ID number: TQ.2015.021
Name of interviewee: Catherine Margaret [Mattie] McDonald
Name of interviewer: Gilly Thomson
Name of transcriber: Take 1
Location: Mattie’s house
Date: 3 May 2015
Length of interview: 0:32:13
Mattie’s quilt was her City and Guilds final project piece, ‘No GM here’, which she based on crop circles and addressed the contemporary issue of GM crop growing in the Black Isles. She talks about the techniques used in the quilt and how she designed it. Later Mattie describes growing up in a croft, using natural dyes and her mother’s torpedo Singer sewing machine. She also talks about the City and Guilds course, making quilts for the church centenary and making charity quilts for a local hospice.
Gilly Thomson [GT]: I’ll start. Your ID number is TQ.2015.021. It’s Catherine Margaret McDonald otherwise known as Mattie McDonald to us who’s the interviewee and it’s Gilly Thompson who’s interviewing her. The location is Mattie’s house in Inverness and the date is the 3rd of May 2015. Okay Mattie, could you tell me a little about your quilt and what’s it called.
Catherine Margaret McDonald [CM]: The quilt is called Cream of the Crop, no GM here.
CM: It was my final piece for a City and Guilds and it was made in 20 er, 2002. I got the idea initially from a calendar. I had chosen the Picts as my subject to keep me going for two years in design ’cause I could have had body art, oghams, um, pagan side, the religious side, or the standing stones. Not really wanting to do anything in the Celtic line, I had read somewhere that crop circles appeared beside all these standing stones. And being a crofter’s daughter, er, being into growing things and especially corn and crops, that was why I, I was drawn to the crop circles.
GT: What size is the quilt?
CM: The quilt is 78 inches by 78. I’m sorry I don’t do metric.
GT: That’s okay. And the, and the colours?
CM: The colours are cream and a kind of an off white. Really just to, to change the, the blocks. Some are made larger than others. I think the big one is set about 18 inches to give it a wee bit of variation really. And the borders were quilted two different sizes a, in a chain because they were trialling GM crops in the Black Isle at the time and it caused quite a, an uproar. And the, the chain is to represent the food chain and why the quilt says no GM here.
CM: I used a silk to represent, in varying colours to represent the ripening corn, or colours I thought was ripening corn colours. Maybe others would disagree.
GT: Oh. And what do you do with the quilt? Do you have it hanging somewhere?
CM: No, unfortunately it’s on top of a bed, languishing with the others.
GT: But you plan to keep it?
CM: Oh I plan, definitely plan to keep it. It’s probably one of the quilts I made that our daughter would be interested in. My older daughter likes most things, but the younger one quite fussy and I think these colours would kind of appeal to her. When it was, I worked at home making this quilt I had no idea what my other peers at Perth College were up to. And they hadn’t seen what I was doing. And I was a wee bit concerned that maybe I hadn’t done what I should have done, so when I arrived down on the day of assessment, they were into my bag of goodies to display my stuff and help me display it. But they had used the wrong side of the quilt because they thought it was a wholecloth quilt. So it must say something for my work.
GT: Not at all. How do you feel about the quilt yourself?
CM: I actually rather like it. It was very easy to do. It’s, it’s just one of those once you started there was just no problem. There’s a bit of trapunto in it. There’s a bit of reverse applique in it, some hand stitching, just whatever would portray the crop circles best. Most of them as I say came from a calendar and others were say from the internet. And there’s now books to give you the,
CM: The ideas. And I say some of it’s twin needled as well to give kind of the puffy effect.
GT: Yes, it’s very fine, very fine. And when did you first start making quilts?
CM: I was just trying to… I said in excess of 25 years, but I think it’s probably more like 30. Just thinking back to the ages of my family. And left over dressmaking scraps, what do you do with them? Too mean to bin them and thought a great idea, I’ll make quilts. But then what do you do, you buy more fabric and you still don’t use up the dressmaking scraps totally. And life at home was quite difficult because of illness and aging parents and things. So it was a good thing to do in an evening to sit down, just to have time for yourself and do something that was relaxing. And I always refer to quilting as anti-stress and I gain from my work.
