I was met at Tarawa International Airport, (a tiny building made of local materials), by the acting Head Mistress and a couple of teachers and whisked off to the house where I would live for the next 2 ½ years. It was a functional breezeblock dwelling, C grade and posh by standards, with wooden shutters and an unkempt pandanus roof. Situated on the ocean side of the island, it nestled comfortably in white coral sand, about 20 yards away from the fluid boundary of the high tides. At low tide, I looked out on a ledge of hard packed coral sand, edged and protected from the relentless pounding of the waves by the visible reef. At high tide, the Pacific Ocean stretched away endlessly to the horizon, with the submerged reef defined only by the waves curling and breaking over it. The sand was white, the sky mainly blue and cloudless and I was surrounded by pandanus trees and coconuts palms.
My job was to be responsible for the PE throughout the boarding school for the girls and the boys: EBS (Elaine Bernacchi School for girls) and KGV (King George the Fifth school for boys). And I was launched straight into it, over-lapping for just a few weeks with the departing New Zealand volunteer, and left to get on with it. I couldn’t have been happier!
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
So I was determined to make my first quilt for a competition in hand appliqué, made in smaller sections and joined together after it was quilted, but what subject? I really started to ‘look’ for the first time, to open my eyes to design possibilities and one of things I witnessed was my mother sewing a Jacobean motif in cross stitch. Interesting, I thought.
I went to the local library and started to research theses distinctive floral designs, to take photocopies and to make simplified drawings. I saw the Jacobean style simply as a stem rising from the earth, winding its way up the fabric, throwing off exotic flowers and leaves as it went. Plenty of artistic licence here I thought!
I chose a simple palette of fabrics and made 4 repeated corner motifs (see Jacobean corner motif below). I reviewed them on completion and realised that there was no real impact and that something lacking. So I ‘auditioned’ a variety of colours and discovered that it was a cornflower blue next door to the terracotta that enhanced the palette of fabrics. That was the accent colour I needed to give the ‘pow’ factor (see Jacobean motif below).
So, another valuable lesson learned, colour was a very important aspect of quilt making. Not only did I need a palette of compatible fabrics I needed small scraps of an accent fabric to enliven them.
So there I was at 21, recently qualified as a teacher, and standing on a coral atoll called Tarawa, in the middle of the South Pacific. There was a wearying 36-hour journey behind me, and a 2-year contract ahead of me. I had one suitcase with all my worldly belongings, a collection of postcards (to share with them the wonders of the outside world) and a melodica (which I couldn’t play!)
From high in the air, I had seen the whole island as a tiny pinnacle of coral surrounded and protected by a reef, not unlike a tiny blob of paint seeping into the endless azure blue of the Pacific Ocean. On closer inspection, it revealed itself as an L-shaped strip of coral planted with coconut trees, enclosing a lagoon and surrounded by a reef. On landing, all I was aware of was white coral sand, coconut trees and I felt the intense tropical heat of the fierce afternoon sun. The simple sign saying ‘Tarawa International Airport’ was proudly fixed onto a locally constructed structure made from the ribs of coconut leaves and topped with a roof of pandanus leaves. I had arrived!
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
At this stage in my journey, in 1985, I had started home-based classes and the word is spreading. Periodically I would do a one-day workshop with a 3-course lunch to spread the quilting messages wider than my immediate classes. I heard about a craft class in Gresford and started to go there when I was free from teaching (regular readers may recall the mention of one of my current projects: the Gresford sampler) I also joined Chester Ps & Qs (Patch workers and Quilters) so that I could get to know a wider circle of quilters.
I worked hard to be enthusiastic when I taught any technique for the umpteenth time and I coaxed students along week by week in classes. But I needed to develop my skills too. It was about this time that I heard of the National Patchwork Championships. As one who needs to work to a deadline, I decided to enter my first quilt, Appliqué Sampler, of which I was justifiably proud.
I ran this idea across a ‘friend’ who said the organisers were looking for something a bit more special than that! After recovering from the unintentional hurt of the comment, I wondered what to make instead. I genuinely thought that ‘special’ meant that I had to design something new so I started to look around for an idea and I fretted about what I was capable of achieving. I knew it had to be hand appliqué because this was all I could do well at this stage and the quilt had to be worked in smaller sections to be joined after it was quilted.
My initial VSO destination was to have been Mauritius but some problem arose with that posting during my final days at college, forcing me to rapidly apply for jobs for the coming September (1970). I left college to go to a school in Stafford where I filled in for 3 weeks for a PE teacher who was on maternity leave. I half-heartedly attended a couple of interviews in schools in the Midlands but then I was contacted by UNA International Services (a branch of the British Volunteer Programme) and asked it I was willing to go to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (GEIC) in September. Not half I thought! I posted my acceptance letter, looked on the map to see just where these islands actually where and then told my parents of my intention. I can vividly recall the conversation now:
"Hello Mam, I’ve got a job."
