ID Number: TQ.2015.042
Name of interviewee: Lorna Dakin
Name of interviewer: Jan Allston
Name of transcriber: Katherine James
Location: Lorna’s home
Address: Eastbourne, East Sussex
Date: 1 August 2015
Length of interview: 0:29:13
Lorna talks about her stack and whack quilt, made partly in the UK and partly in America, which was exhibited as part of a WI Centennial Show at Tatton Park. She also talks about her great grandmother’s crazy quilt made in the 1880s, her love of fabric and the pleasure she gets from looking at others quilts. Later in the interview she describes a special quilt, made for her mother’s 80th birthday, tells us a bit about some of the quilt shows in America and explains Amish quilts.
Jan Allston [JA]: [Interview introductions] Thank you for agreeing to take part in this, Lorna. And if you’d like to just tell me about your quilt, please?
Lorna Dakin [LD]: Yes, this quilt was started in America, and the reason for that was that about 23 years ago, I went to a quilt show in one of the EQA quilt shows in Holland and met up quite coincidentally with a person from Washington State in America. I was with a friend and she was on her own, we invited her to join us for dinner and things went from there. She later came to England on the same trip and came down to Eastbourne and from that time my friend and I visited her many times in America. I’ve been every year and sometimes twice a year, I’m part of the quilt group there and it has opened up my world amazingly. While I was on one of my visits to her in 1999, I went to one of the many quilt shops in her area and found this material which had a Japanese theme and the border material. And the design is similar to [pause] can’t remember the name of it now [long pause, during which Lorna says ‘Stop, perhaps take it back a bit’] what is it, what did I just say? Broken… no what is that design called? [Break and microphone noise]
Yes, the style is similar to ‘stack and whack’ but the system that I use for making it takes rather less fabric than ‘stack and whack’, which is always an advantage, and I started doing it in America while I was there, it was during the winter when it’s quite often weather similar to here and we have sewing days, so I started it there and then finished it when I got home. I entered it for the WI Centennial Patchwork Show in the year 2000 and it was accepted to go to Tatton Park up in, near Manchester, and was on display there and they did, so I went to see it and I also, they asked me if I would be able to, if they could use it for a calendar which I said yes but it didn’t materialise. The actual quilting of the quilt was quite difficult because being black on black and the fact that I had not put all the shapes in a straight line made the quilting quite a problem but I did eventually finish it.
JA: Can you, can you describe the actual quilt itself and can you also describe what ‘stack and whack’ means, please?
LD: Yes, yes ‘stack and whack’ is a design whereby you cut eight identical squares out of your fabric, so if you have a flower in the middle of the one square you must have it in exactly the same place in all the others, so your remaining fabric looks as though the mice have been at it with these holes in the middle. The fabric I chose was a black background with a Japanese-style fabric which had a lot of movement in it with curves and various colours and this is essential for this design because you want different-coloured motifs coming up.
JA: And which colours have you used in your design in your quilt, Lorna?
LD: Well mainly the colours are a pink, black, white and grey and there are various birds in the design. The motifs all come up looking completely different and until you’ve cut them you don’t know what’s going to happen. It is a class that I teach and it’s quite exciting. The last, you only get eight, so to make this quilt I had to make one more and to do that I did it with the old-fashioned way of cutting a triangle template and picking that out eight times from my fabric, which resulted in my having a rather nice centrepiece with the birds’ beaks all going round in a circle. [Long pause] The quilt is about 50 inches square, it is hand quilted and I use it at the moment to either hang on one of my walls, and then when I do a workshop, this is obviously a good example of what people can see exactly how the design works. I’m very fond of this quilt because it’s got a story behind it and up to the quilting part I did enjoy doing it but black on black is something I would not do again.
JA: Right, so when did you actually first start quilting, Lorna?
LD: I started in 1979 with a very short five-week course evening classes in East Grinstead and at the time there was a new quilt group starting up called Greenstede Quilters which I joined and we were all equally naïve about quilting and taught each other and gradually grew from there.
JA: Are you still in touch with some of those quilters?