GT: Aha. Are there other quilters in your family?
CM: My grandmother, it was in Lanarkshire, she used to get books of samples from the Co-operative ’cause in those days you bought most things from the Co-Op and they knew that she sewed and she had 11 of her family who survived, so money was precious to her. And she made quilts with these, I suppose it was dressmaking fabric, just squares sewn together. I don’t know how much of it was done of the quilting. And likewise we grew up in a family with not very much money and my mother used left over clothing and things and used blankets actually, not wadding as we do today, it was blankets.
GT: No, I think that was fairly usual. Yes. Do you have any of these quilts?
CM: No, my sister has and she won’t part with them.
CM: They’re pretty old now. They must be in excess of 70 years.
GT: Have they been documented?
CM: No and I think my, I think, I’m sure my niece has cut them up. Yes made them smaller. Mm huh.
GT: That’s a shame.
CM: I don’t think they were things of beauty. They were functional, totally.
GT: Yes. And what are your preferred styles and techniques?
CM: Whatever I’m doing at the moment. I don’t think I would go back to hexagons regularly. I’ve been there. I quite like piecing when it, when it’s nicely done, but when the points don’t meet I don’t really like it then.
CM: I think probably quite like applique. I like whole clothes. And just sometimes stencilling on fabric and quilting round that. But I must admit I enjoy quilting more than I enjoy the other areas of quilt making. Never though…
GT: Where do you work mostly?
CM: At, at kitchen table nearly, or sitting room table I should say. I’ve got plenty of space I could work in, but that’s where I gravitate to
CM: Nice in front of the fire with a needle.
GT: And how do you go about making a quilt?
CM: Sometimes I see something that’ll kind of set a, a train of thought in motion, get a design from that and that’s sometimes the way to start. Other times it’s fabric that tells me that such and such should be done with it. And just play around.
GT: And do you spend much money on your quilting?
CM: [laughs] don’t we all. I often say at these trader stalls if they could sell me some, some time instead of fabric, I would be laughing ’cause then I could produce more quilts.
GT: Yes. And…
CM: Quite like, sorry. Quite like dyeing fabric myself. I like hand dyed fabrics and quite often do hand dyeing and…
GT: What kind of dyes do you use?
CM: I use the procion dyes and it’s not messy like some people say it is. And it’s just lovely to see what you’ve got at the end of the day, it’s quite exciting. And just like there’s variations in, in the fabric depending on the weave of the, the fabric you have actually dyed, the tighter the weave the more patterns that kind of seem to appear in it and it’s quite exciting.
GT: Have you used natural dyes at all?
CM: A little bit. We used to have to use natural dyes at home on the croft because we didn’t have shops to, to get things and we, we did quite a bit of dyeing with natural dyes.
GT: What, what in particular did you use?
CM: Well onion skins were, were one of the, the favourite things to use. And we burnt peat, so you can use the peat, the soot from peat, which will give you a yellow colour believe it or not.
CM: But not, not if you’ve been burning coal.
GT: Only peat.
CM: Peat. And some of the flowers and, and things. We had ir, wild irises and people might shake their head, but they grew so prolifically that you know a bit here and there wouldn’t make much difference. And we always had a fire outside to do the dyeing with.
GT: So you did that outside?
CM: Did it outside mm huh yeah. Either a big tin bath, or…
GT: Ah ha. Did you lose, use lichens as well?
CM: Oh lichens yes, ah ha, yes, plenty, plenty on the rocks. Plenty rocks where you could find it.
CM: Although I don’t think it’s quite PC to do that now. Scrape the lichens not quite the same.
GT: It’s become popular again using natural dyes hasn’t it?
