ID Number: TQ.2015 003
Name of interviewee: Camille Adams
Name of interviewer: Anna East
Name of transcriber: Kim Harvey
Location: Camille’s home
Address: Hanwell, London
Date: 8 January, 2015
Length of interview: 0:31:40
Camille made her quilt ‘A bridge the celebration’ to mark the end of her working life and beginning of her retirement. She incorporated fabric from her work clothes and describes how her designs often develop from the fabric she uses. Later in the interview Camille reminisces about how sewing featured in her childhood home in the Caribbean, then how her sewing preferences changed to fit with the demands on her time when she was working. She talks again about how fabric and embellishments influence her work, as well as how she views other people’s quilts.
Anna East [AE]: Good Morning, this is the 8th January, I am in Hanwell with Camille Adams and my name is Anna East and the reference number of this interview is TQ2015 003. Camille, thank you very much for inviting me here and agreeing to do this project and I can see your beautiful quilt, hanging up there so nicely. Would you like to tell me about it?
Camille Adams [CA]: [Pause and laughter] Well Anna, as you know most of my working life I was wrapped up in Health Visiting, and after I retired, and I tidied up, cleared out, to start a new journey in appreciating my life now after work. What became evident was that a lot of the unused materials that I had in my possession represented my working life. What do I mean by that? I sew, and there was a time I made all of my clothes, and these bits of fabric were fabric that made skirts, trousers, suits, and I wanted to use them to kind of remember, mark, appreciate, value, because the future was unknown and the past was so enjoyable and I still enjoy sewing so that was a way of combining those things which I thought would kind of not necessarily set the scene, but be the bridge between what was and what is going to be.
AE: So you’ve talked about bits of material, what made you select those bits? You had many bits? Tell me how you came to this construction using these pieces.
CA: I was intent on making sure that all of the bits were represented and they were in different sizes, shapes, design. But I think one thing they had in common was they were more winter fabrics, they were heavier fabrics and so the fabrics determined the design and I started by just making shapes with them. Some things the shapes were already there, they were just strips so I could only use it as a strip [AE: Mmm]. Some things were like a triangle, so I could only have a triangle. But then for most of them I could get rectangles or squares. And so I just started looking at the fabric and knowing that something will come out of that design.
AE: Where do you think the ‘something will come’ comes from?
CA: The ‘something will come’ is something I know I take for granted. I can look at a piece of fabric [background noise starts] and know what I am going to do with it. If I am in a shop or I am in somebody’s home or an exhibition or whatever, not every piece of fabric, but they talk to me, fabrics talk to me. So I can look and think that would make a lovely little child’s dress or that would be excellent for my whatever, not necessarily a night out, but I’m not into cushions and decorations in that sense, but I would know that something would suit. Well you know um if I was looking for something to change the look of that shoe, I could re-cover the button with that design, just little things, because there is always a part of me that when I’ve bought something as well I didn’t necessarily always want it to look like Miss wherever-it-came-from, so I may change the buttons or I may add something [background noise ends] or I may take away something and I do it without thinking, it’s just I think it is something about making it more ‘me’. So I knew that as I played with these fabrics a design would come that was ‘me’ in a way, but it would also be um talking to me about the past, and each piece of fabric, I may not remember the exact year or the exact sort of erm time of year, was it autumn or summer because as I’ve said they’re all winter fabrics anyway, but I knew what I made from it, I knew how I enjoyed wearing it I knew you know that or I also knew if I thought gosh you didn’t do this piece justice, you looked like an old woman in that skirt [laughter]. You know because not every piece was perfect as I would interpret perfect but each piece was wearable and enjoyed.
AE: From what you are saying, you have used a substantial history of dressmaking and practically focussed, useable, wearable items that you have now put into this magnificent quilt. Where did that transition, what are the roots of those skills and then this bridge that you talk about? Tell me a bit about that.
CA: I am the first of five children. My mother was a dressmaker and I always say she was my playmate.
AE: How lovely.