"Oh lovely dear! Is it the one in Leamington Spa or are you staying in Stafford?"
"No, I’m going to Tarawa."
"Tarawa dear? Which county is that in?"
"Actually it’s in the middle of the South Pacific!"
At this point I hear the phone clunk and my mother shouting ‘Dick, come and talk to your daughter!’
And where was my destination? I had to fly from London to New York, then to Los Angeles for a flight to Hawaii and on to Fiji. The Gilbert and Ellice islands (now called Kiribati and Tuvalu since independence) are located vertically north from Fiji, where the International Date Line crosses the Equator. If I had gone any further, I would have been coming back home!
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
So, just to recap, there I was in 1984 in Sychdyn (Soughton in English), N Wales, with a husband travelling to and fro to Bootle daily and 2 daughters at the village school next door to the house…..and still pondering what to do career-wise! It’s fair to say that we had a lot to do to get the house in order but there was plenty of space for creativity.
There was an extra lounge along one side of the property and one day I stood in there and just wondered if I could get home-based classes running in that. I put my 3 quilts on display in a shop in our nearest market town of Mold, with a poster saying ‘If you can sew along a straight line, you can make these!’ I got so many enquiries that I was able to establish 3 classes immediately and over the next few years built up to 7 classes a week. That equated to 12 ladies per class, and 84 per week. I used to teach 3 classes on both Monday and Tuesday (10am – 12 noon, 1 – 3pm and 7 – 9pm), and the final class on Wednesday evening. I just loved it! As I began to stock and sell fabric and supplies, I nominated Thursdays as my ‘At Home’ day when quilters from miles around knew I was there for chat, coffee, fabric and advice. And that’s what I did for 20 years, fitting my own work in between the essential teaching samples.
Few people realise just how much conscientious teachers give up of themselves. They have to put their interests and creative needs on the back burner and devote time and technique to their students. Any particular technique I was interested in was filed in the recesses of my mind to be unwrapped when I had the time and space to attend to it.
Here is a quilt from that early teaching period, inspired by a paper doyley and sewn using a hand reverse appliqué method and needle-turning technique.
I have to admit that I have always had to fight to do what I wanted to do. With 7 ‘O’ levels and 3 ‘A’ levels, the last thing my father wanted me to do was to go to PE College; he doubted that it was a good career choice. (‘What happens after a handful of years when you get too old to run about!) If I was honest, I probably saw it as the easiest and most enjoyable option. So when I announced to my parents that I was going to apply to join the British Volunteer Programme, they were very much against it. My father reasoned that if I was patient for a couple of years, I would gain experience and then I could travel AND get paid for teaching. But this girl wasn’t for turning and, after a rigorous weekend of interviews, I was accepted for VSO and I awaited my posting on finishing college.
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
At this point in my quilting journey, it’s worth reflecting on how I came to quilting in the first place. Whilst in Dorset I enjoyed being at home and looking after our young family. I was no career woman and there were certainly no thoughts of being brain dead or unfulfilled. Come the day though when I had to check with my husband whether there was enough money in our joint account to buy him his birthday present! In other words he was buying his own present and I had nothing to contribute. I needed to earn some pin money but how?
I decided to pick up my crochet hooks again and started to make fashionable shawls that were popular at that time. I used all types of yarns, and colours and made different shapes and sold them, with little profit it has to be said, amongst friends and at local craft shops. At one craft shop, the owner constantly and laboriously knotted her way through the process of making macramé lampshades. She complained that they took too long and, as an aside, challenged me to crochet them! I took up the challenge, experimented with materials, and in the flash of a crochet hook ‘Shades of Dorset’ was born!
Initially I bound each metal frame with tape, a time-consuming process that slowed production, but once I discovered plastic coated frames, I was into mass production! I started to experiment with yarns and eventually stumbled onto dishcloth cotton. This gave a chunky effect if I worked 2 balls at a time, and, oh joy, it was washable! (Having never considered the problem myself, I was amazed at how many potential customers fretted about whether the lampshades would get dusty!) A variety of patterns soon followed and I was ready to go out and sell and that was the worst part of the process for me.
I had a rude awakening at college when it slowly dawned on me that there was a huge difference between playing sports and having to teach them! I was no stylish games player but I could score goals in hockey and win points in tennis in a crude but effective fashion. BUT the college lecturers had different ideas and systematically pulled my strokes to bits in an attempt to rebuild them so that I could efficiently demonstrate them to future pupils. This was a real disaster for me and took all the pleasure out of participating in any sport; it all became too cerebral and contrived! Teaching practice was such hard work, with only a few girls really interested in PE. It was fight, struggle, goad and push all the way.
