ID Number: TQ.2014.051
Name of interviewee: Fiona Roberts
Name of interviewer: Victoria Martin
Name of transcriber: Katherine James
Location: The University of Chester
Date: 11 March 2015
Length of interview: 01:40:38
Fiona introduces a group quilt made to celebrate the 175th anniversary of The University of Chester, made by current and former staff and students. She explains the meaning behind each of the blocks and describes the making of the quilt, as well as future plans for the quilt. Fiona began sewing as a child and worked as a seamstress for Laura Ashley before changing career when sewing became a hobby. She discusses the difficulties of finding quilt groups and classes that fit around fulltime work, her stash and sewing equipment, attending quilt shows and making gifts for family and friends.
Victoria Martin [VM]: [Interview introduction] Right, Fiona. We’ve explained that if at any point you want to stop then just say so and we’ll stop recording and that, but – this beautiful quilt we’ve got before us. Would you mind telling me a little bit about it?
Fiona Roberts [FR]: Yes, it’s the anniversary quilt that’s celebrating 175 years since the University of Chester began, and in those days it was a teacher training college started back in 1839 with a church founding. And with all the celebrations that we have in the academic year 2014 to 2015 I felt that a lot of them were events-based so at the end of the day there is nothing left of the celebration, and I wanted there to be something more permanent, having seen a stained-glass window for the 150th in our chapel. So, being a keen quilter and any excuse to get my needle and thread out, I contacted other colleagues around the university campuses and asked them would they like to get involved in this project. So 17 women, some staff, some former staff, some former students, all got together and stitched it over 14 months.
So it’s 90 inches square, it’s 25 blocks, all 14 inches square, and it has been quilted by a shop called the Quilter’s Trading Post in Buerton near Audlem in Cheshire, which has helped to gel it all together. And gelling together is quite a good way of thinking about the project as a whole. It’s brought together people who would not otherwise have met, generated friendships and helped people learn skills off others that they were interested to find out more about, so it’s really been a quite inspirational project to be a part of.
VM: So when you first put the idea to people, did these people kind of jump forward straight away, were they people who’ve quilted before, or not, or…?
FR: I did it all by email, the internet, the most efficient way of putting an idea out there because there are so many different campuses and people expressed interest, but all were very reticent to… sort of… elucidate their skills. Lots of modest people out there, so some had done quilting and others said ‘my thing is embroidery, or cross stitch’ or ‘I’ve done some sewing but I’d like to be involved’. And there was a worry about quality of workmanship but this isn’t a project about an exam-standard or competition-standard quilt, this is about people getting together and enjoying doing a project of this nature and having something to admire that they’ve achieved at the end of it together. So we have beginners and we’ve got very experienced people, and it, it works.
VM: So will you tell me a little bit about some of the blocks on it, what we’re looking at.
FR: Certainly. My vision from the beginning was to have one square that was the focal point and that is why it’s five by five. And the crest is the reason for that. I wanted that to be the centre of it and the Vice-Chancellor’s personal assistant Kath Roberts is a very accomplished cross-stitcher and she volunteered to do that. Cos we had a little think-tank meeting of what sort of images we would put on it and that was one of the things that we came up with was the crest and Kath volunteered to do that in cross stitch. So that was to be the centre and then above it we have black and white photographs printed on fabric of the founders who all got together in Warrington all those years ago to get this teacher training college up and running. And that was made by an alumna of the university who was our most accomplished quilter, and that is 70 hours of work. I greatly admired the attention to detail that Jenny put into that. She researched that hexagons were the in thing, when this, when the university would have been started, as the teacher training college, and that the sort of rusty-red colour she’s used was very much in vogue at that time as well. But what staggered me was the tiny, tiny beads that she’s used as an outline around the hexagons and the circles which have the portraits within them. She calculated how many of those she’d got, she measured how many centimetres she would need to cover all of the areas she wanted there to be lines of bead, worked out that she had not got enough beads, then researched till she could find another packet of beads as close as possible, worried that they would not be the same dye-batch, so she then calculated how many old beads then one new bead, how many old beads then one new bead so that it would all match. Now I bow to that attention to detail, I think that’s quite dedicated and so professional. And she was an inspiration to us all in terms of understanding how to put a large-scale quilt together, different little bits about quilting and things so she, she was very much our mentor, I think.
Above that the top at the centre is our mission statement. And because of the church founding of this institution there’s quite an ethos of being ‘a good person’ and putting into this place more than what you want to get out of it and that’s reflected in the mission. That was done by two people. It started off, it was designed and the idea was Louise Botton who, who was a previous PA of our Vice-Chancellor who now no longer works here but keeps in touch. But it was finished by Kath Roberts, his current PA, because Louise had the opportunity to move to Italy a little faster than she expected, which is quite nice cos normally moving house ends up being a bit slower than expected.
So moving down the central column, the fireworks on a black velvet background, sumptuous, such lovely colours, Kath also embroidered this and it’s to celebrate the date that we became a university and for those not in the world of higher education, you have to fulfil certain criteria to become a university and this institution finally was able to tick all of the, the necessary boxes in 2005. So the 28th of September 2005 is the date that the inauguration took place and we have the Duke of Westminster as our Chancellor, who of course lives not far away from Chester. At the bottom in the centre is a poppy, a symbol of remembrance, and that was crafted by an alumna, Pat Ransome, who is also a member of the Alumni Executive Committee, a very committed alumna who supports the university very much. And Pat felt that we should always look to our past to guide us to our future, and that was something that she wanted to contribute.
If we do from the top on the next column, we have a representation of the stained-glass window which was put in in 1989 for the 150th anniversary, and that was done by Louise Frederick, who is a student counsellor, and she wanted to have a Christian element in the quilt, and that’s what she came up with.
Below that is a representation of the Alumni Garden. That’s on the campus here at Chester in Parkgate Road and alumni are welcome to sit there and reflect, as is anyone, and it was designed by a member of staff in 2005 I think and was at the RHS at Tatton and won a silver medal, so it was dismantled and re-assembled here on campus and it’s a, a very pretty, traditional corner of the campus in so much modern development in recent years.
Moving down to the next one, UCAT is a university initiative, academy schools and not something I know a great deal about, and that was stitched by Kate McKay who is involved in that area of the university’s endeavours. And of course we have the year 1839, it’s self-explanatory I think, stitched by Amy Jones who is the editorial assistant in the alumni and development office, so she produces the magazine for the alumni.
And at the bottom there’s a block with three figures and they represent students, in particular friendship, because, regardless of the size of this university now, which is around 18,000 students, friendship and a feeling of family and community is very strong here, and when you talk to students who were here in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, they will all tell you exactly the same thing: how much they felt at home – it was a comforting environment and very supportive, and it, it’s great to know that after all of the expansions, that atmosphere is still very very strong here, and that’s something that could very easily have been lost. And that was crafted by Felicity Davies who works in the Careers and Employability Department.
Moving up to the top left we have a map with lots of dots on, and those dots signify all of the countries that we work with. We have around 6% international students at the moment, which is quite small compared to some of the large universities, but we’ve seen a significant increase, particularly from Nigeria, the USA, China, India and Pakistan in recent years. And the statement on the ribbon on that, it says ‘Chester, Gateway to the World’, which is something that the Vice-Chancellor has said during graduations in the past.
The next block is four buildings on the Warrington campus which have been stitched by a member of staff over there who felt that it would be nice to have some representation of a different campus, and very colourful that is too. She took a lot of time and care in choosing specific fabrics to get the, the look that she wanted for her block.
