Quilting. There’s a word that breathes life into my soul! The piecing together of fragments and leftovers to make something ‘new’ and beautiful. I am not an artist. I stitch to pray and to grapple with scripture (like Jacob, ‘I will not let you go until you bless me!’). I experiment and, as with all experiments, I learn from those that don’t work, which become the unfinished, the UFOs that sometimes haunt me.
|Me as a baby in a dress my godmother |
hand-made and hand-smocked for me.
I was born in a home for unmarried mothers in the late 1950s. I write this sentence knowing that it doesn’t convey the pain, shame and cruelty my birth mother endured. At six weeks old I was removed from every trace of her and my heritage, and given a completely different life, on a Lincolnshire farm. The fields around me formed a changing patchwork of colours, green in spring, apart from the beautiful wild golden fields of daffodils, growing in the flat Dutch-like landscape. In autumn the vista changed to the golden-white of the ripe corn, and then the rich red brown of newly turned fertile soil after ploughing. Maybe that’s why I spend my time diligently piecing a colourful patchwork of fabric together!
The Path to Heaven, Wall-hanging. 2013/14
after a quilt retreat in Colorado led by Ricky Tims.
Made using hand dyed cotton, hand-dyed silk velvet, and beads.
Techniques used include applique, piecing, hand and machine quilting,
hand and machine embroidery and hand beading.
The Path to Heaven (close-up) . 2013/14 .
But it is easy to explain how I started. I remind my audience of ‘Golden Hands’, a long-running series of UK magazines from the 1960s and 70s. These magazines (cheaply bought in bulk from the local newsagent when they were out-of-date), with their clear instructions and good illustrations were my teachers, along with my adoptive mother, who was an exquisite needlewoman and knitter. She had been orphaned at 16, and mainly picked up her skills from friends and their mothers. It enabled them all to creatively make more of their ration coupons during the Second World War. She lived in lodgings for some years before her marriage, having moved from the urban sprawl of Bradford to the small Lincolnshire town of Louth to be near her older brother. One particularly talented friend of hers became my godmother, and made beautiful smocked dresses to celebrate my arrival in the family. As a child. I didn’t have the patience to master my mother’s skills, too fond of time spent with my head in a book! And I was always one for speed over accuracy – she described my dress-making as ‘blowing things together’! Living on a farm everything had a practical purpose, no cross-stitch samplers for us! I sewed to make clothes. Patchwork was putting leftover scraps and bits from the rag-bag together – not that I actually made much with them, they were ongoing projects, a bit like life.
Life. Which took me away from the farm and the countryside. Which made me choose between art, English, and science. At 18, in 1977, I chose science, went to University in Leeds to do a BSc in Pharmacology, and then into a job in science publishing. At least I could be creative with the use of words, and this was the closest I could get to stitching together the disparate drivers in my life.
Loaves and Fishes wall-hanging, 2012 . close-up.
Using cotton, mixed fibres, sequins and lace.
Techniques used include applique, piecing, hand and machine quilting.
But what about faith? That I certainly didn’t get from my adoptive family, who were occasional reluctant attenders at church at best. But it has always been the foundation, the bedrock of my life. As a child from the age of seven I used to walk to where the long drive of the adjacent farm ended, to be collected for church and Sunday School in the local town. I remember my surprise when I began to realise that not everyone talked with God as I did. Even as a child I made my own rituals to keep me safe.
Detail from a quilt made for the school where my daughter taught. Begun in 2008, finished in 2017. I wanted the children to have something comforting to cuddle under in their ‘Reading corner’. Cotton, machine pieced and quilted.
I grew up, married, and our family grew with our first child being born in 1988. My sewing kept me (relatively) sane, and then in 1993 we went to Texas. The (UK) Cambridge-based company my husband worked for wanted him to relocate to Austin, so when he was needed in the US for the launch of a project the family went too, to experience first-hand a little of what living in America was like. My two older children were three and five, and it wasn’t an easy visit until I met the quilters.
Detail from wall-hanging of Jonah in the belly of the Whale
made in 2016. It was made as my response to the Biblical
story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale.
Cotton hand-dyed material, beads.
Techniques are machine quilting and hand sewing.
I had braved the Austin traffic to drive to a Quilter’s Guild meeting to hear Doreen Speckman speak. A wonderful evening, and beautiful, inspiring quilts. Everyone was kind, but I was shy and out of my depth. At the end of the evening, I inadvertently left through the wrong door and, disoriented, couldn’t find where I had parked my car. An enormous white Cadillac drew up alongside me, driven by a very small lady who could just about see over the steering wheel. With her help I found, not only my car, but laughter and loving friends who sustained me during the rest of the visit. My remaining time in Austin was swept into sewing days with my new-found friends, who even lent me a Singer Featherweight to use during my visit. I still have the ‘watercolour’ quilt pieced on that machine. They shared fabric with me, and taught me about American strip-piecing. They were greatly amused by my Laura Ashley fabric laboriously pieced over paper hexagons, which really wasn’t the ‘done’ thing in 1990s America.
|Baby quilt made for a church fund-raiser (2017). |
Cotton fabric, machine pieced and quilted.