CM: Yes, mm hmm. It’s a bit more difficult because you need all your mord…, mordants and depending on your mordant, depending on what colour you’ve got to…
GT: But did you not use mordants when you were dyeing?
CM: Yes, they would have been brought in I, I rather suspect. I seem to think rhubarb leaves and the, the bit at the bottom, the white bit at the bottom of a rhubarb, I’m sure that used to get used. I’m sure it was steeped for whatever number of days.
GT: The root.
CM: And I’m sure that was one of the things that was used.
GT: Oh interesting. So you remember that from your childhood?
CM: From my childhood. And the lady next door to us she used to love, very, very house-proud and every spring she took her house apart and then took all the cushion covers and all the curtain and she dyed them. And I would go home and tell my mother word for word how she had done this. And she used to get so angry at me because she was well capable of doing it herself.
GT: [Laughs] So what colours would they, would she have used if she dyed?
CM: What since?
GT: Was it mainly yellows?
CM: Main, mainly yellows ’cause that’s what I remember her house was mainly yellows yes. And we dyed, ’cause we had sheep, we sheared our own sheep and we used the fleece and that got dyed. But it was always carded, spun and plied before it was dyed. Whereas I think the, the trend now is to dye the actual fleece before you, before you spin it, yes.
GT: Dye the fleece before you spin it.
GT: So you did it the other way round, you dyed?
CM: We did it the other way round. Don’t ask me why, but mm huh.
GT: And was there weaving in your house as well?
CM: No not weaving.
GT: Not weaving.
CM: The, the village ladies got together and they, I can’t remember anybody weaving, but I remember them walking the tweed. And the laughter and the noise issuing from the, the barn that they were working in. And these village ladies were very quiet and prim normally. And they were just like a crowd of noisy teenagers thinking back, always laughing.
GT: We haven’t mentioned where was it that you grew up Mattie?
CM: I grew up in North Uist.
GT: North Uist.
CM: Yes, very, lovely place to grow up in. Hard life, but it was fun. I think you had hard work, work, like your peat, you had to do your, plant your potatoes and your vegetables, cut the corn. And I lived in a thatched house, so therefore thatched, marram grass was cut and used for thatching. And it had to be pulled, so the stabby ends were one, one way and the cut ends the other. And that was part of what we as a family did, but you were always with your mum and your dad and your brother and your sister or whatever. And when we planted potatoes you started at house number one in the village, everybody converged there, planted their potatoes, moved to house number two and so on ’til it was all done.
GT: Yeah, yeah.
CM: And working at peat, we would like a, a big fire and everybody would gather round there for their tea. And a lot of laughter and I think that was what made the hard work tolerable really.
GT: Aha, yes.
CM: But money wasn’t something we had. We had seashore, you got your fish, you got your shellfish, were there for the going for. And we used to say ‘Yuck, are we having lobster for dinner again tonight?’ Now that I have to pay for it I wouldn’t be saying yuck.
GT: Yes, did you have electricity?
CM: No. We got electricity in 1968 that was when we got on the grid first of all. Um, it was a Tilley lamp and I could still cook with it I think.
GT: So your mother had a sewing machine?
CM: My mother had a sewing machine an old Singer. She bought it second-hand in 1932 the year she got married and it’s still working. Er, tor, one of these torpedo, bobbins.
GT: Yes bobbin.
CM: And the only other one on the island was owned by the dressmaker. And I, that was the private ones, and I think there were a few in school. And then the man would come to service the machines in the school and he always came to our house and was given his cup of tea and he wanted to buy my mother’s wedding china every time he got a cup of tea. She didn’t part with it, much as she could have done with the money. And we were warned not to go near this machine. I was fortunate, I was taught sewing and knitting in school, but I could knit from about the age of five and er…
GT: So did you use a sewing machine in school, or was it hand sewing you learnt?
CM: Er, probably first year got let loose on the, on the sewing machines. And I used to make my own clothes and then when I started nursing, pay was poor, so you knitted your cardigans and your jumpers and you sewed the rest of the things, otherwise you wouldn’t have had very many nice clothes to wear.