I began to look for a possible diversion (or escape) and that conveniently and thankfully arrived during my final year when a new lecturer joined the staff. She had just returned from Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and my excitement started to build as I homed in on the possibility of combining travel as a brand new certified teacher!
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
In the same breath as saying that I dislike the English Patchwork method, I have to admit that one of my favourite quilts is my hexagon quilt, which I now have on the bed in my guest room. It was made with the help of Kate Spencer, a local friend who boasted that she only did hexagons! I sent fabrics to her for her own use whilst she lived in Ireland and in return she made the flowers for me. Eventually these were joined together randomly with greens varying from lights in the centre, through mediums, to darks around the edges. I appliquéd this onto a leafy border and machine quilted it.
Student life was really enjoyable at Anstey PE College (1967-70). In Year 1, I lived in one of the student houses with 7 other first year students and 4 responsible (!) third year students. In Year 2, I was allocated lodgings at Sutton Coldfield and Year 3 saw me ensconced in the college building itself. Life was a whirl of physical activity in some form or other, interspersed at regular intervals with lectures and food high in carbohydrates. I have never been so fit in my life and I swear I had pains in muscles hitherto unknown to man!
Part of our regulation uniform was a pair of grey, tailored and pleated PE shorts which had to measure 4” from the knee. Underneath were our ample grey knickers, affectionately called ‘harvester’ because all was safely gathered in! Black hooded cloaks were part of our uniform too and these were worn when cycling to and from games fields and swimming pools. We must have looked like demented bats streaming en masse out of the college gates.
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
Another enquiry on moving to Sychdyn, North Wales, took me to the local library to find where the quilt-making classes were being held. There was nothing in the my area in 1984, so with a teaching certificate and three quilts to my name, I felt that I was more than qualified to start one. Fliers were sent home with 100+ school children and eye-catching posters were displayed wherever space allowed. But, when enrolment night came, all the ladies who walked through the school door signed on with the dressmaker who was also offering classes. One lady, however, was kind enough to come over to say that they thought that they had all done patchwork, and they hated the hexagons they had sewn!! I obviously needed to put my quilts on display to convince people that there was more to quilts than the dreaded hexagons!
Always last minute and working to the deadline of exams, I did manage to scrape through on the academic side to gain 7 O levels and 3 A levels. I was the last head girl of Ulverston Grammar School, which became a comprehensive school the next academic year. I presented the aged head master, George Longbotham, with one of his many retirement gifts and skipped off happily to PE (physical education) college. This seemed a logical career choice for me, with my love of sport.
Anstey PE College was a very small college (approx 150 students) in Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire and was one of only 6 women’s PE colleges in the UK. The college was sited on the A5122 at Erdington, a major road into Birmingham. The main building was a huge converted and adapted mansion, with enclosed grounds, lost behind, and protected by, surrounding residential estates where students were housed. Bicycles were an essential requirement to get between sports fields, swimming baths and parks.
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
It took us a while to find our next home, Llain Delyn (Welsh for "harp shaped piece of land"), in Sychdyn, Mold, Flintshire. It was right next door to the village school where the girls settled quickly and from where Roger made the arduous daily journey to Bootle through the Mersey tunnel.
I started to make reluctant noises about returning to teaching now that our daughters were 7 and 8 and duly went for a chat with the local headmaster. His first question of ‘Can you speak Welsh?’ put me firmly in my place. As a non-Welsh speaker I realised instantly that I would have need to travel into the neighbouring county of Cheshire to continue my teaching career. What to do next eh?
In light of the sadly lacking sewing experiences of school, it was hardly surprising that all my energies of youth were expended playing sport. On starting at the Grammar school we were put into competitive houses of Red, White or Blue. Following in the footsteps of my brother Ted and sister Gwyneth, I was put into Red House. Inter-house competition of every kind was encouraged and applauded and loyalties were established, built on the pride of simply belonging. Although I represented house and school in rounders and tennis as well, my particular love was hockey. I played right in the thick of it as centre forward; I played at lunchtime, after school and at weekends, for school, for local clubs and eventually for the county of Westmoreland. I suppose the pinnacle of my sporting career was reaching the ‘possibles’ versus the ‘probables’ for the England team! Although not accepted, it was gratifying to be considered.
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
This is a much better quilt for a young girl who loved her cats, with large shapes and bright colours. This quilt was tied with coloured embroidery threads so no time was spent on decorative quilting. Just the job!
