ID Number: TQ.2015.013
Name of interviewee: Jacqueline Atkinson
Name of interviewer: Jane Rae
Name of transcriber: Connie Wheeler
Location: The Quilters’ Guild AGM and Conference
Date: 24 April 2015
Length of Interview: 0:44:00
Jacqueline’s love of gothic and dark colours are demonstrated in her ‘Dark Dreams in the Midnight Garden’ crazy patchwork quilt. She talks about her mother and grandmothers involvement in her developing an interest in sewing at a very young age, with her patchwork projects motivated by Milly Molly Mandy and Blue Peter, and how later, when at university, she used quilting to help her study. Later in the interview Jacqueline describes her involved with the early days of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles as a Founding member and later, as a trustee. She also discusses a study she was involved with to explore the link between quilting and mental health.
Jane Rae [JR]: So this is TQ interview 2015.014 and the interviewer is Jane Rae and the interviewee is Jacqueline Atkinson and it’s the 25 April, and were doing the interview in Harrogate it’s the afternoon of the AGM. So, Thank you Jacqueline for agreeing to take part and the quilt you have chosen to bring along is called Dark Dreams in the Midnight Garden, can you tell me a little bit more about the quilt and why you chose that.
Jacqueline Atkinson [JA]: It’s a quilt that I made about five years ago, and I’ve chosen it because I think it’s one of the ones that’s marked a transition in the work that I’ve been doing, I’ve always quilted by hand. I much, much prefer that and I grew up doing paper piecing over papers, the traditional English way and this quilt is leaning much more towards crazy patchwork its long and narrow it’s um made of different silks, satins, lace and general fabrics that I could find for evening dresses in the dressmaking department with velvet and various things, and it’s there are swirls of different velvets up the quilt and the spaces between them have been filled as though it was crazy patchwork, so they are just sewn down, I think if I remember, I sewed then straight on to the batting. Crazy would not normally have batting in it but I like that then beaded it with embroidering and things on top. But, I wanted some spaces in it that you can see through, so there are a couple of cut out areas that I put lace in so you see through the lace and its predominantly black with a lot of dark blue and dark green and purple, so it’s a very dark looking quilt.
JR: And did you do any machining at all?
JR: It’s entirely hand sewn?
JR: That’s quite a nice way to ask you about your first started quilting and have you always ,is that your 1st experience then hand quilting?
JA: Yes, I started, when I was properly five or six with my grandmother and she and my mother were both embroider’esses and my mother particularly , both of them dressmakers but my mother particularly, but I think I’m quite convinced it was a Milly Molly Mandy book, obviously of course being American it had a quilt in it and I was taken by the idea and I went to my grandmother and said ‘I want to make a quilt’ and I remember us sewing oblongs of different fabrics together and then she died and I guess I sort of forgot a bit about quilting until I was about 11 and that’s when I learnt to do the piecing over paper templates and again, if memory serves, I’m convinced that Blue Peter. Well, I know it was Blue Peter, it has to have been Blue Peter.
JR: It was a demonstration?
JA: Part of my brain wants to go ‘it was Valerie Singleton’, I’m sure they showed you how to do it. and I Just went into the kitchen and said to my mum ‘right I’m going to make a bedspread’ and she said well ‘don’t you think it may be better to start on a cushion or something’ and I’m going ‘I don’t want a cushion I want a bedspread’ and that was it, and I’ve just been absolutely hooked ever since.
JR: Had you seen any quilt in the flesh? [JA: No] Was it only a book the Milly Molly Mandy book?
JA: I’m not aware of seeing any anywhere, it was just this idea, I could visualise it.
JR: And you had to do it?
JA: And I had to do it. It just seemed such a wonderful idea, and I’d always sewn dolls clothes and was more interested in sewing dolls clothes than playing with the dolls particularly, so I’d always sewn and did embroidery. And it was just something that I could instantly visualise and when it was described I knew what they were talking about.
