In my novel ‘The Crimson Thread’, my heroine Alenka embroiders messages in secret code on her wedding quilt to smuggle clandestine information to the Greek resistance.
I had to learn how to embroider in order to make sure that I described it properly in my novel. I had never sewn anything more ambitious than a loose button, so I was not at all sure how to go about it. A friend on social media suggested I try an embroidery kit from Kiriki Press which would include everything I’d need, such as a hoop, needles, thread and some pretty stork-shaped scissors. So – after some time trying to decide between all the very cute designs on their website - I bought the barn owl kit and got to work.
Details for the Barn Owl HERE
It was the height of the COVID lockdowns here in Sydney, and so it was good to have something new to do. I liked the fact that I could watch television or listen to an audio book at the same time. When I had very proudly finished my owl, I bought a few more kits online. I had discovered I really loved making flowers bloom from the point of my needle – creating beauty with nothing but cloth and thread and my own hands. I found it incredibly calming and meditative at a time when I was so busy and tired and overwhelmed.
I became increasingly fascinated by the history of the art too. I loved the subversive way women had used embroidery to tell their stories in the past. The English women who embroidered the story of the Norman conquest into the Bayeux tapestry. Mary Queen of Scots who sewed secret treason into her needlework to communicate with the world outside her prison. The banners made by the suffragettes as they marched to demand the right to vote. Face masks embroidered with political slogans protesting violence against women.
“To know the history of embroidery is to know the history of women”, Rozsika Parker says in The Subversive Stitch, which shows how the artistic work of women has always been devalued and marginalised. Yet the drop spindle and the needle were among the very earliest of human inventions, and revolutionised our existence. Women were able to spin thread from wool and flax and other natural fibres, to make tents and clothes and shoes and nets and carrying bags and ropes.
The more I sewed and the more I read about sewing, the more passionate I became and the more determined I was to make something beautiful and meaningful with my needle. So I decided to make a memory quilt – to essentially sew my life story.
I spent quite a bit of time researching different ways to make a quilt. I knew I wanted to do it all by hand, and that I was going to have to find a way of doing it in small steps as I travel so much. I discovered Quilt-As-You-Go which essentially means you create small squares, each sewn to wadding cut to the same size. When you have enough, you the attach them to backing material. I liked that idea as I wanted each square to capture a memory or tell some kind of story, and I meant I could just concentrate on making one at a time. Slowly, stitch by stitch, I began to find my way forward. I thought I’d share with you some of my journey:
I decided to make the first row a family tree, with old photos surrounded by designs in white, fawn and gold
This is one of the first squares I made. It is a self-portrait by my great-great-great-great-grandmother who wrote the first children’s book published in Australia in 1841. I scanned in the image from her sketchbook and then uploaded it to Canva. I also uploaded scans of her paintings of flowers and butterflies, which I arranged around the image. I then chose a quote from her book and set it into a calligraphy font, surrounded by a design of golden flowers.
Once I was happy with the designs, I had them printed onto fabric via Spoonflower, an online site for print-on-demand fabric and wallpaper. I printed each design as a 200mm x 200mm test swatch which only costs $3.50 each.
When the test swatch arrived, I sewed it onto some pretty fabric of birds and flowers, and sewed it all to a 10-inch x 10-inch square of soft bamboo wadding, which I had determined would be the size of each square. I used running stitch and seed stitch.
This is a photo of my mother Gillie and my aunt Rozzie when they were little. I scanned in the photo, then uploaded it to Spoonflower to be printed. I then laid it over some vintage lace, sewn to soft white flannel with warm golden dots. I then made two applique roses from fabric printed with text. The one on the right has lines from one of my mother’s favourite poems, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The one on the right is from Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott, a favourite book of my aunt’s. I also cut petals from fabric printed with a golden rose, and sewed it all with matching silk thread (with lots of cross stitches like kisses).
This is a photo of my grandfather, with four of his seven children including my father Gerry (the littlest boy). I overlaid it with a design of yellow flowers and green leaves that felt very Australian to me (my grandfather was in his RAAF uniform, about to go and fight for his country). I used Cretan stitch to applique it to the backing fabric, which I then embroidered with bees and a phrase of music from ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Rimsky-Korsakov which my grandfather used to play to me on his double-bass. I can remember sitting cross-legged, entranced, listening to the musical bumblebees, half-sure I could see them.
I decided that each row would commemorate five years of my life, and I would feature a fairytale that somehow epitomised that period of my life. So the second row in the quilt recalls my life from birth to the age of five, and I chose ‘Sleeping Beauty’ as my theme. The central image is a painting by my grandmother Nonnie that she made for my sister and me when we were little. I accompanied it with fabric designed by Bradbury & Bradbury that I bought from Spoonflower. I cut out some of their briar roses and appliqued them over the central image, with embroidered rose tendrils, to tie the two designs together.
This square features fabric printed with an antique woodcut of roses and thorns, with a few lines of my poetry half-hidden within. My poem ‘Scars’ was inspired by a childhood accident that saw me in a coma for weeks, and then in and out of hospital most of my childhood. I appliques the image on to vintage flannelette sheets that look like the ones my mum put on to my hospital bed when I was a little girl.
This was my baby bib, loving embroidered by my grandmother and kept safe by my mother since I was a baby. It is sewn to a medieval rose trellis design, which is appliqued to a dress my grandmother made and embroidered for me.
This square features a photo of me as a kid with my mum Gilly and my sister Belinda. I decorated it with wreaths of pink flowers in Canva, and sewed it to pink flowered fabric that used to be a dress of my daughter’s.
Another thing I decided to do was create squares that celebrated some of my favourite books at different times of my life. This is my Narnia square. I appliqued a crowned lion on to small squares of a wintry forest (and then deliberately frayed the edges of the lion to give it a more three-dimensional feel). I joined the squares with cross stitch (sometimes called ‘witch’ stitch) and embroidered a few extra snowy trees. This was all overlaid over fabric printed with metallic stars, some of which I embroidered too. I then appliqued and embroidered my favourite quote from the book: ‘Courage, dear heart.’
Another square inspired by a favourite book was this one of a robin and a key, appliqued to rose-printed fabric that I quilted with seed stitch and a quote I embroidered in stem stich. Do you know which classic children’s book this is from?
Slowly, stitch by stitch, square by square, my story quilt is growing – made with hand and heart.