LD: Yes I am still in touch with some of those quilters and I meet them at shows and I did but when I moved to Eastbourne 28 years ago I still went to visit them at the quilt group but I don’t travel there any more but I do go to their shows. The other quiltmaker in my family was apparently my great-grandmother and I didn’t know about this and I don’t know the extent of her quiltmaking but I do have one of her quilts which is a crazy quilt which was probably made in about 1880–84, of, it’s using silk ribbons and velvets, it has been added to quite badly since with big lumps of corduroy and velvet and it’s not in very good condition, but my aunt gave it to me and she said she remembered seeing it on the bed. I may have inherited some of my love of sewing from my mother who always made all my clothes and those for my brother because in wartime that’s what you did. And also both my grandmothers were seamstresses and my aunt was also a seamstress and a City & Guilds teacher and made wedding dresses and I inherited all of her things which I still haven’t managed to get through. I like doing all sorts of quilts but I’m particularly attracted by colours and colours really is my main thing. I do like scrap quilts which is handy for using up the many bits one has. I like foundation piecing because it’s very exact and the points are really perfect.
JA: Can you explain how you we would do foundation piecing?
LD: Mmm, foundation piecing is something which is a bit like Marmite: love or hate! Some people like to do it. You literally work from the back of a piece of thin fabric or Vilene and place the material on the top and flip, sew a seam, flip it again and you come out with extremely exact work and sometimes very small pieces are used which would be very difficult to use in the normal piecing techniques.
JA: And would you say that foundation piecing is your favourite technique, or do you have one that you think you prefer?
LD: I do a lot of different techniques and it’s very difficult to find a favourite. I enjoy doing the scrap quilts and moving colour around, which is probably my favourite thing, shading and just finding the right piece of fabric for a particular place, and I’ll go to considerable lengths to make sure I’ve got the correct fabric. I have been known to get a quilt together and then take a piece out if it doesn’t actually look right. I’m very fond of batiks because their fabric colours move and you can shade things very well with batiks.
JA: And is there any technique that you absolutely hate that you can tell us about?
LD: Not really. I don’t have to do anything that I hate so… I probably wouldn’t make a hexagon quilt although it’s something that I do teach people to do because I think that’s something which is a part of our heritage and our tradition.
JA: Okay. What do you enjoy most about your quilting, Lorna?
LD: One of the things I really enjoy most is choosing the fabrics for a quilt. I love colour and as I just said I love the shading and using the different colours. Sometimes you can find one piece of material which really calls out to you that it wants to be used and something maybe I’ve had in my stash of fabrics for a long time and then suddenly I look at it and I realise what I could use it for and then have great fun going through my piles of fabric trying to choose what would go with it. At the point where I am at the moment, is that I’m trying to use the fabrics I have, without buying more. On my many trips to America in the beginning I used to come back with vast amounts, probably 50 yards of fabric at a time, so I’m still working my way through those. So it’s very difficult to justify buying any more. I enjoy the cutting and I enjoy the piecing and I also enjoy hand quilting.
JA: Okay, do you use any technology in your quilting Lorna?
LD: No, not really, although I do have a computer and I’m reasonably computer-literate. I prefer to use a pencil and protractor and paper and draw up a design. On one occasion I was in the States with another friend and she was very keen on Quilt-Pro and said she could do it on a computer, and while she was struggling with it on the computer I realised that I could actually do it as fast using my normal tools.
JA: And, where do you, where do you normally do your quilting?
LD: I normally do my quilting, I have a very large room and I have my table in the bay window and look at the world going by and the cutting table and then I do the piecing and cutting there and I can do the hand quilting in the evenings. One thing I really enjoy if it’s nice weather is being in the garden with the umbrella up and the table and sitting out with my sewing machine sewing in the garden with the birds singing.
JA: Excellent, right, okay. [LD: Is it still on?] Off we go then, okay. So, roughly how much time would you say you spent on quiltmaking in the course of an average week?
LD: That’s a really difficult question because obviously one has other things in life, the garden and for many years I was looking after my mother who was blind and lived to 100, and one has to do housework now and again. I was a keen tennis and badminton player but I’m unable to do that now. In the winter I spend more time than I do in the summer and I would think I probably do the … maybe sometimes three hours at a time, but probably not more. And, I, the quilting is mostly done in the winter and I would do two or three hours hand quilting at a time and the money I spend on quilting is, I have a large stash of fabric so I don’t spend a lot on fabric but obviously have to buy wadding and I occasionally have a quilt professionally quilted because I’m not good at machine quilting, mainly because I haven’t bothered to spend the time on it but I do like the feel of quilts when they’re hand quilted and I feel they’re more cosy and comfortable than something that’s heavily machine quilted, which is fine for a wall-hanging but for a comfy bed quilt – I’ve got five great-nieces and I’ve made quilts for them which have all used as cuddly quilts.
