Across the globe an unprecedented health event is unfolding and along with millions of others I have been struggling to process the enormity and to figure out how best to Be in this strange new world.
My kids are at home and my husband is cloistered away down the long corridor taking muffled work video meetings and trying to drown out the thundering child and dog noise in our chaotic busy household. Under any other circumstances this would pretty much be my ideal situation. I love to have the cosy jumble of everyone home ( most of the time!) and the sunny weather has been adding to this picture of family fun. However we aren’t untroubled and able to enjoy this unexpected respite from the pressures of everyday life, no one could fail to be horrified and anxious as the unreal news reports unfolded in these first weeks of this crisis.
This crazy dissonance is the hardest thing to process. We live in beautiful countryside with rural walks on our doorstep and the sun has shone defiantly, but the outside world feels dangerous and forbidden, and home feels like a respite but yet we all watch every sniff and cough anxiously as we scroll symptoms like the hypochondriacs we never thought we could become, wiping down post, shouting hellos to neighbours from a distance and taking a wide berth through brambles at the field edges to avoid other dog walkers. It can be hard to feel normal anywhere.
At first memes abounded in the quilting world ‘Stay at Home lock down? This is what we’ve been training for’, yet I, like so many other expressing similar restlessness, could not settle to any making. Having a mindful creative practice should be a solace in this time of worry? The TV shows and radio call ins are full of great advice about how to ‘make the most of’ the time at home and how to use creative activities to still anxiety. Yet as I picked up and put down the projects that had previously absorbed me I couldn’t shake the feeling that none of this really mattered in the huge context of the events that unfolded in terrifyingly huge statistics every day at 2pm as the deaths were announced and my heart rate raced.
In the week before the lock down, armed with handsanitiser and with an eye to the as yet unfolding horror yet to fully unleash in Italy as the dawning unease started to build, I took a regular train journey to York to the HQ of The Quilters’ Guild, where I travel every 6 weeks for a regular meeting presenting to the board of the company and to catch up with the marketing team. Thinking of that day now feels like another life, yet we had been excitedly signing off our latest pattern launch for the Guild Pattern Box series, a project I had been working closely on for more than a year. The latest launch was a pattern I loved from the talented Jo Avery, a supportive Guild member and a quilter I really admire and she had designed a pattern based on one of my favourite quilts in the Guild Collection called ‘The Naive Applique Top’, the obvious quilt that had come to both of our minds when the project was mooted. ( Support The Guild at this difficult time for all charities and buy this pattern here) .
The original quilt is everything I love in folk art style, an unencumbered exuberance of perfectly English cottage country garden style and a kind of ‘grown where you scattered the seed’ sense of the flowers springing up in all corners of the quilt. This quilt radiates happy go-lucky feelings, a perfect antidote to the fear and seriousness we are all surrounded by.
I really have no need of a new project. I have lots of things in progress, a mental list of projects to start and a huge list of writing and academic deadlines that still need to be met remotely (somehow whilst home schooling 3 kids?) but for some reason, in amongst the distracted anxiety of Day 7 of the lock down, all I wanted to make was this cushion pattern. It was a manageable size, it lent itself to all my favourite textures of linen and Liberty fabric and finally I was sewing again. My original plan was, as usual, to incorporate some of my favourite bits and pieces of vintage fabric along with everything from stash ( shops all closed by now). I had been doing some embroidery, trying to make labels for finished quilts and the intensity of that stitching was absorbing and so I decided to try and incorporate some element of embroidered stitching too, this time with my newly acquired lockdown-eve stash of Appletons Crewel wool threads with their beguiling colours.
My other long running WIP is my #apinchofmotheringquilt which you can read about here and this project has seen me through the turbulence of Brexit and numerous, now completely peripheral, little life ups and downs and from each experience I have tried to distil a piece of advice for my kids to take solace from in their future lives when they are too old to receive, or I am too old to dispense, a pinch of mothering advice. I had added the universally good advice of ‘wash your hands’ at the start of this crisis but I was unwilling to add too many more of the myriad of words and phrases that were swirling across the airwaves and around my worried brain to this quilt at the risk of completely overwhelming it’s breezy optimism in uncharacteristically doom laden fear.
Since my kids were small we have a kind of unstructured tradition of naming a ‘word of the week’ which started out as a largely unsuccessful attempt at teaching sterile lists of vocabulary suggested by a tutor we never took on for the 11+ exam (read a book instead!) and ended up more as a way to mock, celebrate and discuss current affairs around the dinner table. Along the way and through the years we have enjoyed the exactitude and vagaries of other languages translated dodgily on family holidays, we’ve all bellowed Brexit means Brexit and a hundred other rubbish political slogans as we vie for the weekly winner, we’ve explored the precise meaning of archaic Radio 4 words and dusty Rees-Moggisms and we always love turning over a particularly delicious new word in our shared family parlance with a bingo winners glee when the user slips it into casual conversation.
Along with every other household we were initially glued to the airwaves, watching Prime Ministers and monarchs, chiefs of this and that and officers of the other, all variously reassuring and terrifying us with weird PowerPoint charts and graphs – this crisis was rich in unfamiliar terms and our heads swirled with words and phrases that we had mercifully never considered before now, PPE and ISAMS, exponential curves and CPAPs.
I started to embroider a word a day, the easy obvious ones, wash your hands, fill the larder, stay at home. As the days went on we were introduced to new concepts, my youngest brother and his family live in NYC, they were Sheltering in Place rather than Staying at Home, some days we distracted ourselves with sourdough starters and sunny garden wallowing, some were more frightening and those days I stitched what I was repeating in my head, deep breaths, turn off the radio, this will pass. My lovely neighbour Mary makes an appearance and kind words from friends and family, my little daughter had a cough, it wasn’t dry but it terrified me for a few days. Nothing feels proportional at the moment but stitching each thought and feeling out in measured little stitches helps to anchor the thought, to hold down the spiralling feeling, to properly celebrate the good moments and to validate all our fears by pinning them down in the open air to consider.
As we enter the second (?) phase of an extended lock down for another 3 weeks, with statistics that seem numbingly stubbornly unchangingly high and facing an unknown uncertain future where we cling to the belief that things will be ‘back to normal’ at the same time as the dawning realisation that things won’t be normal at all for a long time. I continue to stitch and look for a ‘quiet good humoured resolve’ as the Queen perfectly phrased to continue to endure and enjoy, to search for small pleasures and to mark big moments. As a historian I often find solace in reflecting on how the big moments in our little lives seem even smaller (and thus less overwhelming) in the long stretch of history. Yet some events loom large in history still and perhaps this is one of those. There is a kind of comfort in marking a little of the experience in my own piece of textile history to reflect on in the hopefully Corona-free future. And whilst we all wait for that time to come I wish you all safe and well at this difficult time x