GT: Yeah, it’s changed, days now hasn’t it?
CM: Oh gosh yes. And those that were like, could sew left-handed would be, if you were going to a dance and somebody had made a dress, maybe it wasn’t quite finished and the boyfriend was outside the nurse’s home in his car, you would, one would go one way round the hem and the other round the other way side of the dress to get it finished. Good fun.
GT: Very good. [Chatter]. You mentioned that you did the City and Guilds in patchwork and quilting and design.
CM: And design yes. We didn’t design, that, that’s a laugh because I didn’t get any art when I was in school really. The island, it was quite difficult to get to, they usually came at spring of the year when we had the worst gales. So you got an art teacher who came probably not dressed for island weather especially with footwear, or and then they got stranded on one of the other wee islands ’cause you had to go by boat. So you might get one lesson or two lessons and that was your lot. So didn’t as such get art. I got lazy. I’d been piecing things and doing things and I had this stash of fabric and I thought I need something and realised that City and Guilds could be done by post or distance learning. And in Aberdeen, one of the shops there was running a course, which I thought would be for me. So I started part one that way. The art lessons by post were actually quite amusing, but it was very well written and you’d get a design board at the end of it because they were brilliantly put forward. I wasn’t so hot on the patchwork side, maybe because I’d done quite enough and I just, a lot of this lessons that were given out were from magazines and things that I already had, so I wasn’t overly enamoured with that. So that was part one and I enjoyed this because you would never in a month of Sundays sit down and play around with paints and stamps and things ’cause if anybody walked in they would think you were stupid. But because you were doing it for City and Guilds, it sounded terribly important and it really was, it was good fun and opened my eyes to a lot of things and I really enjoyed that side of it. And they weren’t running as part two, which is what was happening then. And noticed that Perth were, were doing part two and thought I might join Perth College for that. They didn’t start the, the year immediately I finished part one. And somebody else was going to go along with me, but she pulled out at the last minute and I thought well I’ve gone to all the bother of applying and I got a grant to go and I could go down quite readily on a, on a Thursday one day a week if I wanted, less often if, if I didn’t. So I didn’t go every week and I didn’t go sometimes every fortnight. It just depended on what was happening. Kept in touch with the tutor by phone. And worried about fitting in with a class because there were six of them who had been together for, you know, two years and here was me an incomer. But they were absolutely super and the best friends I could ever have got. They’re still in touch all these years on and we had such fun. And I really enjoyed that. Again we didn’t get much input from an art teacher there for whatever the reason, I don’t know. So it was pretty much done under your own steam. And I had my sister coming to stay for a couple of nights because her husband was very poorly and was being airlifted to Raigmore Hospital. So I gathered up all my City and Guilds stuff and put it away artwork, so as it wouldn’t get crushed, stood on, sat on and/or whatever. And then the two or three nights expanded to four months, so by the time she had left I had no idea what I’d done with half of my artwork. So when assessment time came I had only a quarter of what was required of me going down to Perth. So I was given an extension to either do more or find the rest of it. And I’m still coming across it because it had gone into varying cupboards where it as I say wouldn’t get crushed or stood on or sat on or something put on top of it. So that, that was good.
CM: That’s very different. Still didn’t use all the scraps of fabric I intended using by doing City and Guilds because there I went into the hand dyeing of fabrics and other things you can do with paint. So instead of using your stash you added to it really. No it was, it was, it was a good experience.
GT: You feel it’s benefited your quilting?
CM: Yes it opened my eyes to a, to a lot of things and other ways of doing it. Mm huh. I hadn’t realised there was so much writing. You don’t expect to have to write all these essays and you, you had to pick four quilters I think it was that you admired, write about them and then do three samples of each quilters work. And I had chosen one of the Celtic ones, Angela Madden and of course I had to do some Celtic work for that, but discovered that you could, instead of working with the bi, bias binding, which I didn’t fancy doing, you could actually do it by just quilting.
