Place mat made from one of Rose's fabrics
Place mat made from one of Rose's fabrics

Sewing is a hobby I've always enjoyed in a solitary way, but I never thought of its potential as a social activity. However, when my husband accepted a posting to Tanzania, the highlight of my week was to become the Thursday morning quilting group. It was a cosmopolitan collection of ex-pats with members from Indonesia, South Africa, Holland, Canada, America, Germany, well, from just about anywhere. Membership constantly changed as families were posted to and from various countries, but new arrivals were made to feel welcome and easily absorbed into the group.

A short drive outside of Dar-es-Salaam was a small village. Here lived a very smart and enterprising lady called Rose. In her two-room hut she cut hair in one room and made dresses in the other. But, her dresses were special – they were made from fabric she had dyed herself. She cut six-yard lengths of cotton calico and dyed the whole length in a variety of colours. These fabric lengths were hung around three walls of her tiny room. Offcuts from her dressmaking were piled on a table and, in what we back in the UK would consider extremely difficult, cramped and hot conditions, she created a thriving business selling fabric and dresses to villagers. At a local market one member of my group met her and then introduced us all to her wonderful fabric. A trip out to the village was a treat. It was nothing like the selection seen in UK shops. Also, to drive along a dusty track in the extreme heat and glaring sun and to find, in this unlikely setting, original fabrics in lovely colours just begging to be cut and stitched, was a real joy. Every few weeks someone would collect Rose and bring her to the quilting group with her stock which would be eagerly bought up by us. Apparently, all over Africa are similarly talented ladies. If keen quilters are visiting the country I suggest they stop off at local markets; they may just be lucky enough to discover some pretty special fabrics and some very special people!

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The finished signature quilt

Every few months in the quilting group, a challenge was set. We were given some fabric, to which could be added two more fabrics of our choice, and a theme was chosen, such as 'Through the Window', 'Floral' etc. The finished quilts would be hung, numbered but without attribution, and each of us would vote for the quilt with the neatest stitching, best design, best use of colour etc. without knowing who had made each quilt until the presentations (more fat quarters) were made to the winners. Shortly before I left Africa, a challenge was set to make a Signature Quilt. The members at my last meeting signed a strip of white fabric for me and I returned to England with my selection of fabrics and 12 signatures to be incorporated into my quilt. That was in 1999 – I've just finished the quilt! I didn’t have a sewing machine in Dar, so all of my sewing was by hand. I continued the tradition with this final challenge quilt and it is pieced, appliquéd and quilted by hand.

The quilt holds so many happy memories for me and it's just possible that someone else resident in Dar-es-Salaam during 1999 will see this quilt and recognize the mix of fabrics or even their own signature! I am so glad that I have this souvenir of my time in Dar and I can recommend that any group, whether in the UK or overseas, sets a similar challenge for themselves. I am sure that the resultant quilts will be treasured for many years and bring back memories more vivid and enduring than any photograph will.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 13 Number 11 - November 2005