The next one down is a model of the Practising School, or the Church College Schools as some people knew it. It was built in 1900 after a fund-raising effort by the then Principal and some money from I think the Duke of Westminster if I remember correctly, because the Practising School that was here had become too small and was poorly ventilated. It was for local children, and I have met a gentleman aged 86 who was a student or should I say pupil there from 1939 to ’41, and he could tell me which room was used for which subject, what the teachers’ names were, what their nicknames were, how they got their nicknames. And interestingly, where we, we now see the Alumni Garden and the Careers and Employability building, he says that that was a swathe of ‘Dig for Victory’ vegetable patch when he was a lad, but he doesn’t remember enjoying any of the fruits of the labours of that patch! So I was, I have quilted that one and I was inspired after meeting Bill Jones to have that element of the pupils that were here, represented.
Underneath that we have a block done by Wendy Fiander who is in the LIS Department, which is Learning and Information Services. And Wendy wanted to have included in the block how we are very conscious of sustainability and making inroads to improve various ‘green’ elements on our campus. So the bicycle represents the bike-to-work scheme, there’s the felt foot for the carbon footprint, the vegetables are symbolic of the university’s allotment, and the symbol with the green Chester, that’s the logo for all the green initiatives that are here. So we’ve got things like recycling bins and ‘Don’t print too many copies’, etc. etc. so we’re always looking at ways to make sure that we’re not wasteful.
And at the bottom we have a pennant representing the Warrington Wolves and they are a sports team, and because I’m not sport-y I’m not sure what sport it is – football perhaps, rugby, I’m not sure – and they have a base on the Warrington campus and they train there, there’s a special arrangement with them, and so a member of staff from the Warrington campus – we had two from Warrington, Karen Boyle and Liz Johnston – that’s what they wanted to do on that left side. They weren’t always able to join us when we had meetings to see how we were getting on in Chester, but we always made sure they were kept in the loop, even though they were a few miles away.
Moving to the right of centre, starting at the top, this block represents student life and has been stitched by Michelle Spruce, who is in the AQSS department, which is quality assessment, and she has also registered as a Masters student here as well, so she’s doing it as a member of staff and a student. [Cough] And she wanted to show all the different elements of being a student, so there’s dancing, studying, money worries, sport, all sorts on there.
The next one is I think the iconic image of Chester, the East Gate Clock, and this was stitched by a lovely, cheerful member of our group called Shirley Bowers, who had a really refreshing, can-do attitude and was a joy to work with. And she was so excited when she found eBay supplied her with the clock face and the arms of the clock at a good price that was the right size for what she wanted to do. So little triumphs, eh (hands of the clock, I mean). So Shirley, I don’t think she’s done a lot of sewing from what she was telling us but she found different fabrics that suited what she wanted, and embellishments, and had a great time putting that together, and it’s very effective.
Below that we have a golden felt cross with a tree in the background and some floral effects at the base. This is known as the Peace Cross and it was made out of glass by a former lecturer in education who sadly died last year aged 93. And when he’d retired he got into glassmaking and having been a very successful fighter pilot in World War Two he became very cynical and uncomfortable about the whole war idea and went more into the peace movement. And he made this amber cross, this Peace Cross, in the 1980s and it was used in marches during the Cold War, marches for peace in London. So that is now in a, a garden in our grounds, with a little plaque to remember him by.
Then we have the 2014 year block, also stitched by Amy. We decided it would probably be a good idea to have the same person do both of them so that they balanced in their style.
The bottom one here is the only true patchwork block of the twenty-five, and it’s a replica of the tiles in the porchway of the entrance to what was the Principal’s residence on this campus. And I stitched this one as I felt I’d learnt from the different stories I’ve heard over the years from the different alumni. Every young man – women weren’t here until 1961 – crossed the threshold and stood on these tiles with wobbly knees as he went in to meet the Principal and to be interviewed, or grilled, to see if he was suitable to come to the Chester College. So I thought that was quite fun to include that side of things.
At the top right we have what looks like a spaceship, and that’s exactly what it is. It was made by a student as a, an art project and it sits in the grounds of the Kingsway campus, which is the Faculty of Arts and Media. And Helen Berrie from Student Support and Guidance decided that would be a fun thing to include! So that’s what she stitched.
And then below that we have a representation of the city walls of Chester. This city is quite known for its Roman walls all the way around which you can still walk along, and Jordan Cooil stitched this. She is in the Management Information Services Department in Registry and she’s also an alumna and we asked her what made you think of doing the walls, what was the reason behind your choice, and she said when she was a skinty student she and her boyfriend used to enjoy a walk arm in arm around the walls, when they hadn’t got any money to spend on going out into anything particular. So the walls had particular memories that were very special for her. And I think he became her husband as well – so we have a bit of romance in our quilt as well.
The next square shows four graduation gowns with different-coloured hoods. This was stitched by Helen Berry again, and she wanted to show the graduation side of life at the University of Chester.
Below that was the first quilt, the first block to be completed. And this was done by Felicity Davies of the Careers and Employability Department, who we soon learnt was a very fast stitcher. And this represents the River Dee: it shows the weir, and what’s known as Salmon Leap, and the bridge is known as Handbridge, and to the right of the picture is the Handbridge area of Chester and some flats that overlook the river. And to the left in the bottom left corner is the Riverside campus. Now for people who know Chester, who have not been here for a few years, the Riverside campus will mean nothing – but if I say it’s the former council offices, they’ll know exactly where I mean, that overlook the river. The university bought those from the council and modernised them a few years ago, enabling the council to move out and have more bespoke offices built. One thing that amuses me about this picture is, about two weeks after Felicity had finished it, having put a special sort of salmony-pink colour as the paint on the blocks of flats, which always tickled me because it’s called Salmon Leap and they’re salmon-coloured, they were painted cream! So we have a permanent reminder of their original colour in her block. And Felicity had put some thought into what she wanted to have as a message in this block, and she said she looked at what they do in the Careers and Employability team as being a bridge from studenthood into their first employment, they’re helping them along the way, and here is a bridge to the university across the river – so some symbolism there.
And the last square at the bottom right represents the School of Nursing and Midwifery and the old logo, the red and white building that was on some of the paperwork of the time. And that’s part of the Faculty of Health and Social Care. And the significance of this block, stitched by Shirley, who is in an administrative role in that faculty is, without the increase in numbers of student nurses and midwives, we would not have had the volume of students to be able to apply to be a university. And that was achieved by a success in negotiating contracts to provide the education for nurses and midwives away from nursing colleges in the area, so in a way we moved in, took over and sort of pushed out some of the smaller colleges, but it has proved you know a very successful service to the local hospitals, who we deal with directly. So that’s a significant impact on the shaping of this institution, and it’s also the largest faculty as well. And Shirley filched some badges off some uniforms that had been returned, so they are the genuine article on that one.
So that’s the twenty-five blocks. Once we’d stitched all of those, not all seventeen of us, but a bunch of us, went to the Quilter’s Trading Post to see what fabrics we thought would suit to have as what we call sashing, so that’s the strips between, and what we wanted as the borders. And we also wanted to sot of take the blocks there and hold them against different bolts of fabric to see what would, what colours would pull it all together. And a sort of not-quite-black was decided the best choice, and that was from the Downton Abbey range, of all things. So we cut strips of that and decided where all the blocks should be placed, at the premises. We didn’t have any hierarchy of what should go where, other than the centre row. We knew we were having the crest in the middle but we felt the founders and the mission statement were quite significant and also the inauguration. So we had the centre row in our minds first, of what we wanted. Then we did it balanced on the principle of chiaroscuro, of light next to dark so, roughly, you’ve got light, dark, light, dark, so that it doesn’t look all white in one corner or something, so there’s no hierarchy of why a block is where other than that.
