How it all started

This is the story of how and why I started sewing again ... 

Hanging by a Thread

My sister-in-law put it perfectly – For 14 weeks in Southampton Cardiac ICU, AJ (my brother) “perfected the art of hanging by a thread”  before it frayed and snapped, dropping us silently and in slow-motion from a place of hope to a depth of sadness that only losing life-love or family can.

Back in April 2010, my brother had a heart attack (but didn't know) which landed him first in Bournemouth and then into Southampton Cardiac Intensive Care, where he immediately underwent 7 hours of surgery.  The fact that he survived this, and the emergency surgery on the ward a couple of days later, was astounding enough.  For the next three months, AJ continued to astound not only us, his family, but also all those who treated and cared for him in CICU.  He (and we) were on a roller coaster ride of hope and setback.  Towards the end he also had radical bowel surgery and was gradually coming to terms with a proposed leg amputation.  Thankfully, perhaps, he didn't survive to have that operation. 

... so, during those 14 weeks ...


... I needed  something ...

... for the myriad train journeys from Brighton to Southampton;
... while waiting in the aptly named clinical nothingness of 'the waiting room'
... while sitting by his bed as he slept, exhausted from an epic 20 minutes in a chair;
... while communing round the table at Heartbeat House with our fellow-shipwrecked   
... while sitting on my sofa at home thinking about him ...
... and sadly, as we sat with him, waiting for the end.  

Something that was easily portable, relatively simple and that could document the experience without me having to write anything.  Language, written language, is sometimes too semantically rich.

I was a keen stitcher during my teens. In the late 70s, buying felt squares carried the equivalent excitement today of downloading another app. I loved embroidery, and was addicted to tapestry and knitting.

I had a fantastic 1950s hand crank  Singer.  I remember making a lot of palazzo pants  in the 80s - I had no fear of zips then, and altering vintage 40s tea dresses bought from Kensington Market.  (Oh to have them now!) However, I always felt ambivalent towards patchwork as a satisfying mode of self-expression.  I could never see the point of cutting up pieces of fabric only to sew them back together again in random fashion.  Also, there was the whole ‘cutting up a gazillion paper templates, sewing fabric  round them, only to rip them all out’ – what was that all about?  I never finished any of those projects.

Not finishing projects used to be a theme in my life until I took up painting (where you have to know WHEN to stop) and studied for a degree as a mature student (there’s nothing quite so final as Finals).  I’ve banished that spectre.

By happy chance

I had been to the V&A Quilts exhibition with my lovely fellow nerdy colleague/sewing jam-making friend, Barbara … and I started to see how much more than sewing it all was.  I also discovered a stack of rather old unsticky square post-it notes in the depths of my desk (GENIUS) …

So, given the little itch in the back of my mind from the V&A, and the portability issue, patchwork won hands-down .

                                                                                   When I started this project

I finally appreciated the calm and tranquility that can be gained from the repetitive tacking and stitching and close-up attention of hand sewing ... I was able to focus on thinking healing thoughts ... or on nothing at all ...  and I was constantly learning new skills, because despite hours spent watching quilting videos on YouTube, I was, basically, busking it ...

I glibly thought "This is AJ's quilt.” I hadn’t planned what to do with it if he weren’t around to receive it.

When he died three weeks ago, (selfishly leaving me with an unfinished quilt) I decided that I would split what I had into two 'mini lap quilts'  (each 54" x 27") and give one half to my sister-in-law.  This didn't feel quite right either - I knew that although she’d totally understand the sentiment and, she perhaps wouldn’t really like the quilt itself -  so in the end, I decided to give one half to my 27 year-old niece – this seemed to combine perfectly the shared grief of losing him and of losing a father.

In parallel to the sudden change in real life – AJ had now died and there was no travelling, sitting and waiting - I rushed to get it finished (binding it on the train!) before going back for my brother's funeral, so that I could give it to Alannah for when all is quiet and just that little bit emptier.

August 2010



 you can see pictures of the process here




And finally, a picture my niece sent of her quilt in its new home! - there was just a short message: ""





Quilting as Therapy II is the story of my half of the quilt ... where hand-quilting & hand-tying battle it out  ...


So, coming back home after all the busy-ness of my brother's funeral & memorial service, there was just one thing left to do: finish my half of the quilt.

I found a few displacement activities first.  In a way, finishing my quilt really brought home the fact that my brother was no longer here.

The quilt's own metamorphosis from part to whole reflected the shift in my mood.  This was now a cumbersome object that covered me while I worked on it.  I found it slightly suffocating.  I couldn't engage with it because I didn't want it to finish.

But then I devised a way of s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g out the process - I'd embroider/quilt the patterns on the fabric.  I envisaged that this could take a long long time.  I liked the idea of the attention to detail I would have to pay.

As I progressed, the embroidery got finer and more careful.  I was enjoying this!  It looked pretty and felt lovely under my fingers as I stitched.  The anchoring of the layers was satisfying and comforting.

Then, after a couple of weeks of lazy stitching, crazily erratic sleep patterns and black dog days, I woke up one morning and thought: "Enough!" Although only about half of it was randomly quilted, I felt it had reached a natural end to its journey along with me on my grieving process. I needed to go the rest of the way on my own.

That emotional decision didn't help with the practicality of keeping all those layers together, so I reached a compromise with myself.  I hand-tied the whole quilt with fine 2mm satin ribbon.  After all, I could always continue with the hand quilting afterwards?  Nah.

I even tried machine quilting it with stitch-in-the-ditch.  This was a real no-no.  The addition of something automated and over-regulated just looked all wrong.  This project started as hand-sewing, so it had to be completed that way.  I unpicked all the rows, hoping that the stitch holes would heal. (they did)

So, next came the binding; I chose a printed satin grosgrain ribbon and off I went.  I love this part of the process - the framing of my quilt, the true finishing.  I sewed the plain 'back' with the full half-width of the ribbon, and the front with a narrower fold-over.  I wanted each side to be distinct.

I even managed mitred corners!

I left one of the paper pieces and the basting in as another little reminder ... it had my train times to Southampton scrawled on it ...

So, now it's finished and I love it - and I love the way it has helped me through the last five months.

Now that the chillier autumn nights are creeping in, I'm looking forward to cuddling under it on the sofa, looking at all those memory-filled blocks and thinking happy thoughts of the brother I loved and miss with all my heart.

September 2010

*updated to add that when my niece had her second child I sent her my half of the quilt so that both children could have a part of their GrandDad's and Great Aunt's history.

click thumbnail to view the web album for both quilts, or view the slideshow here



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