JR: In the quilt you have brought you have used fabrics that aren’t traditional patchwork fabrics [JA: Yes] is that maybe to do with the little bit of embroidery and dressmaking that your mum and your grandmother were involved with?
JA: I think maybe because I liked different fabrics but also by the time… I’d done some using non-traditional fabric; satins, silks and various things, and you obviously get such a very different feel and look, and of course you’ve a texture brought in to it you don’t really get it you are just very cotton, um. And I like the texture and I like dark colours and using these different fabrics you can actually keep your colours, the colour pallet more limited but get more variety.
JR: Your introducing texture is very tactile looking, you kind of want to go up and touch it [JA: Yes] and you’ve got all the different heights that you have achieved the way the fabrics been quilted, it’s quite interesting.
JA: Yes I would like to say that’s planned [laughter].
JR: Why did you chose the areas you can see through? Is that give you a sense to seeing through the quilt to something beyond it in the garden? In the midnight garden?
JA: I’ve a feeling this was one where the title came late, because often I’ve got an idea of a title and I work to that, whereas this I just wanted something long and dark and I just liked the idea of cut-out pieces you could see through I don’t think it was anything terribly thought through.
JR: And do you display your quilts at home do you put the up in the house or on the beds?
JA: I have then on the beds and I have patchwork, but not quilted, curtains but I don’t have any of my wall hangings up
JR: And I read somewhere that you are interested in City and Guilds or were going to be doing City and Guilds, is that something that you would like to do?
JA: [Laughter] I’m laughing because I’m doing it, I’m working through every excuse every student has ever used with me about why I haven’t got on with it and why I haven’t finished. But I’ve got a few months left and I really, really have to, before I run out of time, I have to get finished it will be just too embarrassing not to finish
JR: Have you got a particular theme to what you are working on in the last few months?
JA: Well with the City and Guilds the way the course that I’m doing is, for each of the different designing block like texture and line there is a different theme and so the finished pieces, the themes have to come from all the design work we did in those, so there will be different themes.
JR: Sometimes City and Guilds is a lot of smaller quilts and wall-hangings. [JA: Yes.] Because you get to build up a body of work they end up being displayed in people’s houses. [JA: Yes.] And I know you have done some commissions and you done any commissions?
JA: Yes, I’ve done a few but not many.
JR: So are you doing City and Guilds by distance learning, can you tell some more about the experience?
JA: Erm. It’s been fine. The major problem is not having someone standing over you with a whip and I guess at one level I think the place I’m doing it with could be more proactive in emailing you saying ‘have you died?’, you know, ‘why haven’t we heard form you what are you messing about at!’ I started it with a friend and so we were going to support each other and um, we both of us have largely fallen by the wayside and then she decides to transfer somewhere else.
JR: Because I know they often you got to experiment lots of techniques and you have to have lots of material have you found that okay to do that?
JA: Oh yes, I enjoyed all of that. I enjoyed doing all the design work doing all the portfolio and all that and I’m someone who does tends to go over the top with things so I know I did a lot more than was needed I went out and brought for mark making and I think we had to do that in all in monochrome and I brought so many different pens, markers, charcoal paint, you know, to get the whole… and I sometimes look at it and think ‘I sharn’t do that again’.
JR: I think I saw you demonstrate Dorset buttons?
JR: Is that part of your City and Guilds portfolio?
JA: It has been, in fact it’s on the module I’m working on now that is how have finished quite a long while ago, but it was also… I hadn’t done them before and I thought if I learn to do these and then I’ll teach it in one of the area days. So, you know, two birds one stone, but rather than just do the straightforward Dorset buttons, I started doing all sorts of other things with them. And found you can cut out different shapes in cardboard and then go over it, as you would a Dorset button and do the crosses but because it’s not round you don’t fill in the middle, so you end up with intricate patterns and spaces in the middle and that’s been a lot of fun.
JR: You had lots of different sizes? [JA: Yes.] And fittings that you use to wrap around? [JA: Yes.] You have really gone into it?