We then, two of us volunteered to take half each, to put the rest of it together, and then we returned to the Quilter’s Trading Post with one, one piece of cloth that was the top layer of the quilt, and Pam the co-owner advised us not to have anything lumpy on it, so the clock face and hands and some of the larger beads were not on the quilt. She then custom-quilted it, she had it tight on a roll and one by one she did each block that enhanced the picture and the stitching on it to bring out that block to its best effect. And we just left her to it; she’s a very experienced lady and she’s really made the quilt in terms of the impact of it and the professionalism of it. We’re very grateful to her skills, giving her time to do that for us. It would have been as long again if we had tried to do that ourselves, so that was a very big bonus.
We then needed to put the border on the edges, the binding on the edges I should say, so I stitched, I cut out the binding strips and stitched them all in one long line, tacked it on, stitched the front on and then tacked the back and then we put the quilt face down on the table and we had a traditional sewing bee, so everybody had their little corner of the table and they sewed from right to left or left to right but whatever was in front of them and we joined it all up that way, so we had a sort of communal effort at the very end.
Then I had an email from one of our governors saying that she’d heard about the quilt and she’d like to get involved. Well of course it was all finished except for putting the label on, so I invited her to stitch the label on, which is in the bottom left corner at the back, and so Sandra did that for us. So everyone had a good time doing it. I’ve learnt a lot about deadlines and different ways of working, and how people have different styles and speeds that they work as well, but it was a fun project to put together, and we had an unveiling in September, at the start of the 175th celebrations, it was sort of the beginning event. And so we invited our local mayor, who happened to be the governor Sandra’s husband, and the High Sheriff of Cheshire, who is a sewer. And we were wondering how on earth we were going to cover it up that they unveiled it, because a pair of curtains to cover this would be quite expensive so, considering this has been a very frugal project, with people sharing their scraps and emailing each other ‘Have you got any sky fabric?’ or ‘I need some royal blue’ or whatever, we decided we needed to keep being frugal, so we ended up with two pieces of red ribbon and we rolled it up on its frame, so all the unveilers had to do was pull the ribbon and it would unfurl. And in the best, you know, unforeseen circumstances, the Sheriff pulled her half and down it came perfectly and the mayor pulled his half and it pulled into a knot. And there was a voice from the back of the room said: ‘Trust the councillor to get stuck on red tape!’ [laugh] so the place was in uproar. But it was fun to have as many of the stitchers as possible together, having a pat off the back, different people that came to the event and saying well done and thank you. So that, that was a really great moment, to have people looking at it and admiring it and asking questions about it.
VM: So what’s going to happen with it now? Where will it live?
FR: Well, I’m available for talks, I’ve been going round some quilt clubs and WIs, telling them all about how we came to make it and what I’ve learnt about the history of the university in the last couple of years, and it can go on display in the different campuses if they want it as part of something that they’re doing, but ultimately its final resting place will be the Common Room which is in the oldest part of the university here at Chester. And that’s been refurbished this last year and there is a blank wall I have my eye on but there are no windows shining light on it so that it would be preserved for as long as possible. But there are no plans as to a date that it goes permanently on that wall, so it’s just doing the rounds at the moment, sharing the message about how it was made and the history.
VM: So when you first got your ladies together and put the idea to them, how much then did they go away and choose what they were going to do, how much kind of communication went on about choosing how it was designed?
FR: What I tended to do was hold a meeting and encourage them to put their ideas on the table so, you know, what do you think is representative of the university, what do you think of as Chester, or of being a student, and so some ideas came up straight away, such as the crest, the two year blocks, having the founders and the mission statement in there, something about international… some people came up with ideas straight away and others went away and thought about it and then came back. And we met once a month and people tended to come to those meetings with a sketch or a clutch of fabrics and say, ‘I was thinking of this’, and some people had a very definite idea of what they wanted to do and others were looking for guidance and reassurance that you know they should move forward with the idea that they’d got. Not all of the ladies were as confident as they ought to have been, they seemed quite reticent to sing their own praises and unsure of the true talent that they had, so there was quite a bit of nurturing in a way, and it was interesting to see which members of the group were looking for reassurance and which ones mothered them. And that was quite a psychology exercise there, I think. But I liked that part of this project because there was no wrong answer anywhere and there was nobody better than anybody else, it was a very warm, comforting environment that everybody rooted for everybody else, and we would bring boxes of fabric or threads or whatever. Sometimes what you saw in somebody else’s stash you know set you off onto a path of ‘Oh that’s exactly what I’m looking for, that cements my idea’, so that’s quite fun and I’m quite amused by how much of my fabric is within all the different squares, it’s quite funny what people have picked out of my boxes and thought ‘This’ll do for me’, so a good home for it, I think.
VM: Just Wait for the ambulance to go past [FR: we get a lot of that here!]. So you said that you had a couple of quilters who came to the project, a few people who’d just started sewing and a few embroiderers. Have you turned any of them into quilters now? [inaudible] did afterwards?
FR: Well the Poppy quilt, Pat, she had two new grand-daughters in the spring last year and so they’ve had embroidered bibs and all sorts, and she said to me, ‘Oh you’ve got me going now’, and at Christmas we had a tree in the cathedral, as part of an exhibition of trees, the cathedral organises a fund-raiser, and the Vice-Chancellor asked that the 175th anniversary was represented on the tree, and it was to be called The Tree of Knowledge. So the quilting ladies were asked could they do miniature versions of their blocks. Well, that’s not really possible to go on a tree, but I think that’s one of those things people who don’t sew have no idea, they just think you can do it. So what we did was representations of some of the blocks, so we had the 1839 and 2014 in cross stitch, we had an appliqué poppy and a felt poppy, we had part of the 175th logo in felt – that’s not represented on the quilt – and just different fabrics, snippets that made up images of the university, and then we also had some Perspex snowflakes made with the logo etched onto them as well. So, the quilt seems to have spawned other projects since. I think it’s something that people who didn’t sew were quite dismissive of in a quiet way and were quite shocked when they saw a nearly two metre square quilt that was finished that wasn’t wonky. It’s been quite interesting to watch people’s reactions of what they thought quilting was and it definitely wasn’t what we’ve produced. [Laugh]
VM: You said that you went to the Quilter’s Trading Post to, to choose the, the black fabric. Was that one you got from there as well and why the red, the red for the border, or was it just that it looked nice, it coordinated well?
FR: The black was the one fabric that wasn’t going to clash anywhere or become too overpowering. That was what framed the blocks, we felt. I was keen to have sashing rather than join the blocks because I felt they would look too busy. So that’s how we came up with black, and I’m a great fan of the range Moda Marbles or something like that where you never have a flat colour, it’s always mottled, I think there’s more depth to it, so I, I pointed out my preference to the ladies that came with me, and we had different blocks, different bolts of fabric against the blocks, and it was a unanimous decision to come up with this fabric with some sort of swirls and leaflike print. The red on the outside we decided red and black are Chester’s colours, but also it was picking up on the rusty-red of the Founders’ Day block and because there isn’t much pinky-mauvy in the quilt, it worked, it didn’t clash with anything and it just sort of finished it off and gave it a bit of a brightness rather than it all being black background. And again it’s a mottled one, not a flat colour, so I think they’re more effective – and they don’t show the dirt! [Laugh]
VM: Good advice, I’ll remember that. You said that your ladies met once a month. Whereabouts did you meet?