In 1984, we moved from Dorset where I had started to learn how to make quilts. My husband, Roger, worked as a civil servant, initially in the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) and eventually in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). His head office had de-centralised from London to Bootle, near Liverpool and he was advised that a stint there would be good for career development. ‘Just for a couple of years’ was his persuasive mantra as we tearfully left the village of Milton Abbas in rural Dorset for N Wales. 26 years later we are still living in N Wales and it was here that I became known eventually as ‘Dilys the Quilt’.
Ulverston Grammar School was a 5-mile bus ride away from Dalton and I had to walk a mile before I got to the bus stop. I always enjoyed school, mainly for the social advantages and sporting opportunities and I performed moderately well on the academic side. I believed the one, single experience that put me off sewing for life (or so I thought) was making my wretched gingham apron, by hand, in domestic science! This torturous experience seemed to drag on for most of that first year. We sewed cross-stitch patterns on the pockets and waistband and constructed each section by hand. We watch the teacher’s demo, had a go, queued to have our stitches rubbished, took them out and tried again; queued, had our stitches rubbished … and so it went on. I don’t think I would ever have got to the cooking stage had I not been able to take it home during a long holiday and get my mother to complete it!
Aside: After mentioning this at a lecture several years ago, I was approached by an elderly quilter from the audience who sympathised with my early sewing experiences. Then added ‘At least you didn’t have to make the gusseted knickers my dear!’ Thank goodness for that eh?
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
Most of my early quilts were backed with a plain, backing fabric (Quilt Police cover your eyes: usually polycotton sheeting which often crept onto the front as well!!) As I learned to quilt by hand, I struggled to get even stitches on the back. As a result, I did just enough quilting to hold the three layers together which is, of course, one of the functions of the stitch. The decorative element of the stitches would have to wait!
Whilst making this quilt, one of my daughters, at 11, just happened to have a pink bedroom, so this quilt became destined for her bed! I got her to choose some patterns and on the cat block I embroidered an impassioned ‘Sewn with love, Mummy x’. When it was finished, I put it on her bed and explained about the time that had gone into it making it and how she was to look after it. Imagine my horror when I saw muddy paw prints going diagonally across it a few days later. As I ranted and raved, Tam pondered the situation, then determinedly scooped the quilt off the bed, threw it onto the floor in my studio and said that she would rather have the cat on her bed!
Aside: This was a valuable, if not humbling lesson for me. I learned that if you want a child to love a quilt, you have to invite them be part of the whole creative process. You do not foist a complex and precious masterpiece on them and expect them to respect it!
Whilst still smarting for the injustice of destroying my own handiwork at 7, I went on through Green School in a whirl of marbles, skipping ropes and tag to be sent to Nelson Street to prepare for my 11-plus. This girls-only school was meant to settle me and focus my mind on academia, as well as coach me for the big exam. It did just that!
After assembly each morning, before the headmistress ever arrived in class, we were programmed to recite our tables from 2x through to 16x and chant our number bonds from 2 to 10 (as in 7 + 0 = 7, 6 + 1 = 7, 5 + 2 = 7 etc). When she arrived, we stood up and blew our noses (and heaven help us if we had forgotten a handkerchief!) ready to go through pronunciation exercises to help our diction. Spelling tests were common and script writing was obligatory; this was a good all-round, traditional education.
Mind you, the headmistress was a fearsome individual with a hooked nose and never-miss-a-trick eyes. She used her glasses removal technique and frantic stare theatrically to scare the living daylights out of us! Boy did we respect her. And yes she got me through my 11-plus so, in1960, off I went to Ulverston Grammar School, to class 1S.
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
Whilst making these early traditional quilts, I was beginning to learn some valuable lessons. Accuracy in cutting shapes for patchwork is essential. Finishing was my aim at first and I would bodge and manipulate the shapes to fit. This wasn’t good enough when I began teaching and I knew all my work would be scrutinised by students.
On the other hand, I found that appliqué was more forgiving, with room for gentle manoeuvring; perhaps that’s why I liked it immediately! And this led me onto another appliqué sampler quilt:
The 4 centre blocks were made using patterns from a book by Philamena Durcan. I taught them as a class project with great gusto and then wondered what to do with them (not more cushions!). So I decided to place them medallion-style in the centre of a quilt, but I hadn’t a clue how. ( I think if I had realised that maths was involved in quilting I may never have got started!) All I could think of doing was to lay the ready quilted centre blocks on a larger piece of fabric and cut generously to fill in the corners! The bouquets of flowers and smaller appliqués camouflage the bodging that went on to make it all fit together! As with earlier quilts, each block was hand quilted before it was joined into the body of the quilt.
Hi I'm Dilys Fronks!