This is my mother’s quilt, but many other women have had a hand in it. It was started by my mother in the 1950s, and she made it for most of my life, in admittedly rather a desultory fashion. I remember her sitting on a freezing, pebbly beach in Suffolk, with the grey North Sea crashing yards from the picnic rug. Having been brought up in Egypt, nothing would possess her to go into the water. After feeding us hard boiled eggs and cold chicken sandwiches, she would settle down to sew the quilt. Over the years, I forgot it existed. When my mother died a few years ago, and we were clearing out her house, we found the quilt in a suitcase in the garage, half finished, alongside piles of material, some of which had already been cut out and sewn into hexagon blocks, ready to be fitted into the quilt. I’m no seamstress and left up to me the quilt would still be in the suitcase with a ‘get to this one day’ Post-It Note on it. It would have remained untouched forever more.
However, I had a brainwave. I contacted Emily Langdon, who is a craftswoman and maker. She finished the quilt, quite brilliantly. So it is my mother’s quilt and Emily’s quilt, and it is the quilt of other women too. Because it is made out of dresses that had been grown out of, of skirts that had been torn or which were too long, or too short or too tight, out of kitchen curtains and pyjamas and school uniforms. It comes from a time when clothes were made at home, when material was cheaper by far than a cotton dress bought from a shop, when houses whirred with the rattle of Singer sewing machines. These dresses were made by my mother, yes, but also by my grandmother, my sister, my nanny, my aunt, and even by me.
Many of the materials in this quilt have memories for me. There is a rich dark swirling pattern from a dress of my grandmother’s, a rare deviation from the black that she wore for her twenty-five years of widowhood. There’s a yellow polka dot which was my sister’s school uniform, strangely cheery for a school which made her miserable. There are small orange flowers from a midi-dress my sister made in the ‘70s. There’s the turquoise Greek dancing children from a dress of my sister’s which became a favourite of my daughter’s. When my daughter grew out of it, I washed it carefully, ironed it and returned it to my sister for her grandchildren – we are a family of hoarders, and we like a nice hand-me-down. Many of the blocks are everyday dresses of my mother’s – the geometric magenta, the cornflowers – and through them I remember her: standing by a cauldron stirring marmalade, trying to convince me that spinach for every meal was a good thing during the great spinach glut of ‘75, picking roses for the table, laughing as she deadheaded the hydrangeas. I thought that I would share three pieces of material and their memories with you.
The first is a piece of cotton, beige with white swans on it. It was actively chosen, by me. I was drawn to it in the upholstery section of Laura Ashley at some time in the ’70s. It is a sturdy material, and in its favour I suppose one could say that the swans look fairly swanlike. It was to be used for my very first grown-up sewing project in Senior 1 of my convent school. I had chosen a Simplicity pattern from the Easy-Make section and I was excited about it all. Briefly. There’s something delicious about unfolding the tissue paper of a pattern and cutting up the shapes ready to lay on new material which has that very particular rather chemical smell of freshly fixed dye. The excitement soon faded to desperation. I had selected a jerkin to make. A straight drop from shoulder to mid-bottom, with one dart to accommodate what I thought of as my bosom, no sleeves, V neck, plenty of room to grow. As sewing goes, apart from a poncho, it couldn’t have been easier. I laid it out, I pinned it, I repinned it, I repinned it again, I put on the markings with tailors chalk, I put them on again and again, I tacked, I measured – all before the scissors came near the swans. When it was cut and I did start to sew it together the nuns were having none of it – “Clare, shame on you, get ya quick-unpick out here right now.” My nuns were Canadian for reasons which are a little hazy. Apparently they’d been evacuated to Lingfield during the war. From London, that is, not Canada. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the nuns decided that Surrey was not ripe for mass Catholic conversion, and packed their bags for Africa. At this point, when I was at school, they were still happily ensconced teaching us volleyball, the geography of the Canadian Great Lakes and dictating from history books as they weren’t entirely clear about the vagaries of British parliamentary system.
And they taught sewing. It took me an entire term to sew two seams and two darts and by the end I hated that jerkin with a passion I was later to reserve for Margaret Thatcher. I took it home and my mother told me to show her. I put it on. I think the kindest thing I can say is that beige is not my colour. My mother laughed and laughed and laughed. I was pleased that I’d given her pleasure, but the jerkin had to go. I put it in the bin, stabbing it with my upholstery scissors. My mother wouldn’t usually have allowed such wastefulness but I think the sight of me and the jerkin was too much even for her. She couldn’t, in all kindness, force me to wear it. However, what I didn’t know is that she retrieved the jerkin, and cut it up for her quilt where it is now, reminding me for all time that jerkins should not be my garment of choice.