CM: And I got round it that way.
GT: Aha. When you go to quilt shows what do you look for?
CM: I look for colours. I look to see how they hang and also the design. I try and work out where it’s, where it’s come from.
CM: See who’s done, quite often you can pick out people’s work, it’s quite distinctive without ever seeing names.
GT: Yes, some… yes, aha, that’s very true.
GT: Yes, yes.
CM: Sometimes they’re not shown in the best light. I think that’s maybe a fault with Ingliston in Edinburgh.
GT: Aha. Light’s not good. Not good.
CM: That the lighting there is maybe not, not good and there’s not enough space between them to show them off at their, their best and I think that some, some quilters suffer from that.
GT: Just remembering you were also involved in making the quilts at the church, Ness Bank church.
CM: That’s right yes, that was to be a quilt to be made.
CM: One, a quilt. One quilt.
GT: One, just one quilt.
CM: Just one quilt. And it was the time my sister was here with her husband and, and I said, it was touch and go whether he would make it or not. So I had been asked to help and I said yes I would help and er, I don’t know, the first one had to be ready for the Christmas of 2001 I think it is, I’m right yes.
GT: That was to mark the centenary of the church, of Ness Bank church.
CM: Centenary of the church then yes. And er, when I joined them after my sister went away it was something like late August and no design had been decided, no, no fabric. Somebody came along with a case load of tweeds and things were just really not suitable for, you know, what to do. And as the quilts were going to be hanging all year that was another thing to look at. My husband and I drafted up that particular um…
GT: Pattern and design.
CM: Pattern. Got Dave Ewan to blow it up and worked from there and that was number one. They decided there was to be four, the four seasons in the church. So followed by Easter, so there was a bit of a lull there that wasn’t too bad. And somebody disagreed with the colour of my sky. I did a really nice sky and somebody said, ‘oh sky that colour?’ I said, ‘well I’ll show you a photograph taken from my backdoor of a sky of a morning and that is its colour’. And we decided to do a landscape, pieced landscaped. So when I think about it people went off with six or seven strips to sew together. And I thought I just hope they’re going to meet and have the, the required size. And I had taken the decision then that if somebody or we could get somebody to make a cross to hang over the pieced background that is what we would do. The border on the Christmas one had been cathedral window with just glitzy colours in it, but we would do the same border on this particular quilt, but with things in and around the church like the squirrels which are out in the trees around there, the red squirrels and just flowers that are round. There are four religious emblems in the cor, in the four corners of it, done in gold leather, but unfortunately never gave it enough thought, so they don’t stand out as I would have liked them to have stood out. And somebody had come with this big piece of mahogany and polished it and cut it. It was Norma Campbell ’cause she did woodworking and things and she did a lovely job of the cross. And when we came to superimpose it over the, the pieced landscape, we didn’t want the thread or whatever was holding it to show and somebody said, oh we’ll use twine, fisherman’s twine. And fisherman’s twine is great, but it does what it should do, it stretches and no matter what you did this cross stretched and stretched and I had gold thread at home, which was quite expensive stuff. And I thought well that will have to go on it and use it. And the minister that came in and asked if I was using naughty words, to which I replied, as if I would. And there was a very short space of time between Easter and Pentecost and I’d drafted out what I wanted to do there, but wasn’t very sure how to go about drawing it. So Dave Ewan, he stepped in and he drew what I had decided I would like in a, just put in thingy. I changed the flames he did. I didn’t like the flames he put in, so I changed them. And I, he agreed that what I had done was probably better than what he had could never have pieced or sewn. And bearing in mind these women that worked with me had never done anything like that in their lives before. They’d done tapestry and cross stitch and you have to accept that, you know, their limitations. And quite enjoyed doing that except it’s got a curbed arc on the top and that was a beast to get lying as it should be lying. And then the last one was the hardest one and I’m not very happy with that, but I didn’t have a lot of time, I was writing my essays for City and Guilds. I got the design, I had to rely on Dave Ewan again to do the, the design and I got it rather late. So the gathering of fabrics together wasn’t maybe what I would have liked, but there’s the most magnificent cauliflowers on it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, the leaves are done in velvet. And it was knitting cotton for vests that was used for doing the, the actual florets of the cauliflower.