FR: We met in Chester, either on the Parkgate Road campus or the Riverside campus, because people work from different faculties, in different buildings, different campuses. I had thought originally that we would go round each one, but it wasn’t practical, it was easier to stick to a, a small number of venues and people knew where they were going, and parking was quite an issue as well. We tried to do it in lunch-breaks, but then you know people have commitments, meetings, support they’re supposed to give, so it was never full attendance, so I always followed up each meeting with a round robin email, summarising what we’d all discussed or decided or achieved, to keep everybody in the loop, and to keep them motivated as well. And another thing that I chose to do… not everyone who contacted me and said they’d like to be involved ended up making a block. Quite a few came back to me and said I’ve found I’ve got some extra work that I wasn’t expecting or my circumstances have changed or whatever, and I made a deliberate policy of contacting them personally and saying the door is always open if your circumstances change again and I will keep you informed, because you’ve said you’re interested. And I deliberately re-checked that list when it came to inviting people to the unveiling, and invited every single person who’d said they were interested but couldn’t really do anything at the moment, just to make sure that they felt welcome and not snubbed. I was very keen to do that, to be inclusive.
VM: So how, how did, when you first decided you were going to do this, how did you, did you have a deadline in mind of when you’d like it to be unveiled, right from the beginning, or was that something that changed, did goalposts move and…
FR: It was quite interesting actually. I learnt a lot about how I operate and how other people operate that’s different for me. And I’m a very task-focused person who has a deadline and that’s that, and if a deadline isn’t met then I feel like I’m going to die… So I found it very challenging to work with people who ignored the deadlines. There is one block here that was started after my mega-mega end of it, this-is-the-end deadline – but that’s how people work. I never do things at the eleventh hour, I can’t bear that, but lots of people do not start things until the pressure is massive: that’s how they produce things quickly. So yes there were deadlines. Originally we started, first ideas were April 2013 and we were going to have the blocks done by February, because we felt that Christmas you get such a lot of extra things going on, trying to get it finished by Christmas wasn’t really fair, you’d have the risk of people dropping out. So we decided, nobody does any gardening in January or February, and there aren’t so many things going on, so people would have more opportunity to stitch to get these done. But it wasn’t until about May, June, May time I think, before they were all done, so I found that quite hard not to be shirty with people, chop-chop you know how many deadlines do you want? sort of thing, I found that a challenge, but good learning for me in understanding how I tick, and how other people tick differently to me. So eventually it was all finished in about June, because I was determined that I wasn’t going to be sitting up till God knows what hour finishing it off, and I suggested that we could unveil it as the start of the academic year that would be the 175th celebrations, and then that meant September 2014 and the alumni have their annual reunion mid-September every year, so it made sense to put the unveiling in the annual reunion and have more people there to make it more of an event. So that’s how that came to be.
VM: So you said that kind of after, further down the line, as kind of information started to widen out about what you were doing… what sort of feedback’s come back about the quilt afterwards?
FR: Nobody’s actually voiced they thought it was going to be a little titchy thing with wonky seams, but the way people have chosen their words or perhaps not chosen them carefully enough, you can tell there’s a lot of surprise out there that it is as well stitched and well balanced as it is. That, that’s been very interesting to hear, people’s reactions. But also the size; I think people have been quite shocked that it’s nearly two metres square, I don’t think they thought they were coming to see something that big. [Pause for ambulance sirens and drink]
VM: So, do you have any little stories about the making of it? Any little incidents?
FR: Ooh, gosh… I think it was quite interesting how many times I knew I’d said the words ‘The blocks need to be 14 inches square’, because we had a debate about the size and we decided if they were too small, when this was hung up on a wall you wouldn’t see the detail and you wouldn’t be able to get detail into your block. Whereas if they were too big it became a bigger deal for somebody to stitch, and the finished product would become unwieldy. So 14 inches was the discussed size and then to make people understand I sort of said it’s 14 inches finished but you’ve got to add seam allowance on that as well. And I knew that I had said those words to people, and I knew I’d emailed both words of those dimensions to people. So I just could not get over how people had ignored that! And you can see on a couple of the blocks – the Sustainability, the Warrington one, and the student life one – that they’ve got a little tiny border around them, because they were too small. And then another one was too big. And I, I, just couldn’t get my head around ‘what part of 14 inches don’t you get’ sort of thing – but it, it was quite peculiar in a way because the people who had not got the correct-size block, none of them were present when we were at the Quilter’s Trading Post starting to place the blocks and put the strips of the sashing together to create the five strips that would then be put together. So we were able to add the borders or chop down, without the embarrassment of any of those people being there watching their block, or having to do something to their block, so that was quite peculiar.
Other stories: I’ve got such a lot of fabric, having sewn since the age of eight, I kept volunteering my stash as what people could have a little rummage through and use my fabrics as much as they wanted, and quite a few people have had ‘sky’ fabrics, so there’s sky fabric in the Flying Saucer, Chester City Walls, Eastgate Clock, Alumni Garden, the Map (international), and Sustainability. So when I came to do the background, which was lots of sky on the Beswick Building which is the old Teaching Practice School, I thought gosh, I, I can’t use sky, as in blue, because there’ll be too much of it everywhere, so mine’s sunset, a fierce sort of orange, pinky-orange, to be a bit different, and I think because that’s quite a dark building and dark tarmac or concrete or whatever with the children playing on it, sort of brightens it a bit.
What else can I tell you, of funny stories? … Oh, the Friendship block: Felicity hadn’t really got much to say because we, we are producing a book which tells the story of the quilt and so I’d invited every stitcher to give me 250 words about their block and Felicity didn’t think she’d really got much to say about friendship – it is what it is – for her block. So we contacted a lady who was here in the mid-80s and a gentleman that was here in the late 60s, and said, ‘Can you give us a few sentences on what friendship means, that will go with this block, so that there’s different eras represented of what friendship’s all about having been a student here.’ So that was nice to get alumni involved in that.
VM: How do you feel about the quilt now?
FR: Chuffed! [Laugh] I’m really pleased that I had the idea and I was encouraged to pursue it and it came to fruition. I’m very much a completer/finisher, so I don’t like starting things unless I know they’ll finish, so having the UFOs, I don’t have many UFOs cos if I don’t think I’m going to finish it I won’t start it. I don’t like lots of things hanging on. So, you know, I was determined that it would be completed and, you know, it’s, it’s something for everyone to share, so it, it isn’t mine, it was my idea and I led the group, but I don’t want people to think I have any sort of territorial aspect towards it, it’s a you know it’s a university thing for everybody to come and see, ask questions, appreciate, as long as it’s shared.
VM: Have you got any intentions of putting this into quilt shows?
FR: Yes. I’ve been researching whether to put it in Malvern or Harrogate, what timings fit and the categories and things like that, so that’s something I want to, to pursue, because we might as well ride the wave while it’s new, because once it’s a couple of years old you’ve lost the moment, haven’t you? It needs to be done when it’s finished. Cos some things I’ve entered in competitions before you have a criteria where it must have been made in the last twelve months and things like that, so I think it’s a now or never… so you might see it again, you never know!
VM: It’ll be nice to share with people. You might as well now you’ve made it! Right, so, moving away a little bit from, from this quilt… can you tell me a little bit about your life with quilting? When did you first start sewing, or quilting, or do you have any family links to it?
