We pootled across to Topsham last week. On the banks of the River Exe as it approaches the sea, Topsham is one of our favourite places for a wander and a mooch, the charity shops of a standard that you tend to find in affluent areas, where they can afford to donate their designer clothes and nice curtains and new books rather than go through the palava of selling them on eBay. Topsham is also home to Joel Segal's, a second-hand bookshop to die for. Lots of little rooms, upstairs and down and including a warm dry cellar down a narrow red-brick staircase, and it was there I was headed on this visit.
Over the years Bookhound, trawling around the market stalls, has added a few old patchwork books to my collection.
'Very nice,' I may have said in the past, barely lifting my eyes from the latest glittery shiny new book from Kaffe Fassett, but suddenly I am hankering after the old ways of doing things, some English piecing over papers, some good old-fashioned hexagons a la Lucy Boston. So I am treasuring these books, Modern Patchwork by Margaret Agutter published in 1949, if only for this picture and full instructions on making the housecoat
Introduction to Patchwork by Elizabeth McCosh, published by Mills and Boon in 1961 is another little gem especially for the notes on the author...
'Elizabeth McCosh made her first patchwork quilt a good many years ago, and disliked it so much that she was delighted to give it away to someone who fancied it. It was a long time before she started the next... A relation who was asked to contribute to this biographical note writes..." It is not surprising that Mrs McCosh is such a skilled needlewoman, for when her father was imprisoned after the Jameson Raid, his mailbags were renowned for their dainty stitching."
Then of course I wasted spent half an hour reading up on the Jameson Raid...if you have half an hour to fritter away it's all here.
But call myself a proper patchworker... there has always been a glaring omission from my shelves which no self-respecting English needlewoman can be without, and that is Patchwork by Averil Colby.
Averil Colby a legend in the recent history of patchwork and quilting here in the UK, this the original and definitive tome, first published in 1958, two hundred pages of old-fashioned loveliness, lots of history and monochrome illustrations, with instructions and template patterns, all sufficient for the complete novice to emerge from the other end an expert.
And there they were, not one but two hardback copies in the cellar of the bookshop in Topsham. One, a third impression for £30, the other a fifth impression...for £4. This was a no contest made doubly special that evening when I read, in The Patchworks of Lucy Boston, that Lucy had also owned the fifth impression of Averil Colby's book... we are kindred spirits indeed.
I have read it cover to cover since I bought it and am wallowing in the old ways and methods and notions. The advice to use mercerised cotton for stitching, and 'Directors Reports issued to shareholders in prosperous companies' for the papers, and whether to use size nine or ten 'sharps' or 'betweens' for needles ('betweens are shorter) and having good sharp scissors. These were the days when you bought supplies at The Needlewoman Shop in Regent Street. My mum was an embroiderer par excellence and if ever she had a special project planned (Dorset Feather Stitchery comes to mind) she would head 'up to town' for supplies.
Reading an old book like this is a salutary reminder of how easy it is to forget the basics in the world of rotary cutters and new-fangled gizmos that patchwork piecing now finds itself in; quilts whizzed up in no time on the Bernina, instant gratification versus the slow and measured hand-stitching of yore, that perhaps also marked the slower more deliberate pace of life. I can be the world's worst... if there's a quicker way of doing something I'll try it, but as I continued to channel my inner Lucy Boston and planned my traditional Grandmother's Flower Garden extravaganza, I decided to do this the proper way. Sitting at the kitchen table tracing around my hexagonal template onto scrap-book paper, (which I have always found the best,) there seemed to be no quick method and nor was I seeking one. I drew and snipped and drew and snipped some more until I had a nice little stack of hexagons to be going on with.