JA: Yes. Well that’s when I get mildly obsessive and run with it.
JR: But that’s, do you still do your English paper piecing and traditional pieces?
JA: If I was doing something that was going to be pieced that would be my method of choice whatever I do, but at the moment my thing is crazy [patchwork].
JR: Have you done any research into crazy, it sounds like you have explored a little bit?
JA: Only in the sense of buying a few of the major crazy quilt books, and they have given me ideas, but I think I started so young and before people did it, when I was doing this in my teens and 20’s it was ‘that weird thing that Jacqueline does’, because this was in the 60’s and there weren’t books I remember finding the Avril Colby book in the library I had a Saturday job in the library stacking shelves and that was the only book that I had seen.
JR: You must have been quite positive?
JA: Yes, I had it out on permanent load I had to renew it over and over again.
JR: Did you know anyone else that was doing anything like that? [JA: No. No.] So that’s very interesting so you were fuelling your own interest?
JA: Yes. It means that because I had to teach myself and develop this myself I tend to start with I want to do this how do I do it. And do that rather than let’s find out how other people have done it.
JR: And you buy lots of book with patterns and do you follow patterns now?
JA: No, no I like coloured pictures. Particularly the crazy books that have got lots of embellishments and things like that, but I’ve never, very rarely ever made something in a pattern that someone else has done…
JR: Come from your own design [JA: Yes]. And can you tell me a bit more about how you would sit down to design a quilt?
JA: I think. It’s only since I’ve done the City and Guilds that I’ve done the designing. And at the moment I would still only do that because I have to. Generally in the past I think and I either have an abstract idea and maybe a colour or something and I just think.
JR: Do you sketch, do you ever get fabrics out and look at them and think what can I do?
JA: I do that more now, but in the past particularly when it was all cotton and piecing, I would think, until I got to a point when I could pretty much see what I wanted and then go and look for fabrics and look at what I had. And I think the first thing that I ever actually designed I did a big quilt based on a brain scan and obviously that had to… I mean I squared it up but it still had to be right, so I drew that up to the size it was going to be and then I knew where all the pieces had to go this, but that was the first thing that I designed. I mean, for example, with this quilt I did draw long bits and put some wavy lines on it and then thought ‘yes that looks alright’ and then because I sewed it straight on to the wadding and because I had to cut the holes in the wadding… I just drew in a marker pen where I wanted these long curving lines to go and you can see there on top of the crazy, I did some filler bits and put them on top.
JR: And how long would that take you to make would you get really into it daily?
JA: Erm, you know I can’t remember, I could have looked it up. Because I used to keep a rough note of, not from thinking but from the moment I picked up scissors or something of how long things took partly I had and interest and partly people would say ‘oh will you make me something and you could say ‘no because it will take me x long’.
JR: And do you try and quilt everyday Jacqueline
JA: Most of the time. Certainly I properly quilt more days than I don’t and the only time I’ve had a period of time not quilting was when I was depressed. And I just didn’t want to do anything but otherwise I’ve got to be really, really quite ill before I don’t feel like quilting and because I do it by hand, you can do it while you watch the television and it’s a good excuse for watching rubbish, but it’s not a lot you have to pay a lot of attention to. And I leave it out, because if you put it away that’s fatal getting it out to watch the 10 o’clock news that half hour sewing.
JR: And what is it you think about quilting that has kept your interest for all these years?
JA: I was thinking about that I really find it hard to answer because it’s almost more why wouldn’t you do it?
JR: It’s almost second nature to you.
JA: And it changes. You don’t have to do the same thing over and over again, as I said at the moment I’m doing lots of crazy patchwork and using lots of what some people call fancy and some people call exotic fabrics. And that’s come about in part because a friend of my brother’s is a couture dressmaker and every so often I get a bin bag full of scraps and they are just wonderful and you’ve got to things with them and… but recently I did something small over papers and it was really fun just to go back over sewing papers together
JR: Do you find it relaxing a kind of therapy?
