Vox Pop National Trust (detail)
Vox Pop National Trust (detail)

I have always made quilts that are not quite the norm. I like writing silly slogans on my work and have also enjoyed bringing a touch of humour into my quilting. About 1997 I realised that strange people were beginning to feature in my quilts, all with free machined faces and buttons for eyes.

Vox Pop National Trust
Vox Pop National Trust

It started with an exhibition that Linda Tudor, my embroiderer friend, and I had at The Fire and Iron Gallery in Leatherhead. We wanted a joint exhibition and as our work was so different we decided on a theme of seasides. One of the pieces I made was a rather sad middle aged couple, he with a knotted hankie on his head and she with a ‘kiss me quick’ hat. They were facing each other in a talking heads Smith-and-Jones fashion and had buttons for eyes. This format lead on to more talking head type quilts.

Vox Pop National Trust was made in 1995 for the Quilts UK challenge of a Quilt for the Centenary of the National Trust. I made it in a cartoon manner with the two heads on each panel talking about an aspect of the National Trust, but bringing humour into the conversations..."Does NT mean nice teas Mummy? No it’s the National Trust and it’s their 100th birthday." One panel has a pair dressed up for a fancy dress event, he wearing a pirate outfit and a very false looking beard. He is saying, "nobody knows I’m a chartered accountant".

Baby Talk (detail)
Baby Talk (detail)

After the quilt show I thought it was a bit of fun but not really a quilt I wanted hanging in my hall, so I decided to give it away. Polesden Lacey near Dorking is my local National Trust house and regional centre. I rang the office and offered the quilt to them to put in the staff rest room or somewhere they could smile at it. Amazingly they have put it in the stable tea-room, so Vox Pop National Trust has been given to the nation!

The next button-eyed beauty was the sad husband in Who Would Marry a Quilter? It was inspired by all those poor husbands I see being dragged round quilt shows. Not all of them look so sad but this man is a person I often see. I tried to make my portrait unlike my husband, John, who has more hair, but has been known to sulk like this man! He is sitting, almost suffocating, in an over the top quilted room. There is a miniature log cabin quilt, a Home Sweet Home cross stitch sampler and a ribbon embroidered doily on the wall. The satin and velvet tea cosv is a very ornate, heavily hand-embroidered crazy patchwork. Even his mug has ‘I love quilting’ on it. On the table is a note saying "Darling see you later, tea in fridge." The wife’s calendar for the week is on the wall:

Who would marry a Quilter?
Who would marry a Quilter?

The husband’s jacket has some buttons falling off or sewn on with the wrong coloured thread. His tie is the thin end of a real tie covered with cotton threads, as is his jacket. His shirt has frayed edges and the jacket has a patch held together with a safety pin. It was quite a challenge to make the jacket and shirt look frayed and tatty without it looking like shoddy work. There are cotton reels scattered around with unravelling threads couched on. The final thread spells out 'who would marry a quilter'.

What shall we call it?
What shall we call it?

I then got into multiple button-eyed people, in my quilt What Shall We Call It? (the pregnant lady quilt) in which I had eight identical mums-to-be. This seems a bizarre subject for a quilt, but I was asked by the Knitting and Stitching Show to make a quilt for an exhibition tentatively entitled Great Expectations. I immediately thought of rows of pregnant ladies holding their aching backs. It is a repetitive freezer paper pattern. The names free quilted around the ladies are the proposed names for the offspring. When I was pregnant, back in the dark ages before scans, each of my three sons was to be called Sophie! The actual name is embroidered on the baby. The intended flower names such as Poppy, Primrose and Lily turn out to be a baby boy, Tom. There are proposed Shakespearean names and the baby is called Gary. There are Biblical names and the baby ends up being Fifi. The triplets were a nightmare. I don’t know why I didn’t think of Tom, Dick and Harry. Instead I ended up with such stupidity as Freeman, Hardy, Willis and Snap, Crackle and Pop. In this quilt I used different coloured buttons - pearl, variegated, black and blue. They mostly have four holes and are attached with white thread to give a sparkle to the eyes.

After the pregnant ladies it was a natural progression to make a quilt containing the stupid remarks we all make to babies and the sensible things they would reply, if only they could talk at an earlier age. This quilt is called Baby Talk. Again a repetitive pattern, this time six blocks representing carry cots. These were not really a success as I overheard a husband at a show asking "why are those babies in pint tankards?" Each baby has its own miniature quilt, which was very time consuming, but I did use some cheaty methods to achieve them! Actually one baby has beads not buttons for his eyes, he is the poor soul with the very red face. The adult is saying "Oh my is he ill? What a red face." He is replying. "go away, I’m filling my nappy." I’m afraid I have no shame as to the depths I will plumb for a laugh!

Two little beauties appear on my quilt made from Persil washing powder bags called They Must be Useful for Something. The reason for this silly quilt was that each time I bought a box of washing tablets, a mesh fabric bag came free in the box. As I am intensely mean I cannot throw anything away so of course I kept them. I then found they sun printed and really looked quite beautiful. I then added some picture panels using the bags - a trawler, a Dorothy bag and a saucy bikini. The two faces with button eyes have an Ena Sharples type hair net and a beekeeper’s hat.

They must be useful for something
They must be useful
for something

I’m afraid these people are multiplying as my quilt The International Vest contest has twelve such beauties. I was invited to teach and lecture in Houston at the Quilt Festival in 2000. This was my first teaching visit to the USA and only my second actual visit to the States. I found the language differences very amusing. Each time someone said “I love your vest” meaning my waistcoat, I involuntarily glanced at my shirt to see if it was showing, thinking they meant my underwear. So this quilt has eleven international delegates in their waistcoats and one English lady in her underwear (vest). I had such fun making this quilt. I had bought pieces of African,, Japanese, Egyptian fabric in Houston, also the amazing fabric with flags of the world which is applied to the border of the quilt. I even chopped up John’s Hawaiian type bathing costume for one waistcoat.

It is also a quilt about my impressions whilst in Houston. I attended a fashion breakfast where ladies paraded in their amazing garments sewn from incredible things. One lady had made her waistcoat from credit cards trapped between fine net. Her husband had then cut the cards into shapes to dangle from the bottom edge! Each garment had a name and this was called All Credit to Cindy. My homage to this quilter is a lady with her waistcoat made of foreign stamps. As with Cindy’s vest I trapped them between net.

The International Vest Contest
The International Vest Contest

I wanted to get the feel of the Fairfield Fashion Show (now renamed The Bernina Fashion Show). Not only were there truly incredible garments, but also the audience called out "Bravo! Fantastic!", not like us uptight Brits who quietly applaud at this kind of event. I usually include writing on my quilts, so I decided to write "super, incredible and great" in lots of foreign languages. I have a Belgian neighbour who contributed: French, Flemish, German and Spanish. She has a Croatian friend who added Serbo Croat and then asked her English for Foreigners Class for further suggestions. I ended up with Chinese, Algerian, Korean, Turkish, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese and Senegalese. I dutifully copied these words all over the quilt then had a moment of horror. What if I’ve written really rude things all over it? It was juried into the Houston Show so no doubt if I have written something really terrible, someone will tell me in due course!

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 10 Number 4 - April 2002