The second piece of material is a grey floral glazed cotton. My mother made it into a sleeveless summer dress which she wore with pearls and court shoes, to wear to parties. My parents had very good parties. Now, I’m about to tell you something that is Top Secret, so if I go missing there’s a number to ring on a Post-It Note above my desk. Both my parents were, at one time, spies. My father worked for MI6 and MI5 for the whole of his working life, and my mother started off in General HQ in Cairo, moving to London to work in what everyone called The Office and then on to Aden before she married and had to give up work. They were both old style, and adhered to the Official Secrets Act so I probably know less about the business than you do. My mother certainly never spoke about what she did, except in the vaguest terms. For instance, once she said how annoying it had been when she was having a lovely time at a dance in Cairo and she’d had to leave to decode a top secret urgent communication – but all it said was that some office furniture had arrived in Port Said. Well, how annoying…
We lived a fairly quiet, fairly suburban life in Sussex, except for sometimes. The people who came to my parents’ parties were not all locals. There’d be Gus, who spoke nine different Chinese languages fluently. There was David, who was not the same since his time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp – blackouts – and then, once, gloriously, there was Jimmy Brodie. Jimmy was an old boyfriend of my mother’s. Half Arabic and half Irish, an impossibly charming combination apparently, and with what she said, rather mistily, were green green eyes. He’d been in The Office in Cairo with her, until he’d left to become a gunrunner, which at the time I’d thought was an entirely normal career progression.
I must have been about nine when I opened the front door one day to find Jimmy, his beautiful Arabic wife and his beautiful Arabic wife’s beautiful sister. Sister, huh, said my mother, confusingly. I was mesmerised. My mother took them into the garden and I carried out the tray with the teapot and the teacups and the slices of bread and butter, but there wasn’t space for me on the curved Victorian seat where everyone was sitting. So Jimmy’s beautiful Arabic wife’s beautiful sister took off her fur coat and spread it on the lawn. “Sit,” she said to the scruffy, scab-kneed tomboy. I sat, adoringly, and stroked the mink coat as the impossibly charming gunrunner made my mother laugh.
The last piece of material is a soft yellow brushed cotton, with strange dancing gnomes on it. This is from a pair of pyjamas made for me when I was probably about four. They had little mid-length trousers – Capri pants one might call them now – which were edged with broderie anglais, and a long-sleeved jacket top. Everyone else at home was very good at things like putting in sleeves, and sewing on collars that were even on either side and lay flat. I was never any good at either. The pyjamas were cosy and sweet, and were made for me to go on stage in front of an enormous audience (presumably the assembled mothers of Junior 1), and sing Wee Willie Winkie, holding a candle snuffer. You’d think that this was an experience which would scar me for life, but I sailed through it and it’s not actually why I remember these pyjamas.
If I was writing about them, I might call the tale ‘The Perils of Greed’. My bedroom at home had a bed, a gas fire, a chest of drawers, a window on which you could paint patterns in the frost – it was a cold Victorian house – a nursing chair on which my mother sat to sing me to sleep, and a high shelf. On the far corner of the high shelf, out of my reach lived a bottle of gripe water, which was popular in the ‘70s as a cure for colic, and which my mother spooned into our mouths if we ever had any kind of tummy ache. I loved gripe water. I don’t know if you’ve ever had it, but it tastes like pear drops, indeed, as I was very disturbed in later life to discover, it also tastes exactly like the liqueur Kummel. I was only allowed gripe water on particular occasions. Not often enough, thought my four-year-old self. So I discovered a way I could clamber up the chest of drawers, lean over the chasm and just reach the gripe water with the tips of my fingers. I’d take a swig and put it back, undiscovered. Which was all very well except that I used to have a night light; I was scared of the dark. In those days the light was not a shining plastic moon plugged safely into a wall, but a naked candle flame. One night, during my gripe water driven perambulations, I knocked over the night light. It fell onto the nursing chair, and the chair caught fire. I scrambled back into bed, not wishing to be discovered stealing gripe water. The flames took hold. We lived in a house with long corridors and thick walls, so it can only have been the sheerest chance that my mother heard me call. I certainly wasn’t screaming; I thought that I would get into gripe water related trouble. She came, as the flames had consumed the chair and were moving on to the bed, and she rescued me.
So this piece of material reminds me of the day that my mother saved my life. And never really bothered to mention it to anyone, ever again.
As I run my hands over the quilt there are flashes of memory I didn’t know I had. Psychedelic tangerine swirls from a ‘70s midi-dress: my sister getting ready for a party. Soft black cotton with pink, blue and white flowers: me, aged about seven, at an open day at my brother’s school, in a beloved dress with smocking, puff sleeves and a lace collar. Teal cotton with yellow, turquoise and black splodges: my mother in a skirt and wellies, gardening in the ‘90s. Each little hexagon is a window into my past. The quilt is a portrait of the women in my family, of my home and of my childhood. It is not valuable. It is one of my greatest treasures.
Bath-based writer Clare Reddaway’s stories are published widely and have won or been listed for a number of national competitions. Recent highlights include being long-listed (top 50) for the BBC National Short Story Awards, short-listed for the Bridport Prize and publication of standalone short The Guts of a Mackerel by Fly on the Wall Press. Clare has been selected as one of the writers on LitWorks’ first south-west talent development programme WordSpace 2022-2023. www.clarereddaway.co.uk @CReddaway