FR: I started sewing when I was about eight, trying to make clothes for Pippa dolls which, when you know how tiny Pippa dolls are is pretty impossible! Gran always had scraps of fabric, she had a sewing machine and sewed. My mum had a sewing machine but wasn’t particularly interested in being creative, she found that she was mending boiler-suits too often, new zips in things, so not, not inspiring sewing. So I didn’t really get the, the inspiration from mum, it was more from Gran I think really. Both grandparents taught us to knit – I say ‘us’ because I’m a twin, so. So I would amuse myself with scraps of fabric and bits of lace and fiddle around and sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t. But I never used glue, I always wanted to stitch everything. So I would move on to doing O level needlework, enjoyed that, and then A level needlework where you had to have a go at all sorts of different mediums so that you were encouraged to do tapestry, dye your own wool, weaving, appliqué, all sorts of different things. And I found that I was much more interested in sewing and machine sewing than anything else. So when it came to finishing A levels I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had abysmal careers advice, so I ended up not going to university. I did an extra year of ceramics and art with the idea that I would do textile design, something like that, but by the time I’d done my extra year to get more A levels I still wasn’t that motivated and I wanted to do tailoressing more than anything. I could only find one course which was London – that was the one place a country bumpkin like me was never going to live – and I’d also found that there’s a prejudice about ‘sewing’ in inverted commas, that it’s not academic enough. So we were subjected, in O level needlework, at A-level needlework, to learn the history of the social services, which is the most boring, dry subject and kills your creativity to get a good mark as a stitcher. So I thought well if this is going on for A-level, what will I find I have to do for a degree? And I got a few different prospectus, and sure enough sewing with something else utterly boring. And I thought there’s no way I’m going to get through three or four years of something I have no interest in to do a little bit of sewing as well. So I never went to university. I wrote to Laura Ashley and said ‘What degree do you have people come to you with?’ and I got back a very peculiar letter: ‘We don’t like these people that think they can jump the bottom of the ladder, we have people that start at the bottom as a sewing machinist, a là Vera Duckworth. So I thought, oh this is a test, so I thought, right, I can sit at a sewing machine and I can be Vera Duckworth if that’s where we go for. And I lived in an area quite a few Laura Ashley factories, and so I enjoyed the services of the free bus to work and I sat on my machine and I whizzed along on different aspects of the late 80s lacy dresses and fancy frilled cuffs and things, very Princess Diana, and waited for my big chance and my promotion! Only thing was, that was when the Laura Ashley management was not particularly good and they went downhill big time and we were all made redundant. So that was the end of my, the start of my sewing career, so since then it’s been a hobby rather than a career. I do make things as commissions – I’ve done a wedding dress for a friend, bridesmaid’s dress for a cousin – always intended to make my own wedding dress but I didn’t have the time or the space to do it in the end. Soft furnishings: made curtains and blinds, cushions and what-not. I don’t tend to do dressmaking as much these days, there are less shops with dress fabric in, and from when I was a teenager and early 20s, what you could pay for a nice dress to go to a ball or something I couldn’t afford. But in relative terms now, you can buy an awful lot of clothing for a lot less money than what you spent in the 80s and 90s. So I don’t tend to do dressmaking particularly.
But I got into quilting. I went to America on a youth exchange in 1991 and first saw the Amish and how they hand quilt, and also the large quilt shops and then the hobby on a big scale. Coming from a rural area you don’t have lots of shops and lots of choice where I’ve grown up, so it was an eye-opener to be in bigger places, bigger shops. I found that very interesting but never really did anything about it. And then ten years later I had the opportunity to work in the US, so off I went and I was in Ohio which is an area again that has a lot of Amish, so I saw their influence a second time, but also I was in a city so I had big quilt shops at my disposal, and big sewing shops, fabric shops and things, so lots of choice. The lady I lodged with, her mother was a very accomplished quilter, so I learnt quite a few tips from her, and had a few scraps to practise on. And I also found living abroad, people don’t phone you cos it’s too expensive, they don’t expect you to phone them for the same reason, your family and your friends aren’t popping round, you’re not popping round to them. The amount of spare time you’ve got for a hobby suddenly shoots up. It’s not your garden, it’s not your house to clean – it’s amazing how liberating that is, and how much you can actually do just for yourself, rather than all of the things that you’d be involved with in your home area. So I got quite into doing some cross stitch for gifts, some small wallhangings, quilting things, and generally sort of got the hang of it and enjoyed the cheaper fabric and all the great books and things out in the States. And then I’ve got more into it since I’ve been married, that’s my sort of hobby that I do at home.
VM: So did you, you said your grandma, well both grandmas did some sewing and craft. Were either of them quilters, or were they…?]
FR: No, not at all. My granny, my paternal grandmother I only ever saw her knit and crochet, and she knitted clothes for the family or dolls’ clothes for us. And my gran, I never saw her quilting. She would do dressmaking and she would do knitting and crochet, but I, I don’t recall either of them ever talking about quilting and I never saw a quilt in their homes. Those were the eiderdown and blanket days… so I can’t think of any… no.
VM: Did your twin ever do any sewing and things like that?
FR: My twin did O-level and A-level needlework with me, at the same time. She was far more accurate than me, and I felt better at it, but has never really done much since leaving college. She will do the occasional bits and bobs here and there, maybe a tablecloth or shorten trousers or something like that, but she always finds there’s so much going on at the farm that, you know, you don’t get chance to sit down and really focus on something like that sort of hobby. You’re picking it up and putting it down too much at sort of short intervals.
VM: So tell me about the first quilt or quilted object you made.
FR: The first quilt I made was a wallhanging. I bought myself a book that I thought would be an all-rounder book when I moved to Ohio. And there was a picture of a quilt in there that was lots of appliquéd hearts on blocks and then sashing between each block. And I just thought that looked so lovely, so I did a small representation of it with only six hearts rather than the whole thing, and just decided that I would put myself off if I did too large of a project as a beginner that would become a UFO. I wanted something that was manageable, that I could feel I’d achieved something and if I had miscalculated or gone wrong in some way, well at least it was only small. And so I got a sense of achievement from that and then made another block that was a star shape from the scraps, just to use them up, and then some more skills and accurate stitching. I learnt that as a sort of bodging stitcher that – I’d done a lot of teaching myself things – I got things to work in the end but they weren’t necessarily accurate, they looked ok or it fitted. But when it comes to quilting, if you’re a couple of millimetres out on the left, as you move across your quilt that’s a bit more and a bit more and a bit more and then it doesn’t fit. So you have to be much more disciplined in cutting it out accurately, stitching it with an exact seam allowance accurately, and pressing it as well. So it, it showed me I’d become sloppy in how I sort of chucked things together because I was getting away with it to now you need to be a lot more accurate here and sharpen up on your, your attitude towards putting things together. So that’s been very good for me I think. To improve on my skills.
VM: What sort of equipment did you have when you first started doing this quilting? What things did you buy to set yourself up?
FR: I already had a sewing machine because my twin and I were finding it wasn’t working sharing a machine, being expected to produce a certain number of garments and items for A level needlework, so our father came up with the idea that our 18th birthday present would arrive a year early and it would be a sewing machine – each – so they were exactly the same, so no squabbling, and I still use that sewing machine to this day. It’s a brilliant one, it’s just a basic model that does all the basic things I need. I already had a machine. I had never used a rotary cutter until I started quilting, so I got a mat and a cutter rather than my shears, and… I can’t think I had any other specific quilting equipment particularly… I find I buy a lot of books, I’m inspired by the colour photos, or something I want to make in it, or it’s got some really good explanations of how you do things and that sort of thing, so I have at least 20 books. And lots of boxes of fabric from over the years.
VM: Where do you get your inspi… are you a designer or are you a follow-a-pattern person?