JA: And what do you look for or what do you notice when you look at other people’s quilts, Lorna?
LD: I really enjoy looking at other people’s quilts and a lot of people do some remarkable stitching and piecing and machine quilting and absolutely remarkable. On a more basic level. I really look to see if the colours are good and the design is good and also that the piecing, if it’s a pieced quilt, if that it’s well done. Also in the quilting I think you can have a really nice middle of a quilt which has been quilted and then perhaps they haven’t put the borders on evenly or they haven’t quilted the borders which makes a tremendous difference to a quilt. Sometimes there maybe isn’t enough quilting if the people are hand quilting, and you could understand why because it does take a long time. And I really admire a lot of the quilts which are made and they’ve really gone beyond my traditional type of quilting but it’s very enjoyable to look at other people’s ideas.
JA: And how do you feel about other people’s work, you know the standard of their work in their quilts?
LD: I think it’s quite amazing and makes me feel like a beginner. Some of the techniques people use, and I think in particular the one thing that has got so really inspirational for some people is the machine quilting. The level of accuracy that people get by machine quilting is really amazing. But for myself I actually still prefer to hand quilt.
JA: Okay, do you, when you make a quilt, where do you get your ideas from? Where does your inspiration come from?
LD: Well sometimes I might see a particular design at a show or in a book. And as I said before, it’s the fabrics really that can really inspire me to make a quilt and then I start looking for some sort of a design which would show the fabric off to its best advantage.
JA: Have you, have you done any machine quilting?
LD: I’ve done a certain amount, yes, but I didn’t really enjoy it particularly. I know that it would mean I’d have to spend a lot of time perfecting it and I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t do it well. [Microphone noise].
JA: And what do you do with, what do you do with the quilts you’ve made, Lorna?
LD: [Microphone noise] Well a lot of them have been given away but one particular one that I made when my mother was 80, for her 80th birthday, about two months before I suddenly thought that I should make her a quilt so I managed to, at that time she wasn’t living with me, she was living a little way away and I managed to get hold of her address book one day and looked up her friends, wrote to all her friends and sent them a piece of material and asked them if they would write their names and a message on it for her birthday. And they all came back, some of them from abroad, took quite a while, but about six weeks before her birthday I started putting them together and then about a week before her birthday, cards started arriving for her and she started opening them and I said to her I didn’t think it was a good idea because she said ‘I’ve got cards from people I didn’t know, I haven’t seen for ages and didn’t know them, didn’t know they knew my birthday!’ So I said why don’t you just keep them all until your birthday and then we can all open them together, so I’ll come along and we’ll open them together, so she agreed to that. And by this time there was a stack of about 70 birthday cards, and so I took it along, I went along and took her quilt to her and she opened it and she was absolutely amazed, her eyesight was not that wonderful but she could see all these names and these lovely messages. And I’d sat up half the night trying to get it finished because the last square had come in from Holland and then she realised why she’d got so many cards. So that was really wonderful. She later went, she lost her sight and went into a care home for the last six years of her life and had it on her bed, but, which was a great talking point but then the home were rather fanatical about putting it in the washing machine and so I have got it but there’s not much left of the signatures, they’ve mostly faded.
Other quilts I’ve given to the great-nieces, they’ve all had two or three each, and to other relations and friends. I have sold quite a lot of quilts but I don’t like making them to commission; other people don’t necessarily see a quilt the same as I do with the colours, and if I make a quilt and they like to buy it, that’s fine, but if they choose the fabrics and the design and then it turns out not to be to their liking, it’s a rather unsatisfactory situation. I make quite a lot of quilts, and cot quilts in particular, which I can sell at various Open Gardens for the hospice and the local hospital and then a percentage goes to them and I have made a large number over the years. I also make bags and all sorts of smaller items which also get sold and then a percentage goes to a charity. I also use the quilts that I’ve got for hanging on my walls and on my beds, and mainly for my classes, as an idea for people to have a look at to possibly do a similar design. I also go around giving a large number of talks and workshops in the local area and further afield in the south of England mainly – Essex, Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, down to the Isle of Wight, Southampton – and then I can obviously take the quilts along with me and use them in my talk. I don’t use slides but in fact I’ve got all the quilts that I can actually show people and then people seem to like coming along afterwards and really getting a close look at them.
JA: What, what would you say is the biggest challenge you face as a quiltmaker today, Lorna?