CA: So when I got up in the morning and she was at the sewing machine, the radio on, playing whatever and her flask next to her cos she has had a cup of tea and I would sit at her feet and pick up bits of scraps and bits of fabric and maybe a pin or erm a staple and I would pretend to sew and she would leave me, you know, and I would try to grab the scissors and cut and she would snatch it away from me, there were certain things you know that I wasn’t allowed to touch. But there were two machines in the house, there were always two machines. And so as a child when you know when she disappeared off I would play the treadle or you know pull with the cord because one of them was electric and the other one wasn’t and as time went on I think for me these things were toys. It’s not that I didn’t have toys, but I didn’t have a playmate and interacting with people was important and when my first sibling came along, she was a devil! I got pinched, kicked, bitten. My Dad would say she saw light before you, leave her alone, you know. So my playmate remained my Mum. And then I would start threading a needle and sewing two bits of fabric together and putting a little sequin on it or whatever, until at the age of 13, we had a fire in one of our little department stores and they were selling fabric cheap and I went and bought some fabric to make myself my first dress. By this time I have got permission to use the machines, I earned it [laughter]. At about 7, I did manage to split my nail trying to sew a sash unto my dress and I sat there and turned the wheel of the machine out to get the needle out. The evidence of that split nail remains today, with the mark at the back and I got whipped for it because I shouldn’t have been using the machine, but I continued [laughter]. My mother didn’t have to show me what to do. My mother didn’t use patterns, so I didn’t need a pattern. I used the tape measure like she did with her customers. I measured my body, I cut the fabric out and I made my first dress. When I came to put the zip in she said to me ‘uh, uh that’s not how you do it, let me show you how to put the zip in’. And then by 15, I was sewing for all my classmates. And anything I had, ‘oh, I want like that’. I made my dress for the Carnival Queen show and all my best friends wanted one like that.
AE: You were busy!
CA: So when I came to do my O-levels they were all chased away from my home by my mother, ‘Camille has to study’, you know. But eventually when I finished my O-levels and started work, I was helping my mother with her sewing because she wasn’t very good at delivering to all her clients on time. So some of them would say oh I’ll get Camille to do it for me [laughter]! But the important thing, the very important thing is I enjoyed every moment of it. And I did not appreciate how much I learned just from looking, admiring, observing and seeing how you could turn a bit of fabric into something. And my Mum was good at most sewing so she tatted, she did tatting, she did hand embroidery, she crocheted, she knitted, she taught others… So there was a range of erm things to see and observe and appreciate and learn. And she also did what we called at that time patchwork sheets. She didn’t necessarily call them quilts. And these things were neat because she would do different bits of cut fabric together and at the back she would face it. So although you didn’t have wadding, she didn’t do anything that had wadding in it, but it had a backing.
AE: Tell me a little bit about what you mean by a facing on these patchwork sheets.
CA: The facing really, the only thing I can compare it with is a quilt cover. Say if you think of a quilt cover that has two bits of fabric together it will be more like that, but it wasn’t loose.
AE: How was it attached?
CA: Just like a quilt cover. It wouldn’t have had, all the seaming was in the inside, and then on the outside you would secure the rim with a stitch, so you didn’t have something like a sack it remained flat but it never had wadding. [AE: Right, right] And they weren’t things that were done all the time, it was just yet another slant. And I also remember mats made of rags. Again these were like, they were new, they weren’t made of old clothes, but we called them rags, but it was made from bits of fabric that were too small maybe to make a quilt and for the number of girls who came through to learn to do something, cos not all children went to secondary school and so their parents would sort of channel them in a way to keep them occupied. It didn’t necessarily mean they had an interest or they wanted to do this. And not all of them would have run with a new talent or a new learning but some did. And so the range of things they did, and I know sometimes they would use these bits of fabric and sugar was sold in what we called at home a croker’s bag. A croker’s bag really is something, the backing was more like, sackcloth or… [AE: Two things Camille…] So that she would use that as the backing for these mats.
AE: First where is home that you are talking about? And say that word again for me, croker’s bag. Sounds fabulous.