JA: Yes, I wouldn’t say therapy, but I would say in the general run of things if I go a while without quilting for whatever reason I’m aware of missing it and particularly in the past I was very aware of that. I mean I sewed all through university, people though it was just weird, and when I was revising I would sit through sewing going ‘I’m consolidating’ and I would pass so it obviously worked.
JR: I read on your website all the different years that you’ve quilted, when you at Glasgow University you were quilting, did you make a quilt for the University?
JA: Yes. 550th Anniversary because Glasgow University has a wonderful, wonderful town. It’s Victorian gothic buildings, it’s stunning, and I did um lots of small towers in blocks.
JR: And is that still with the University? [JA: Yes.] You can see that, and they must have been thrilled to have that because you were working there [JA: Yes] and to have that form someone who is part of university life.
JA: Yes, well I hope so, it’s in a dark corner but it is there.
JR: It’s quite gothic. So there is a bit of a dark is there a bit of a dark theme in sense of the colours?
JA: Yes that goes form light to dark but one of the things for my City and Guilds was Victorian gothic. I do like original gothic and I like Victorian gothic and I like dark. A little while ago my friend was complaining that my flat was dark and why hadn’t I painted the walls white and he said he was telling another friend what he had been saying and, I don’t know if it’s telling or not and she is a psychiatrist, she said to me ‘yes but you are a dark and gloomy person’ and I went ‘what, what?’ and she said ‘you know what I mean in the term of your colour!’ [Laughter].
JR: But it’s interesting to see so much contrast and the colours you have chosen in the quilt lots of darks but because it’s all different textures you get a lot of contrast.
JA: You can see at it, actually at the bottom it’s all black and then we go into the navy and the dark bottle greens and purple. It doesn’t get light but it gets slightly lighter as you come up [JR: And a little bit warmer] and the top is all blue.
JR: And what about and what about those slivers of red that you have woven into the fabric is that braiding?
JA: It’s piping.
JR: It’s quite a contrast.
JA: It is.
JR: Is that just the way you felt?
JA: I know there was a very good reason for doing it but as I didn’t write it down I have no idea… it goes back to you should keep note books and you should keep sketch books and you should know why you did something because the journey here… I kept think ‘why did I put that there why did I put red in?’
JR: It is what it is, at the time you wanted a little bit of excitement almost at the top of the quilt.
JA: Yes I don’t want to think its blood running down. And because it’s a night garden that wouldn’t be right but I don’t know if it was supposed to be it’s all something, but…
JR: It’s quite dramatic.
JA: Yes, and it does give it that slight lift that it needs because I’m not someone who’s always going ‘you’ve got to balance your lights, mediums and darks’. I like things where the colours and the tones merge much more, but you do usually just need something somewhere.
JR: Do you buy a lot of traditional cotton printed fabrics for your quilting and patchwork?
JA: Not as much as I used to. I have brought a lot, but because at the moment I’m doing predominately crazy, then…
JR: Are you using up a lot of oddments?
JA: Well, I’m using lots of other sorts of fabrics I do buy and I’m given I do have, I very rarely but I very rarely big pieces I buy fat quarters if I was buying because I like using lots and lots of different fabrics and I tend to use quite small piece. And, yes, getting a lot in, I’m not someone who tends to do a quilt with four or five fabrics repeated.
JR: Have you got a large stash?
JA: [Whispers] Yes. She whispers!
JR: I was going to ask you about the space you have at home to sew a quilt, can you describe it to me?
JA: One of those room that really should be on television demonstrating someone needing help. I do try to sort fabrics into boxes and because I like recycling as well I don’t like throwing things away o I used to bring all the boxes home from work that had photocopying and typing paper and things came in, and when I was redoing the room that was at one point my study and workroom, I had shelves put in to in that fit the boxes well it fitted books originally but now it’s all boxes. So do have the fabric in the boxes.
JR: So is it colour coded?
JA: So it would say… light to mid blue patterned cotton, light to mid blue mixed fabric, light to mid blue plain cotton.