FR: I’m both actually. Sometimes I will see a design and think wow I like that, that’s exactly what I’ll do. And then other projects I think oh well I like this bit from this book and I like that bit from that magazine or something and I will blend them together, so I’ve got the confidence I think to start fiddling around with different patterns. Sometimes you can miscalculate and that’s not gonna work. So for example I’ve had, I wasn’t thinking it through, so my border pieces are too short for the outside, so I ended up with different-coloured squares at the corners, so I’ve fallen foul of that one but, you know, is there a right answer, is there a wrong answer, who knows what you were planning to do? So if you’re canny you can get away with your mistake that actually becomes a feature. And also I’ve read somewhere that sometimes there should be a deliberate mistake on a quilt. I’ve been reading the Elm Creek Quilt novels over a few years and somewhere in that it says that you should have an imperfection in there somewhere because none of us are perfect, so that’s my excuse!
VM: So where do you quilt?
FR: I quilt at the dining-room table in the lounge, which is far from ideal. I would love to have a sewing room – that’s my ambition – but I do need a lottery win first! [Laugh] So I’m forever clearing it away for meals, or distracted by the TV because it’s a lounge-diner, it really doesn’t work for me in the winter, but in the summer then I’m in the conservatory cos the light is great in there and it’s not so cold, so I can spread out in there and leave the sewing machine up for a couple of days and that sort of thing. But you know a sewing room would be such luxury.
VM: You’ve mentioned the stash a couple of times… Just how extensive is it and where does it live?
FR: [Laugh] Aah, right. My stash is in about six or seven plastic boxes which would be about 2 feet by 14 inch/15 inches square and about 15 inches tall. I’ve got them coded – well, ‘coded’, is that the right word, themed – so one has fleeces and faux fur you know from doing soft toys and stuffing, and then another one’s got all scraps from dressmaking that I’ve done. Another one’s got Vilene and sort of effects in it – knitting needles and miscellaneous things all together – and then the others have quilting fabric. I try to keep the different fabrics all the reds together, all the blues together. And when I first took my husband to meet my father, some of the fabric was in his house as well, and I wanted to get this particular piece of fabric that had teddy bears on that my niece wanted to have as a dolly’s blanket, and I knew I’d got a piece of it left. And I opened the, the cupboard which should be a wardrobe but I’ve got them stacked in it at dad’s at that time and my then boyfriend, now husband, said ‘Oh my God how are you going to find it in all that lot?’ And he was quite spooked; I went ‘It’s in that box there’, and he thought that was quite creepy. But that’s my organised, I don’t like muddle, I don’t like working in a mess. So when you’re saying where do you work and I have to keep putting it away, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for me other than inconvenience. If I had a sewing room it wouldn’t be a melée of fabric, it would be all stacks and order and I think that stems to my childhood that you know everything was in an order, it was very … regimented is too sharp a word but everything was thoroughly organised, both my parents were, so messy things were just not acceptable, end of. And I suppose I’ve brought that with me, that I can’t work in a mess. Whereas I think creativity is often, you know people work in a creative sort of melée of stuff, but not me!
VM: Have you done many workshops or things like that?
FR: Not a lot. I’ve done some. I’ve struggled that an awful lot of them are targeted at the retired, so they’re in the working week. And it took me a long time to find a quilt club that was an evening because again the majority of the membership are retired. And I struggle sometimes when they’re thinking about what we’re going to be doing and I just think well there are not many of us that are in full-time working but you that aren’t need to remember that when you’re organising when we’re doing things because we’ve got to squeeze it all in. I’m just jealous of them really! [Laugh]
VM: So you go to a quilt group?
FR: I do, every other Monday in my local village. It’s about 25 of us. I’m the only one under 50, and I think there’s about five of us that are in full-time work, the rest are retired. There’s all sorts of ranges of ability in the group, and some truly accomplished ladies that have entered competitions and things, so it’s great to have them to go to ask ‘How do I do this?’ if I can’t understand the instructions in a book, or I’ve invented something as I’ve gone along and suddenly come to a halt and stuck, so I really like that side of things, to actually take my piece of work to a particular member and say, you know, ‘What should I do?’. But also when we have our own sort of sew your own thing evenings, you’re there with your sewing and somebody can say ‘Did you know there’s an easier way of doing that?’ so that’s quite nice, you know, you can learn as well as have the leisure, the pleasure from it.
VM: So how long have you been a member of that group for?
FR: Probably about three years? I’m Press Officer now, so that’s what I do, I get us in the newspaper when we’ve had an exhibition or an interesting speaker or something like that.
VM: Are you a member of The Quilters’ Guild?
FR: I’m not, it’s something I’m thinking of. I haven’t got round to it yet, but I did notice their website says that the exhibition in York will close, so I’d suggested to our club perhaps we did a bus trip before it was too late. So if that doesn’t get off the ground then I’ll go myself I think just to have a look around before it’s all closed up because I think it’s such a shame.
VM: So, thinking about your quilts, how would you categorise the sorts of things that you make, sorts, types, what’s your style?
FR: I would say I’m a machine quilter, in the main, and quite traditional: I like a lot of straight lines, I haven’t ventured much into curves yet, but I will. I’m very influenced by colour. If I don’t like the colours then I’ve switched off from design straight away, which I think is a bit short-sighted really. I’m not really a contemporary art-type quilter – I think you need more time for that than I’ve got. It’s easier to follow a pattern or follow your amendment of a pattern than dream it up from scratch, where it’s not blocks and blocks, it’s a depiction of something I think. And also you, you can’t really do that in the lounge while your husband’s watching TV, it’s an invasion of your thought-space in a way, isn’t it? So I tend to do more straightforward quilts on the machine – and he turns the sound up! [Laugh]
VM: But you do adapt patterns?
VM: So with, with kind of, some people struggle to actually coordinate colours for a quilt, so they’ll not know which, which colours will look like with which. Do you tend to follow the pattern if you’ve got the pattern and you like the colours will you go out and buy those fabrics or will you sometimes tweak them anyway?
FR: I’ll tweak ’em, yeah, yeah, every time. I can’t think of a quilt where I’ve followed the colours exactly. But then I often am looking for how I can use what I’ve got rather than buy completely new, so that will send me off on a tangent and I, I’m very much a pink, red and blue person, so if you look in my stash you’ll see no orange, because I don’t like orange, hardly any yellow, a minimal amount of brown and a minimal amount of green. So, you know, I tend to stick with the colours I like and then if I do something for somebody else, that’s where the different colours will come in, because they’re not my choice of colours, they’re what I’ve selected for that person would like. Because I think there is a risk to project your tastes onto other people, you need to be, in my opinion, if I’m making a quilt as a gift for somebody then I need to be getting into their choices, not mine. My choice is to make them one, but what they like or colours and things. So I made one for my dad, and I didn’t focus particularly on the design as in the blocks, it’s nine-patch and a plain block next to it. I’ve adapted it from a Kaffe Fassett I saw in a book but all of the fabrics are printed with something that is related to my dad’s interests, so there’s cows, there’s chickens, there’s bales of hay, there’s cooking, there’s tomatoes, there’s excavators and tractors, so, and the balance of it is all bright, bright colours because he likes bright gaudy colours. And if you wear something too dark your accused of going to the funeral parlour and he doesn’t do coordinating colours, he does just bright colours. So it’s really loud with all these different colours and that’s, that’s what his taste is – but that’s not what I would stitch to have on my bed sort of thing but …
VM: Did you run any of this past him, or did you just think …
FR: No, oh there’s another story actually. Our quilt club had an exhibition. So I finished this quilt for dad in time for the exhibition, which was October, and invited him to stay for the weekend cos he lives further away. And you had to put a label on your quilt, so I put on the label ‘Life in Colour’ as the title and I wrote ‘This quilt is my dad’s Christmas present which he will find out when he reads this’ – and waited for him to spot it, so that he had that as a total surprise. We all were in on it but he didn’t know it, so that’s how I did that one.