CA: Home is St. Vincent. If you look on the map you might just, it depends on which map you look at, see a tiny dot in the arc of the Caribbean islands which sit between North and South America, and we are nearer south, so we are nearer Venezuela, like Trinidad and Grenada and St. Lucia. So that is kind of where we sit but we are definitely the southern isles and you might see St. Vincent and the Grenadines represented as a dot. What’s the Grenadines? They are little islands like [indecipherable], St Vincent’s is the mainland, the biggest, but we have got tiny islands all occupied that sit around us.
AE: How beautiful.
CA: Croker’s bag… I’m trying to remember what the English word is for that kind of fabric but it is a fabric that always looks, it always looks brown, the weave is not complete.
AE: Like a sacking?
CA: Like a sacking.
AE: Like a sacking, right, OK. And that was the backing?
CA: That was the backing for the mats. Because sugar, when I was a child, most grocers would have… sugar was bought in these big, big bags and they would weigh it out and I was familiar with that too as my grandmother had a little grocery shop. So it is something that I was very familiar with and hence of course we had access to those. Because it was part of our environment, we didn’t live in the shop, but we frequented it.
AE: Right, so all this richness of skills and people coming, all these skills and looking at your collecting and then looking at your fabrics have produced this. When did you move from dressmaking into this? What was happening then, tell me?
CA: I think because of my love of sewing, primarily sewing and making dresses and things you wear, I automatically had an eye and an appreciation of all things sewing. So I’ve been to exhibitions, I’ve had the exposure and the curiosity. So before this I had little tasters at exhibitions and other sessions and doing something or seeing something. Sad to say some of them I never completed but I’ve still got them, and I go back to them from time to time and add another little bit. But I think the important thing is the interest was there. Of course, as my work life got extremely different and busy and I removed from front line work, accommodating sewing became impossible and so while I still had the interest, I was kind of erm… sadly, because I did miss it, left with having to purchase things, and yes, re-visit that place where I would customise them. And then, what I started doing more of was the furnishing. So I would make my own curtains but they weren’t straightforward. I mean I don’t live in a big house, as you know, [background noise starts] but it would always be something with a design that suited the house in my opinion, the size of the window, it wasn’t necessarily something I took out of a book, it would always be something of my own creation. I know that sounds a bit maybe over the top but own creation in the sense of suitable for my space and my taste, as opposed to something I saw in a book. And that’s the transition with the quilt as well. It’s not a design I saw somewhere, but what I noticed because some of the fabrics were coming out, you know, already I had to use it as a triangle. A star was one of the things that appeared and then it just seemed well I need to use these fabrics, I can’t change, I’m going work around that. And I actually sat down and got a piece of paper and started drawing out squares [background noise ends] and a star and thought well we put the star in the middle. And then also, thinking about where am I going to put it, given the pieces of fabric that I have got, how long can this thing be, how wide can it be, where would it hang, what purpose would it serve? And I came up with, actually it can fit a panel of a door and because of the amount of sun I get into the room I like best, I thought it could go there and it doesn’t have to be there all of the time, it can be a seasonal thing so it becomes a winter panel. And then because of the star, a Christmas panel. Stars are always evident in things representing Christmas, so it could be as well. And a very good friend and colleague of mine, when she saw it, the star spoke to her as well, even before the thing was put together and hence all the interpretation of different stars, that was something that made me think, ‘oh yes’, so some of the stars are represented in the way I quilted the design.
AE: So what you have is hand quilting and star embellishing on this quilt. Was there any conscious thinking about the hand-quilting, or to choose one type of quilting or another? The fabrics are all rich, beautiful wools and the colour placements are wonderful.
CA: I think I thought of the fabric and the thread because there were two things coming through. Winter, which as somebody who wasn’t brought up with winter as part of my childhood experience, winter to me can mean dull, dark, sad [laughter], or winter in reality could also mean happy, bright, snowy, neutral colours. But what were my colours saying? My colours were winter fabrics no matter how we looked at them. They weren’t dull, but they weren’t bright either, they were varied. They weren’t all plain, they were plaids, they were tweeds, and I thought what I needed to do with this, to get the light, to get the winter light, the winter sun. We don’t talk about that, it’s better to talk about the winter rain and the funny snow, so for me the light was stars embellished in a bright thread. So I chose gold thread because it is something about lifting it, so giving it that light; and then little buttons, I didn’t want anything too big but little buttons again the shape of stars for embellishing. Colour didn’t jump out at me, it was more size; they needed to be small. But the thread for the hand quilting needed to be gold skein thread as opposed to silver.
