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Family History in an Object: Patchwork Cushion of Family Fabrics and Furnishings for the Famous

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Family history is important to me. I have cherished objects which hold stories, historical events and so many memories.

Patchwork Cushion

How many of us have a box or drawer containing off-cuts from old clothes or furnishings? My mother was a seamstress and had a good stock of such things, some of which I’ve inherited. Once in a while I’ve added to them when a favourite garment has run its course or my own children have outgrown theirs. I have pieces of shot silk and intricate lace from my grandmothers.

Many enjoy creating quilts, sometimes for the first grandchild as a family heirloom. Family memories are thus preserved, handed down, in this hexagonal history.

Original Quilt

The above cushion cover was taken from a quilt made by my mother, who then recycled part of the original to replace a worn cover. Looking at the remains here, various parts reminded me of large flower-heads; I decided to unpick my favourite pattern combinations, to create a separate picture or decoration. I’ll tell you later how that panned out.

Parts of Original Quilt & 'Flower-heads'

Original pieces, including the cornflower dress and  'rag-doll' material

Original pieces, including the cornflower dress and 'rag-doll' material

Jade Green for a long halter-neck Dress & bright orange flowers for '70s curtains!

Jade Green for a long halter-neck Dress & bright orange flowers for '70s curtains!

4 of the 'flower-heads'

4 of the 'flower-heads'


For me, several of these small pieces instantly recall dresses I had in my teens and early twenties, all of which my Mum made for me, often without a pattern, just conjured up from her expertise and imagination. By association, my mind’s eye transports me back in time to people and events. Even the sound of my sewing machine reminds me of sitting by while she worked. At one stage, she had a treadle machine which was marvellous!

There’s a cornflower pattern from my bridesmaid’s dress, for my then sister-in-law’s wedding. She loved cornflowers and so did I. I time-travel to that day and the location, along with all sorts of memories of my lovely sister-in-law, whom I still see from time to time.

A bright turquoise geometric pattern (see top picture) came from an A-line mini-dress which I wore until it literally fell apart; another of Mum’s creations.

One hexagon of denim-blue with rag-dolls in blue and red was from a top I had as a child. Then a bright jade green reminds me of a long halter-neck ball gown which Mum made for a going-down ball at college. How I loved that dress and it caught a few eyes!

Mum also had some pretty clothes of soft pastels and great colour combinations. She had a good eye for blends and compilations of design. I enjoyed shopping with her as we had similar tastes and any day out was a day of fun and giggles.

Material Remnants

Broderie Anglaise, Shot Silk, Linen & Lace

Broderie Anglaise, Shot Silk, Linen & Lace

Treadle Sewing Machine

Treadle Machine just like my mother's

Treadle Machine just like my mother's


Not only did Mum make curtains and covers for our sofas and chairs at home, but she also had a job at an interior designer’s in Brighton. They made bespoke interiors for the rich and famous.

Laurence Olivier had a flat on Brighton seafront, high above Marine Parade overlooking the sea. My Mum’s handiwork graced his rooms and windows.

Dora Bryan, an actress with a distinctive voice, also had a terrace house there and she too commissioned custom-made drapes and decorations.

Mum was allowed to keep some of the offcuts for use at home, so the thicker, shinier pieces in the quilt were part of that connection to the high life! Some also remind me of my own bedroom curtains in various houses.

Full Circle

I return to the hexagonal histories! It took a while to decide how to use the ‘flowers’ I mentioned above. It’s unusual for me to sew, having inherited none of my Mum’s talents on that score, but my latest project was to sew two of those memory flowers, both chosen by my (half-)sister, onto some material so that she now has a cushion cover to remind her of my mother. We share our father but she and my Mum were always close. We all had fantastic holiday times together; she and I still see each other often and always have fun. Now she will have a permanent reminder of my Mum, in her home.

From the Past to the Future

These hexagonal glimpses into choices of fabric and colours not only remind us of people, events and old times, but they serve as a conversation piece, a history lesson for children and grandchildren, bringing that history to life. We recall the faces, names, places and events where these were worn or used. Who were the characters? What did they look like? Where were they? What did they do? What sort of house did they live in? How were they important to you and me?

They can help to teach colour combinations, types of fabric used at certain times or for particular styles. Which colours do you prefer? Which 'flowers' appeal to you? In fact, they are a catalyst for a myriad of discussions.

Little pieces of cloth become a visual representation of family as well as national history. Visual stimulus can work so well; it's great fun and might even kick-start an interest in genealogy or history in general.

Objects large and small, cloth, metal, china or wood, ages old or more recent, all of them can evoke faces, times, events and emotions. We don’t forget easily but these reminders bring us closer, rekindle the thoughts and feelings, make us smile or make us cry, or both. Nostalgia and sentimentality perhaps, but I see nothing wrong with that. If we don’t cherish our objects and through them our memories, then how do we keep our history alive, our stories to pass down to the young ones, to fire their imaginations and awaken their sense of family, of heritage, of far-off stories, all of which are a part of who they are and who they will become.

What about you?

Do you have remnants in a box? Do you use them? What kind of memories do they evoke and have you passed those down to any of your family?

It's worth a rummage in the attic, or a sort out through the drawers, just to see what gems you have to represent your family history in fabric.

© 2021 Ann Carr

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