Two months after arriving on Tarawa, and being the most dispensable member of staff (debatable!), I was despatched on a trip to the outer islands with an Ellice island teacher called Holland Banaba. Our task was to supervise the entrance exam on three outer islands for the boarding school where I taught. The ship was scheduled to call in at a fourth island to collect copra. I thought this would be a great adventure and I relished the opportunity to go. That was before I saw the size of the supply vessels that travelled between the islands. Known as T ships, the Temauri and Tautunu were smaller than the Lake District pleasure cruisers. They were shallow draft so that they could manoeuvre into the lagoons and get as close to shore as possible. I recall that accommodation was basic, with two compact first-class cabins on deck for travelling officials (us), two second-class cabins below deck, and deck accommodation for the remainder of the passengers who shared the space with their pigs, chickens and belongings.
Filled with a sense of responsibility for the task ahead, I settled down on the topmost deck of the Tautunu, ready to enjoy my first Pacific voyage. I watched Tarawa slowly recede and disappear over the horizon as we left the protection of its small harbour at Betio. As I resolutely turned to look ahead, I privately assessed the sturdiness of this small vessel against the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Once outside the protection of the reef, it didn’t take long before the Tautunu settled into its corkscrewing rhythm. I believe I managed one meal before I disappeared into my cabin for the remainder of the heaving journey!
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
With my first quilt, Jacobean Spring, I always maintained that I started at the top and worked my way down for the rest of my creative career! As champion, I was invited to John Lewis’s in London, where my quilt was displayed, to demonstrate my technique in a remote corner of the basement. I also demonstrated in the waterways museum at Camden Lock, to advertise the waterways theme for the next year’s competition.
Having had success with the Jacobean style, I felt compelled to follow it up with another in the same style thus creating a series of work. The fact that the next quilt was called ‘Goodbye Crewel World’ said it all! The inspiration for this quilt was an antique, crewel wall hanging seen in a window display at Voirrey Embroidery on the Wirral. The hanging had originally been made at the Lee's Brother factory in Birkenhead, where young women were painstakingly trained to make exquisite hand embroideries, to be exported all over the world.
I was given permission to photograph and trace the flowers, motifs and stems as the inspiration for a quilt. I recorded the colours faithfully and, once back in my workroom, I simplified everything for ease of sewing. Here is the result:
*This large quilt was the first one that I hand quilted as a complete quilt. It was rolled on a huge quilting frame which was placed behind the settee in the lounge and that's where I had to join it, whenever I worked on it! I never worked on that large frame again and have always preferred to hand quilt with large hoop from then on.
Below are some details of the quilt:
Formal classes at the school on Tarawa were scheduled for the mornings, the coolest time of the day. After lunch, there was a compulsory rest period for the children and this was followed by organised activities for an hour before the evening meal.
The PE lessons usually took the form of playing games, mainly volleyball, softball and tennis and the pupils were the keenest I have ever known. The pitches, on hard packed coral, were marked out, regularly I might add!, with lines of the whiter coral sand carried from the waterside. There were regular inter-house competitions played during the activity sessions and a sports day held once a year. (My greatest dilemma then was to mark out a full size and accurate running track, using white sand to mark the lanes!) As a teacher, usually wearing tennis whites and sunglasses, I taught technique, organised teams and umpired the matches.
I also had to teach classes at the Tarawa Teachers College (TTC) where students from 18 to 40 were being trained as teachers for the primary schools on the outlying island. Although we played the usual games, I was also interested to learn about local games.
MY QUILTING JOURNEY 1986
Jacobean Spring was my first competition entry, way back in 1986. The event was held at Audley End in Northamptonshire and the Marquis of Bath presented the prizes. My quilt was voted the winner of the hand appliqué section and was then selected as the over-all Championship Quilt! Imagine my surprise and delight. I had started at the top … and I have managed to work my way down over the next 20 years! For my efforts I was awarded 4 pairs of Wilkinson Sword scissors: dressmaking, embroidery, snips and pinking shears (not the sewing machine that is awarded nowadays!). I must also say that, way back then, this quilt was fresh, original and different. It wouldn’t win any prizes in today's competitions where availability of fabric, expertise in technique and innovation in design are far superior. But in 1986 I was proud to be National Patchwork Champion!
Life on Tarawa, the main island in the Gilbert Islands group, was certainly different from anything I had ever known before! Land consisted of a strip of compressed coral, no more than about 6 to 12 feet above sea level. This tiny strip of land was so narrow in places that it was possible to throw a stone into the ocean on one side and the lagoon on the other. There was only 12 miles of hard packed coral on the south side of the atoll that could loosely be called a road and, although a few cars had started to appear, bicycles and motorbikes were the main mode of transport. The remainder of the island, stretching to the north of the 100 square mile lagoon, was broken into smaller uninhabited islands by tidal channels but it was possible to walk and wade to the Catholic mission school of Taborio if necessary. The mission was mainly accessed by boat. Coconut palms accentuated the shaped of the atoll and gave welcome shelter from the searing rays of the tropical sun. This same sun rose in the morning at 6am and switched off dramatically some 12 hours later as it disappeared over the horizon.
MY QUILTING JOURNEY
The hand appliquéd and hand quilted sections of what became known as Jacobean Spring progressed steadily, in between my regular classes and travelling workshops. After 10 weeks of intensive work it was sent off unwanted, unloved and uninsured to the National Patchwork Championships. Quite frankly, with the intensity of work I had seen enough of it and was glad to see the back of it!
‘Only 10 weeks!’ I hear you gasp. It was at this time that I started to learn how to save as much time for my sewing as possible:-
I taught my daughters how to cook: Tin opener: can. Can: tin opener!
I only ironed the front of my husband’s shirts in the sure faith that he just didn’t look at the backs.
I realised that if ‘stuff’ was put back where it belonged, it produced an aura of orderliness.
I sprayed polish into the air just before my husband came home so he would assume that I had been polishing.
I have always been told by my husband that I never put things away after I used them so all I had to do was leave out the polish and duster or the Hoover and he would just assume that I had used it!
What a game but at least the quilt was finished quickly!
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.
Hi I'm Dilys Fronks!