JR: So you know exactly where to go?
JA: Except I’ve got a lot of bags waiting to be sorted.
JR: And have you got, do you have a sewing machine set up when you are doing machine?
JA: If I was doing machine I would leave it set up but as I don’t do it very often I don’t.
JR: So do you have more than one machine?
JA: No [laughter] oh no.
JR: But that’s so interesting and do you have a big table you work on in that room or do you prefer to do it in your living space?
JA: No I work in the living room because I am watching television. If I need a big long space to cut things out I do it on the kitchen table, because I have a big kitchen table that has a stainless steel top, so that’s great you can cut on and you are not going to damage it. I do, by my chair, have a folding card table that had been my grandmothers I actually got the beize replaced a few years ago, it was so tatty I thought it deserved it, so I keep everything on and of course with the beize top you can push pins into it. [JR: Handy.] And I leave it out. To me that’s one of the secrets because if I leave it out, you can pick it up and move on whereas if you tidy away it’s a decision about getting it out; is it worth it? Have I got time? Can I be bothered? Whereas you can pick it up for quarter of an hour.
JR: You’ve talked about books earlier, do you have a big library [JA: Yes] and you still buy [JA: Oh yes] and so what the recent titles you’ve brought can you remember anything?
JA: Well I will do a plug for The Quilters’ Guild I brought their book on the coverlet.
JA: Yes, so that’s it’s a mixture of about books about history of quilts and I’ve brought, recently, a few books on crazy quilting… I’m terribly bad with names is it Ally Adler? And there’s another lady, they are American, Judith Baker her surname begins with an ‘m’ and I apologise to her deeply as it is a great book and I’ve gone a blank, those I tend not to buy of patterns and projects.
JR: You mentioned a plug for The Guild and that’s in a nice neat way for me to ask you I know you are a trustee of The Guild?
JR: You have been a member since the early days?
JR: Can you tell us a little about that journey?
JA: Oh, that was so exciting, I’m what’s called a founding member, um, because I’m one of the people… I think it was in the first 1000, when they were fundraising for something they labelled us founding members. I was in the first 500, my number is in the first 500. And I think it was probably Good Housekeeping magazine and I read this thing, it would have been, I think, just after I moved to Glasgow. And saw this thing in the magazine about The Quilters’ Guild and I immediately wrote and joined. And their first AGM was in Winchester and they’d asked us to take quilts or something to hang up as a kind of show and tell, and I remember getting the train down to London taking a quilt off my parents bed and my parents drove us all down to Winchester and they went off for the day and I went to The Guild AGM and it was so exciting as though I was the first time I had met other quilters.
JR: And you must have had so much to talk about?
JA: It was so exciting, it was just so exciting, and just after that I was phoned up by another woman in Glasgow and she had been on to The Quilters’ Guild and we were the only two people in Glasgow at the time who were members. So we met and started a house group.
JR: Were you one of the first groups in Glasgow [JA: Yes] and do you still keep in touch?
JA: She, she moved away and lost touch and at that point I was the youngest and inevitably [pauses] the women became elderly and have either sadly died and moved away and the house group stopped. But then other groups in Glasgow started and I’m a member of Glasgow Gathering of Quilters.
JR: And do you still meet up?
JA: No I don’t now. When I was working it got to the point when I could not have committed to have said ‘I will always be there on that day’ so I’m thinking about starting another small group.
JR: So, quickly as a trustee it must have been quite an event for you and quite rewarding to become a trustee?
JA: Yes I was involved in developing The Guild in Scotland I suppose and I was on the Scottish committee for a very long while ago back in the 80s when we set things up and then a few years ago I became the area rep for Glasgow but I knew that while I was working there was no point in saying I could become something like a Trustee as I could not commit to the meetings and then I decided to take early retirement and though right when vacancies for trustees come up I’ll apply.
JR: And that quite a recent appointment?
JA: Yes. It was AGM last year so I’ve just done a year.
