she made them as beautiful as she could so her heart wouldn’t break.

To make is to connect.  The work is relational.  The work is throwing gossamer threads, over and over and over again.

I have made quilts with these women I will interview for years.  For Bosnia, for Alzheimers, for the Woodland Trust.   We are standing by to send quilts to Japan when the call comes.  We make a steady supply of  unquilted coverlets for the premature Bristol babies too tiny to cope with a layer of wadding, and to give to their mothers to keep no matter what the outcome.  We would wrap up the entire world if we could.

Constantine and Reuter one last time:

Bits and pieces of cloth sewn together curtain the world….Every civilization has this tradition of squirrelling away precious fragments until they are needed to construct a whole.  Works of art, especially in the twentieth  century, are often nothing more than ordered fragmentation – with each fragment carrying its own cultural load.  (p. 91)

Making is connecting.  With ourselves, with others, with the world.


Pattie Chase (1976) ‘Quilting: Reclaiming Our Art’. Country Life, September, p. 9

Mildred Constantine and Laurel Reuter (1997) Whole Cloth, New York: Monacelli Press.

Eve Sedgwick (2003) Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

The image at the top of this post is from:

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