Yesterday was a funny day. I finished quite a large writing job and so felt quite pleased with the way the day had gone, but I also felt a real desire to ‘make’. My Grate Frend Mike pointed out at the weekend that I haven’t made anything since I took the pledge and stopped buying art materials. He mused that I might need the stimulus of having new stuff in order to be creative. I love this argument, but I’m not sure it is true. It’s been a particularly busy start of term for me, and getting home exhausted has not helped the creative effort. Yesterday was a bit different; the work had gone well and so I had probably more energy than if I had started at 9.00 a.m. I used the energy to make a start on a piece which is part of my protean Laura Ashley project: a death quilt.
The idea for this came out of transcribing an interview about Laura Ashley that I did with my quilting buddies Alison, Ruth, Becky and Ceri. We had a lovely time together and told stories about our experiences with Laura Ashley and what the fabric had meant to us. I started transcribing the tape in a hotel room when I went to conference in Spain at which the medieval historian was giving a paper and I was thinking about the use of cloth as markers at various significant stages in women’s lives. We were on a very long coach trip which was the outing part of the conference and I was musing on what I had transcribed. It seemed to me that we have quilts for new babies, new houses, weddings, leavings, but the part of our life cycle that is missing is death. So, I was interested to hear Sandie Lush at Bristol Quilters talking about death bed quilts. I thought I would have a go at a death quilt – a quilt about death.
It is probably no coincidence that yesterday, when I started making this piece, was the 20th anniversary of my father’s death, which I usually mark with a bouquet of white flowers. I have made my own ritual because I can’t go to the crematorium as I live too far away and can never get back to Nottingham because term is always bedding in. So, I thought that I would make a commemorative quilt for my father. This will not be what I call an ‘analogue’ quilt: a quilt where there is a square of his beloved spitfire fighter plane, or a circuit board because he worked in telecommunications, or a bottle of his favourite malt whisky – a ‘this means that’ quilt. I love those quilts. I love their energy and exuberance and the way that they really are love made visible. But I want to make a quilt which says something about the way we construct death. So, I wanted the quilt to be a real Victorian mourning piece.
There are two reasons for this. One is that my mother used to tease my father that he was the last great Victorian and had been born out of his time, and the other is that I think Laura Ashley as a brand, and Laura Ashley the person were strongly inflected with Victoriana. So, the Victorian tone felt right.
I was intending to do a lot of piecing on this quilt and to include some very tiny pieces of Laura Ashley fabric pieced into the gorgeous Oakshott fabric I bought for the quilt at the Festival of Quilts last year (www.oakshottfabrics.com/). I had bought funereal colours for that purpose: black, charcoal grey, lavender, chartreuse-y green. Amazingly, I could find them. But things sprang to hand yesterday: a lovely piece of black edging lace, a little piece of embroidered felt, five fantastic spotty snake beads, and I have learned over the years that it is always best to go with what the universe puts in front of me. I started with the background piece and started to arrange the elements I had found but it was very flat. I went through the grey and green but eventually what I thought would be the highlight colour, the lavender, turned out to be the most promising background. Then I started layering it up. I happened to have my phone with me upstairs in my attic workroom so I took some photos as I went. So, this is the first attempt:
I was quite happy with this until I came across an abandoned project using images of Victorian cemeteries. I decided to integrate some of these:
The problem with this quilt is going to be the construction of some of the decorative elements – so the cemeteries stuff will need a lot of work to get it to hold together. I might have to break my pledge and buy a dremel drill to do some serious construction. This element is going to need some drilling, and I am not sure that the medieval historian’s toolbox will be up to the job:
I will be making this quilt in units which will eventually be stitched onto the base fabric and I will give more information and pictures – with my camera rather than my phone – as I go along. It’s a bit self-regarding to think that people will be interested in my creative process, but I thought it might be interesting to document it just once.