AE: Mmm, it works so, so well. And when you look at it, what do you feel?
CA: Because I enjoyed my work life, I know I keep harping at that, but I think that’s important, you know, when you, for me anyway, you need to enjoy what you do, and I did enjoy my work life. I think I would do it again if I had a second run. And so because of that, I first see the memories of work. And for me work isn’t just what I gave up. It was also those days getting up in the morning and selecting what I wore. You may not know but I am kind of vain and you know there were times at home when I would change three different dresses before I went to work and I’d change my hairstyle when I came in for lunch and, you know, that kind of stuff. And also England didn’t allow me to indulge as much. I didn’t lose that passion for style and design no matter how simple. That was about me, that wasn’t something my work colleagues would know about. So work started when I selected what I was going to wear, what I was going to carry, where I’m going to travel because sometimes the journey changed and all of that had an impact on what I would wear. That’s why a lot of my clothes were trousers rather than skirts because I didn’t drive, I didn’t like the cold, so you know it talks so much to me.
AE: Mmm, I can see that, I can see that.
CA: If you aks me though about the actual product, the complete finish, then you get my criticism. [AE: Mmm?] I can see the imperfections, there’s a bit of puckering there, or that one looks a bit fractional, not exactly the same size as that other square!
AE: And how much does that bother you?
CA: I don’t know that it bothers me, I just constantly see it, I don’t not see it. No-one else comments on it, but I see it.
AE: What would you say makes a good quilt?
CA: [Pause] Good is loaded, that’s a loaded word, a very loaded word. Because you could look at something from a distance, for me anyway, and what I would first see is the design. It may not be the design that the producer intended. You know, I mean something as obvious as a tree you would be able to see the tree, but not everything is erm you know, I don’t want to say that simple, but not every design has something that has something that is that easily recognisable. Others invite you to come and engage and make of it what you think. So for me, that’s a good quilt. Something that talks to you, it invites you, it doesn’t matter in what sense is it the colour is it that you are scrambling with mmm, ‘how did that come about?’ Inevitably though, because I think of the past and the sewing I then begin to critique. So some of it go, and the critique is isn’t necessarily negative, it go ‘gosh this is absolutely superb, how did they manage this, this is so neat, this is so perfect you know, this is so…’ and I begin to it’s all going on in my head, obviously, cos I wouldn’t be sitting there talking to myself [laughter]! Yes, so it engages you, it challenges you, it teaches you something.
AE: And all of your friends, your visitors, your family who have seen your quilt, do they engage with it?
CA: Everyone does, which I must say I found a bit odd but it is a talking piece and the conversations are different so that in itself is fascinating. The first person to comment was somebody who in fact notices everything it’s a friend of my son and she said ‘Oh!’ she says ‘what a beautiful quilt’ she says ‘you know my Mum made one for me on such and such an occasion’ and she explained this thing her Mum did for her. And then she went up to mine and she was talking about it and she wanted me to tell her about mine but she was talking about what she saw and what she liked and her curiosity didn’t stop there. When I bought a new book, and I created a little space in my special room and I didn’t think anybody would notice but she did. ‘Oh, you’ve bought some new quilting books’ [laughter]. So you know, but no, it’s, that brings its own pleasure actually, because like I said it’s something about that bridge, and in the early days although it wasn’t done immediately after my retirement, it was the next stage because I don’t do much sewing now of the old kind, and it’s learning something new that still benefits from what I had before. It enhances the old, it stretches me in a way that I want to be stretched, I enjoy being stretched, and it just sort of teaches you how much you don’t know that you can still do with fabric and enjoy.
AE: So it’s completing a circle for you, that bridge?
CA: It is.
AE: Well thank you Camille, it’s been so interesting hearing about the different parts of what you said there. We’re going to take some pictures now.