After a few months, I came back to the UK having realised that I was too European to thrive in America. There’s quite a gap between the pioneering spirit of America, and the deep historic rootedness that I had discovered in myself. During our visit, I reacted by becoming more English as the days went on, and was in danger of demanding cucumber sandwiches with my Earl Grey tea at 5.00pm each day! But I came back having been well and truly bitten by the patchwork bug.
In 1995 I enrolled on a 2-year, City and Guilds adult-education course on Patchwork and Quilting, learning technique after technique, grappling with art and design, and ignoring the lectures on colour (I value my innate colour sense, and didn’t want to be ‘taught out’ of using my instincts). My third child arrived early, just before I finished the course, and I patched and pieced my chaotic life together. I pieced through a sudden move from Cambridge to York. I sewed through loneliness of being uprooted from a village to city living, and medical emergencies that spiralled as my both my father and mother’s health deteriorated, and my brother had a liver transplant. And then I began training as a Spiritual Director.
|Mandala wall-hanging created during Ann Myrhe’s online course |
(Mandala Unplugged, 2018). Cotton fabric, silk ribbon, beads,
silk and metallic threads. Techniques include knitting, crochet,
silk ribbon embroidery, applique, (all hand-stitched).
‘Draw Hope’, was our first assignment for the course. So frustrating, as I have the same innate ability to draw as a giraffe. I went home, pieced-together ‘Hope’ from fabric and took it to the group a couple of weeks later. Something astonishing happened. Everyone related to quilted ‘Hope’ from where they were, they saw things in the piece that resonated for them, but which had not been part of my intention. I suddenly became aware that I could connect visually, spirit to spirit, in a completely different way. I could ‘speak’ my soul in cloth.
After a long illness my brother died, and stitch became my only prayer as I walked through grief. The slow journey to priesthood quickened in me and I sewed my spiritual autobiography (I’m not sure this is what my tutors expected when they said we could submit the assignment ‘in any form’). I designed the silk stole in which I was ordained Deacon, and which I wore again when I became a Priest a year later, in 2005.
I stitched through my three years as a Curate, which is the initial training post that all Church of England clergy take up, it felt a bit like being a Priest with training wheels! I continued to stitch through the challenges of being a hospital chaplain in a deprived ex-fishing town, the post I went to when my 3-year curacy ended. I stitched through my own tears when stillborn babies were born in the hospital to very young couples, or when I accompanied and prayed for patients and their families who struggled to come to terms with the realisation that life is ending. Sometimes I helped family members while away a long bedside vigil with stitching and prayer. Sitting at my own father’s bedside as he lost his battle with cancer I took up knitting again, the companionable silence that fell with the rhythmic click of the needles as I knitted socks had a calming effect on us both.
Fair Isle knitted cushion cover (2008 my design)
A fellow priest’s description of the difference between painting as art and as prayer released me to share my spiritual musings in stitch with others. ‘Art’ had an external value, it could be ‘judged’, given a pass or fail, sometimes it wasn’t ‘good enough’. But prayer is about my connection with God and the life of the Spirit, there is no judgement in it, it is always good enough for God, and sometimes it may have something to say to other people as well. Creativity seems to flow across disciplines and is many people’s main connection with the Creator God. Encouraging and fostering creativity in craft enables people to be creative in other areas of their lives. Learning stitching can help someone find a new pathway through grief, or the rhythm of hand-stitching or knitting can enable the quiet rhythm of prayer. My congregation in Waddington have, I hope, benefitted from events that involve creativity - cutting and sticking for the little ones, colouring, card making, origami or sewing for the more mature in the congregation. We mark St Michael’s day (our patron saint) each year with an impressive celebration of dragons and Saint-inspired crafts before a short service and simple shared meal.
|My first attempt at goldwork (2018)!|
Maybe it is the rhythm of the needle that is prayer to me. Certainly I have seen its calming effect on retreatants during textile art retreats that I have facilitated for the Creative Arts Retreat Movement. Maybe it is my own need to piece together the broken that drives me. Maybe I am stitching my fractured soul together. But, for me, patchwork is prayer, and I am so grateful to those who have helped me to this realisation. Maybe it is ‘only patchwork’, ‘craft not art’, but patchwork has taken me to places I would never have dreamed of visiting. It has given me friendships that I will always value, and truly for me is ‘peace work’.
Annabel R. Barber MA, is Rector of the parish of Waddington near Lincoln in the UK. She is also Rural Dean of Graffoe Deanery, and is involved in the ministry of spiritual direction. She occasionally facilitates retreats and quiet days for the Creative Arts Retreat Movement (CARM). More information about CARM, and the retreats and quiet days that it organises can be found on their website: http://www.carmretreats.org or on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CARMRetreats/