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.
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.
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’.
Hi I'm Dilys Fronks!