LD: Well I think the biggest challenge probably is now I’ve got to the ripe old age of 75, with an enormous stash of fabric still, and really it’s the question of time. How do I make time to get through this stash of fabric? I really enjoy getting my stashes of fabric out and getting them, shading them in piles, all the blues, all the greens, and if at any time I don’t feel particularly well, and just want a quiet evening I’ll go and get one of these stashes of fabric and go through it and pick out all the small pieces for my scrap box and the bigger pieces I’ll look at them. I find it very hard to part with any of it unless I’m actually putting into a quilt and, but I’m very, always willing to help a fellow quilter by giving them a piece if there’s something that they need. But the main question really I think is time because I feel that in a way time is probably running out and my hands are good, my eyesight’s good, so I’m hoping to be able to quilt for many years to come.
JA: What would you say was, would be the most important aspect of your quiltmaking at the moment, Lorna? [Occasional microphone noise in background]
LD: I think one of the most important things is that quiltmaking could be a very solitary occupation but in my case it’s led me to all sorts of different places. I’ve travelled the world, literally, with, visiting quilt exhibitions, meeting people. Many of the people that I’ve met in, my friend in America, in her quilt group, they’ve been over here to visit me. I’ve been to quilt shows in Europe, in Innsbruck and in Lille, and some of them from the States have come over there so I’ve met them there. With my contacts in America we’ve been to quilt shows there, which I would never have been to.
JA: Which quilt shows did you visit in America? [Microphone noise continues in background]
LD: Well, I’ve been with quilting friends from here I’ve been twice to Houston and I’ve been to Paducah which was a wonderful trip there – three of us from the UK met up with three of my quilting friends from America: one of them lives in San Francisco and two of them in Washington State and the six of us met up in Paducah and we spent time there and in the immediate area. We had about three weeks touring in that area and included the show. I’ve been to quite a few of the north-west Pacific quilt shows which are held either in the Vancouver area or Seattle or Tacoma or Portland and again the Sisters quilt show in Oregon with quilters from Washington State, I’ve travelled with them. Recently went to, last year with my American friend we went to New York and we were able to visit various quilting places in the New York area and we drove out to Niagara. The whole meeting up with friends in this country and abroad has added a tremendous amount to my life.
JA: How would you say the shows in America differ from the ones that we have over here? [Microphone noise continues]
LD: When I first started going to America, the quilt shows over there were mind-blowing. Houston itself was just massive, but now that we’ve got the quilt show in Birmingham, which is absolutely equal to any of those which they have in America, up until then we’d had mostly local shows or Quilters’ Guild shows which were relatively small, even the National Quilt Championships, you don’t get that many quilts but Birmingham is now a fantastic show and obviously visited by people from all over the world and I’ve been there many times and exhibited there but it’s absolutely equal to the shows that I’ve seen in the States. The other thing that I have also done, was with a friend who lived in America, an English friend who was a travel agent bringing people back to this country for tours and she suggested I got a group of people from here to go to the States and she would organise tours. Twice I took groups of people from here, about 15 of us, which were mostly people from my classes and friends and we flew to Philadelphia and toured around in Pennsylvania and that area visiting the Amish and going to mainly usually a big quilt show as well. And the last time we went we went to Charleston and Savannah and visited lots of quilting shops there and had about ten days which was amazing. We haven’t done any more recently because she’s actually moved back to the UK now.
JA: You mentioned the word ‘Amish’; could you just give us a bit more information about the Amish quilts? [Microphone noise ends]
LD: Yes, the Amish quilts are something which a lot of people know about but basically are a religious group of people who originally came from Germany because they were having problems there. And in fact when I went on a trip with my American friend we went to one of the places in Alsace where the original Amish people went from and my friend is into geneology [sic] and some of her ancestors were actually in the group of people that went from Germany to America and in America they started there groups and they became very well known for their quilting, particularly their hand quilting, and their lack of modern equipment made it mostly done by hand. Things have changed these days whereby they now do use more sewing machines and they use other designs, designs other than the very plain Amish colours which basically reflected the clothes they wore. But on the trip to New York last autumn we did come across some Amish quilt shops with the Amish fabrics that they use for their dresses and it was really an Amish shop run by Amish people and we went in there and it was all very quiet and subdued and the girls behind the counter were very demure and they had their little bonnets on and their navy dresses.
JA: Well thank you very much, Lorna, that’s very kind of you to give us this interview and I hope that you’ve enjoyed doing it.
LD: Yes, a pleasure, thank you very much.
JA: Thank you.