GT: Ah very clever.
CM: And the potatoes and the carrots are fantastic [GT laughs]. And they, they did um, the mistake in it is the, the salmon leaping in the river, it’s upside down, so you can see it the next time. So we managed not to fall out, we’re quite agreeable over it.
GT: Yeah, they look very effective hanging there, they do.
CM: Yeah, they’re quite… um, as I say you have to accept the limitations you know that’s within, we can work within.
GT: What’s been your biggest challenge then do you think in quilt making?
CM: I think the last one [laughs]. I was called upon to train somebody in the art of patchwork and quilting who was, who was a dressmaker, young, young person, to make hangings for a community centre and they’ve to be long skinny ones. So I had to think then what, what to do to try and give her the basis of all techniques. So the, it’s er, 30, 30 odd by I can’t remember now if it was 81 or 91 inches long, so it’s long and skinny. And the borders were five inches on each side, so it takes the middle bit quite skinny and we appliqued the flowers and the big long vine and the, the blocks were pieced on which to applique the flowers. And, decided not to piece the borders, to applique the, the different colours of the flowers in the borders and that was all done by machine. So she had to be taught how to use the different stitches on a machine ’cause she’d never done that before. And things to stabilise fabric and it came out, it’s very colourful. And I said to the person who runs the centre, ‘We’ll have to call it windblown because there’s not very many straight bits in some of it.’ Not all that noticeable really ’cause I think the colour just comes at you and because it was the very first piece she’s ever done she made quite a good job. So I sent her back to do the, the binding of it and put hanging sleeve on and I don’t know if she’s still working on that ’cause she, she hasn’t got back to me. And I think that was probably the biggest challenge a. teaching somebody else and then finding something that was usable at the end of it.
CM: And there, there, she’s, she is a volunteer there and she’ll then gather another group of women together to make another one. And I think they probably need something like eight in total, but they might get off with four. I think, I think it could be four.
GT: So you would say that quilting is quite an important part of your life?
CM: Oh yes, I think it gives you, it’s something to do, you know you can pass an evening quite happily quilting. You can either have the radio on, or you can have, have an eye on the telly, or an ear to the television and it’s just a good way of passing time and you have something nice to look at well hopefully when you’ve finished.
GT: Yes. And you have quite a few quilts.
CM: I have quite a few quilts yes. Not competitive. I don’t really enter them in things. I get a row from Sheena [Norquay] on a regular basis, but I, it’s just not me. I just like doing things for my own pleasure really.
GT: Other people would enjoy seeing them, that would, that’s a lovely one.
CM: Um, um, do more now for er, to raise funds for the hospice. Most of my quilting is done for that.
GT: Aha. Is for that.
CM: And I’m very lucky folk pay a good price for what I’ve done, which is contrary to the trend. Normally at a, a sale like that they’re looking for something for nothing really. But they’re very, very generous.
GT: But they do sell.
CM: Oh they do sell and they pay good money for them.
GT: Aye, very good.
CM: Um, and the last, the one I’m finishing off just now it’s just a wee thing um, that’s sold and I put the money either to the church or to the hospice.
0:31:48 GT: Local hospice. Aye, very good.
CM: And then, the hospice sale has been usually a fortnight, before the church sale and I try and make something big for there and been lucky to, there are quite a few of the bits I made around Inverness.
GT: Have been sold. Yes
CM: Not just bought for children, but for adults.
GT: Yes, aha, aye. Very good. Right. Well thank you Mattie, thanks.