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!
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.
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!
Hi I'm Dilys Fronks!