VM: What did he say?
FR: For once he was speechless! [Laugh] Which is rare – so that was fun.
VM: Do you have any kind of like particular – I’m slowly learning about blocks – do you have any particular blocks that you come back to time and again? Or do you like to try out new ones?
FR: Well I challenge myself. I had a second-hand book from a lady I’d lived with in Michigan twenty-odd years ago. She worked part-time in a library, and every time there was a second-hand quilt book she’d save it for me. It was called Scrap Quilts and it had a glossary at the back of all the names of the quilts and little diagrams and how many inches they were. And so I decided I would do a sampler quilt of every block in that book that was 10 inches. And I divided them up into easy, medium, hard and oh golly. And I did all the easy ones, I did all the medium ones and all the hard ones and sort of improved my skills as I went along. And I had I think it was six by four, so twenty-four blocks and I tried to do it roughly red, white and blue, but there was navy in there, there was pinky-reds, creams for in between, the light and the dark and things, and I invented a couple of blocks to fit 10 inches that were not in there as 10 inches because I’d run out in the book. And it’s roughly the size of a single bed quilt now. So that was a way of trying out different blocks. But when you think if you’re making something, say you’re doing it for a double bed and you’ve got a 10 inch block that’s got very fiddly little triangles in, say Bear’s Paw or something, by the time you’ve done what twelve across and twelve down or whatever, that’s a heck of a lot of little tiny triangles and whatnot, so I’ve not done a quilt where it’s exactly the same block all the way along, I’m not sure whether I ever will. I think I would become bored before I finished doing it. So I tend to do ranges of things, or smaller projects really. But I do have some very nice Lynette Anderson fabric to make a quilt for our bed, but I haven’t found the right pattern for what I’ve got in my head for that. I’m looking for a pattern that’s got a square focal point in the middle then goes out in rings which I think is called a round robin, rather than lots of blocks, but the fabric’s still looking at me and I haven’t found exactly what I was after or something that I could adapt yet. So that’s gnawing away at me, I want to get going on it.
VM: Do you currently sleep under a quilt?
FR: No, no. During the summer I had one as a wedding present but the duvet’s enough in the winter, so… It’s too much in the summer so we swap over.
VM: But you don’t sleep under a quilt you’ve made.
FR: No, no.
VM: Who was the wedding present off?
FR: Mom Williams, the lady that saved me the books. I think she’s been quite instrumental in getting me into quilting actually. She, she showed me an area of northern Indiana called Shipshewana which is a very Amish region, there’s a horse sales there, there’s lots of shops with what the Amish would use, which is something out of your parents’ childhood sort of thing you know, oil lamps and whatnot, but there was huge quilt shops and lots of quilts made there and I think that’s where my interest has really come from, is seeing that place.
VM: Where do you like to shop?
FR: For quilting things? In an ideal world I’d like a free flight to New England so I can go to Keepsake Quilting in New Hampshire, which is amazing. Last time I went there I didn’t buy any fabric, only things, because there was so much to choose from I couldn’t make choice, my husband was chivvying me along, so that was an ‘if in doubt do nowt’, so I didn’t buy any fabric but I did spend about 80 dollars in there! I tend to go to the Quilter’s Trading Post which is my nearest quilt shop. It used to be in Whitchurch which was very handy but it’s further away now, or if there’s a quilt shop somewhere I’m going then I’ll see if I can factor that into my trip. But I don’t buy fabric because I like it, I only buy fabric because I have a specific purpose for that piece of fabric whereas I’ve come across a lot of quilters that have to have it because it’s gorgeous whereas I don’t shop like that, so I seem to be an odd one out in that way.
VM: But you still have six boxes of fabric!
FR: [Laugh] Yes… left-overs.
VM: So you talked about how at the beginning you bought your rotary cutter and your mat and you’ve got your sewing machine. Has anything changed about that, have you invested in new bits and pieces?
FR: I was given some quilting feet and various attachments for my sewing machine by a member of our quilting club whose sewing machine had died a death and they were attachments that she’d bought over the years and she’d noticed that my machine was the same as hers, so I thought that was very kind of her, so I have those. I’ve gone from little sewing boxes to a massive men’s toolbox for my sewing box, so I’ve got the little tray bit in the top is all of my threads which of course all the reds together and the blues together and… very Fiona! Not really, I think I’ve got the basics, I’m not a gadgety person that’s got to have this and got to have that, I’m quite frugal in that way, I think. If there was a piece of equipment that I required to do a job better, yes, but I don’t just buy them because they’re there.
VM: Do you buy any fabrics online?
FR: Never. I want to be able to touch it and I want to be able to see that the colour is exactly what I want. So I’ve never bought fabric online. It’s not to say I won’t, but so far I’ve never done it. Had a go at selling it online, but obviously being an employee of Laura Ashley you had access to all sorts of fabrics at great prices but never actually bought any. But you see I’ve kept the Laura Ashley so long it’s back in fashion, m’mm!
VM: Have you ever sold any of your, I mean you said you’ve done a couple of commissions, have you ever sold any pieces that you’ve made?
FR: I’ve sold some Christmas sort of pot-stands at a craft fair at somebody else’s stall, that’s about it… I think with sewing, the amount of time that you have put into it plus your fabric and your overheads, people would not believe that that’s the price that that item commands, so very often crafts people become price-takers instead of price-makers, and that’s a big problem in the craft industry, especially when it falls into the two groups of ‘This is my bread and butter and pays my mortgage, I need to charge X for this’ versus ‘Oh well I only did that while I was watching the telly, I don’t need much for it’. And I’ve worked in the craft industry before and the hobby ones that sell for what they call pin money are a negative effect on people who need to earn a living from it, and greatly damage their ability to charge realistic prices. And yet that’s the case for people with textiles or wood or ceramics, as soon as you go into 2D and it’s ‘art’, they can command hundreds for a picture and nobody will bat an eyelid. And there’s a lot of research around ‘Why is there this sort of snobbery that art is up there and worth a fortune but all of these other things where people are equally, maybe more, talented, cannot get what they’re owed, really, for what they’ve made.
VM: Do you go and see many quilt shows and things like that?
FR: I’ve been here and there. I don’t think I’ve done anything twice yet, so I’ve been to Malvern, I’ve been to Harrogate, and I’ve been to the NEC, all once. I don’t really want to be an annual pilgrimage person, and it’s fitting everything in, on a weekend as well. So I like to see what’s out there, but I’m not obsessively following everything. And I don’t subscribe to a magazine, either – because there’s no room under the bed! Because I’d never be able to throw them away, so I don’t want to get into that, and I find it hard enough to read the Sunday paper all week. I know I would struggle to read a quilt magazine by the time the next one came out. So I tend to be sort of quite selective in, if I buy a magazine it’s because it’s something in it that I’ve spotted as I’ve been in the newsagents, or something, so… again, very frugal!
VM: When you’ve been to places like Malvern, do you spend much time looking at the competitions, or are you there for the traders?