JR: We are going to run out of time soon but there is one thing I really must ask you about the work you did on wellbeing and quilting at Glasgow University, it was very exciting people in the quilting world. Can you tell us a little about how that came about?
JA: Right well, my professional career is I’m an academic, I’m a psychologist to trade and always worked in mental health. And so I’d actually done a series of quilts to do with Schizophrenia in particular, but mental illness, which is what I worked, as I said the brain quilt. But we had masters student doing a degree in public health and had to come up with projects for them and so I suggested doing a project looking at quilters views about how quilting supported their mental health or contributed to their mental health or how it helped them through stress, or anxiety or things and one of the students was very keen to do that.
JR: And did they have a sample in Scotland or throughout the UK?
JA: No it was a sample in Glasgow, because it was going to be a small student project and it was a limited time. I’d gone to the Glasgow group I go to and asked them if they would be interested in being involved, and I’d said to them I will never know whether you have or not, I will be very careful that I never know who had done the interview, and they were all happy to do it. So it was done with very helpful ladies form the Glasgow Gathering.
JR: And the pieces were published?
JR: And did you write papers?
JA: Yes it was published in the Journal of Public Health.
JR: I read about it in the press, it was the first time I really had seen any mention like that.
JA: It was interesting the number of phone calls because I was easier to get hold of than the student as it was written in our joint names, so it’s actually Burt and Atkinson. Because I was easy to get hold of I got phoned up a lot. Lots of newspapers and women’s magazines were interested and I think because it was a nice little filler story and it was a bit different.
JR: And do you think Jacqueline there might be more research done that’s whetted the appetite?
JA: Yes, although I have to say, it’s not as easy as it sounds to ask the questions you want to answer… setting it up as a really good scientific study is not straightforward, but I do think there is more work and I think people telling their stories.
JR: As we are.
JA: As we are now, I mean essentially the women that Emily interviewed were doing this, but it was related to quilting and their health, and a lot of very useful things came out of it.
JR: Can you give us a quick summary of the findings? Were they basically saying it was about getting through difficult times?
JA: For quite a few of them that had clearly been very, very helpful. I think there were people who also were saying ‘well it’s just a very positive thing to do, I don’t do it deliberately as therapy, and I’m a bit reluctant to label it always as that, but if I’m feeling a bit stressed, sitting down and quilting, you calm down, you unwind, and it’s very important in that way. Maybe someone else would say ‘well I play a game of tennis’ and it’s the same’. I think in terms at looking at how we use our leisure in general that is something were we could do a lot more useful work and how that relates to peoples general, physical and mental health.
JR: There has been such a resurgence of making. [JA: Yes.] Because people perhaps want to be more in touch and hands on? [JA: Yes.] And it comes from themselves?
JA: Yes and it obviously goes through fashions and I think there needs to be some degree of… that you’re not just doing it out of necessity, because if you’re doing it out of financial necessity that’s a bit different. But yes, I think being creative is usually acknowledged as being good for you. In whatever way that comes out and I think having fun is hugely underrated and incredibly important that’s why I don’t like people who get too hung up on ‘it has to be done this way’ or ‘it has to be done that way’ it’s the process, and I like the process. And one of the reasons I like hand sewing is because it takes a long while, you know, and if I did things much faster I just have more storage problems and what would I do with them?
JR: Well that brings me to my very last questions Jacqueline as it’s about the end of the interview. What are you going to be working on when you go back home in the next couple of days, what’s on the drawing board?
JA: I’ve got… [Pauses] I’ve been doing lots of crazy samples because I’ve been doing some workshops and I’ve been doing that so there good to have to teach people and I have a couple of those pieces that I want to finish, they are nearly finished and I want to finish them.
JR: Then you have City and Guilds [laughter]
JA: That’s what I should have said! I need to go back and work on my City and Guilds. I will when I finish these two I will!
JR: Well thank you so much for taking part.
JA: Thank you so much for inviting me, it’s been fun.