FR: I always do the traders first, and I can skip past lots that I don’t particularly have any interest in and then spend ages looking at, you know, one that I think ‘Wow’, maybe take a photo or something like that but I’ve generally gone because it’s the exposure to the different products that are out there, and notions and things like that. But the next time I go I think I shall be looking at machines, cos mine’s dropping hints that it’s feeling a little aged so, I couldn’t possibly have no sewing machine, that would be like awful, so I need to start thinking about what sewing machine to get next, because of course from having one in the mid 80s that’s very different to what you can get now, so I need to update myself and research what’s out there that would be suitable for my next one.
VM: When do you quilt?
FR: Evenings and weekends. So I don’t bring anything to work in the dinner hour or anything like that. It goes in phases really. If something straightforward you do a bit more, a bit more, a bit more and then if you’re stuck then it slows down. Or I find if I’m tired or there’s something that, say there’s something that’s quite complicated on the TV then you’re too busy watching that to sew or if your eyes are down at your sewing you’ve missed the key point in the murder’s, murder enquiry or something, so in that case it really does not work for me, having a lounge-diner and that’s the only table in the house. If I had a sewing room I would be in it much more than I sew at the table in the lounge-diner, so that affects how much time I give to it, quite a lot. Weekends – if they didn’t have so much squeezed into them I might do a little bit but not a lot, so it varies with me, I don’t really have set times or anything.
VM: Does it interrupt with mealtimes, does it take over when you get started?
FR: No, no. My tummy is in charge. And husband’s as well! So no, I’m quite regimented in mealtimes or whatever, I don’t deviate from that. And I would probably come to a convenient stopping place, do a meal, and then come back to it – or take the stuff off the table and then come back to it.
VM: What’s your favourite part of the quiltmaking process?
FR: Putting the blocks together. I’m not a fan of cutting out, and if they’re large pieces or you need several layers cutting, that bothers my neck, so I draft in my husband to do those. He’s an engineer and Mr Precision, measure twice, cut once, so he’s quite nifty at it now actually, so I get him involved. [Laugh] Yeah, I think the machining of the blocks is my favourite part, the middle.
VM: When you can start see it come together?
FR: Yeah, yup.
VM: Is there any particular part of it you really hate?
FR: Oh I don’t think I’d go as far as saying ‘hate’… I’m not that keen on basting the three layers together and having, you know, crawling around the floor or whatever getting that ready but it’s a means to an end isn’t it. You need to have done that well, otherwise you’ll spoil the effect of what you’ve been working on, so you need to invest your best efforts into it.
VM: When you go to see other people’s quilts what do you think you look for in them? What are you impressed by in other people’s quilts?
FR: Razor-sharp points. I like seeing what they’ve dreamed up… and how they’ve put it all together. I don’t judge someone how well they’ve stitched it, you know everybody’s different in that way. But I like, I like the idea of that’s that person’s taste and that person’s methodology, if you like, I’m quite intrigued by that side of it, the construction of it, and the thinking side. Quite interesting looking at, we have show and tell at our meetings and quilt club and it’s quite interesting of how they tell you, almost like a mini version of today, their little story of how come they made that quilt, or do you recognise the fabric on the back, I got it at the so and so, or you know that sort of thing I quite like the social element to it and the technical … you know some people in the group their taste is very much mine and then other people you think well that’s very effective but I would never have done that one that way. So I like the variety actually in the group.
VM: You, you’ve got your twenty books or whatever it is… Is there any particular person who you like their style, you tend to look out stuff that they’ve done?
FR: Lynette Anderson is one I quite like. She’s a British woman that now lives in Australia and she has quite a sort of country-folksy style that I like. Some of her work, the print has something woodland on it, or she’s got part quilting and then there’s a little bit of embroidery that’s sort of very country-woodland. She does birds and dragonflies and flowers and sort of cottage garden I suppose and I quite like that style.
VM: Have you ever tried things like dyeing fabrics for quiltmaking or do you tend to just go for bought ones?
FR: I did dyeing fabrics in A-level dress and fabric, but you’ve got to have your mordant and your salt and all that sort of stuff, so I’ve kind of written it off as a lot of faffing around which may not bring you the result that you were looking for. But the sunset sky is a hand-dyed fabric that a friend gave me that she didn’t want any more – I think it was a sheet originally. So I haven’t done it but that’s not to say I wouldn’t. I’m just not bothered at the minute.
VM: Do you tend to do much embellishment on any of your quilts, any putting beading on or doing bits of embroidery on it, things like that?
FR: I haven’t so far but a Christmas gift I did I made some quilted bunting for some friends whose surname is Ditty and I did one bunting that was ‘Merry’ and one that was ‘Dittymas’, because they have a family gathering at Christmas which they nickname ‘Dittymas’ and so I embellished that with beads and everything just to make it a bit more festive, I suppose. So I do have beads. I embellished my wedding dress even though I didn’t make it, I added some beads to it. I could quite get into the embroidery side of things, landscape machine embroidery as well, I have a couple of books on that, that’s on my radar of something I’d like to get into. Maryke Phillips does embroidery in a lot of sort of batik colours, I very much like her style of sewing as well. But you know it’s how much time you can put towards thinking up the ideas and I’m a person who likes silence and solitude to do that sort of thing and I’m not in an environment where that is an option. So I don’t tend to be that creative as much as I could be or would like to be at the minute.
VM: What happens to all the things you’ve made?
FR: The majority of them are gifts. That’s why I take a photograph of everything I’ve made before I give it away, and then I’ve got an album to remind me of different things I’ve done. Some things I’ve made for myself but nearly always I’ve thought up something to give as a gift and then make that. Very often I have not told the person, it’s a surprise gift, but that’s just how I like to give gifts.
VM: Have they always been very appreciative of them?
FR: Yes, because I divide my family and friends into those who would appreciate a homemade gift and those who would not. So whether that’s a jar of jam I’ve made, a cake I’ve baked, a quilt I’ve sewn, whatever it is I’ve created, there are certain people that I wouldn’t dream of giving that to because it would be lost on them whereas other people there’s, I try to do something homemade every year because I know they’ll be really really pleased and value it for what it is.
VM: How important is quiltmaking in your life?
FR: Gosh, that’s a difficult one to quantify! I would say it’s quite significant in my life at the moment. I enjoy escaping into it, the sense of achievement when it’s done, the challenge as it’s going along, it’s something that’s very motivating yet relaxing and rewarding at the same time, which I quite like. I don’t know how to quantify how important it is. I’ve always sewn something, I’ve always had a craft project on the go, for many, many years, so if you said sewing rather than quilting I’d say ‘very’. Quilting’s what I’m enjoying at the moment, that’s not to say that there might be another element of sewing that I enjoy in two years’ time and do that for a couple of years and return to quilting. I think, you know, it’s what inspires you at the time, isn’t it?
VM: So what’s your current project?
FR: My current project is a wallhanging for a friend who said just before Christmas, ‘Oh I’d really like you to do me a wallhanging for my 50th birthday’ on the 12th of January, so there was no chance she was going to get that in time, so I’m working on that at the moment. I’ve adapted a picture of a design for a cushion and I’ve done it all in hand, hand embroidery, hand stitching, different to what I normally do, deliberately trying to do something a little different away from my usual. Especially when my husband said I was falling into the same sort of style and I thought well I should be varying it and learning new techniques really so this is a hand stitched one because as a wallhanging it shouldn’t need too much washing, it shouldn’t have too much wear and tear on it, so I thought hand stitching would be something nice to be on there. Then after that I hope I find the pattern for my bed quilt so that I can make a start on it – whether I will or not I don’t know!
VM: That’s all I have for you! Anything else you’d like to add?
FR: I can’t think of anything. Sort of been here, there and everywhere, haven’t we, on our recording.
VM: Right, thank you very much.
FR: You’re welcome!