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January 20, 2021

Window on the World Column: The Fabrics of Memory

By Lucy Jensen, Soledad Columnist

It was the 1960s in England. The country was still recovering after the war and things were used and re-used; almost until they turned to dust. Looking back, it was a time of great thriftiness and creativity. Hand-me down clothing was standard in every household, as was a sewing machine and knitting needles. The wool shop on the high street was a popular place to stop and chat. Though it was tiny, it was ceiling to floor with perfectly wound bundles of yarn and different kinds of needles.

My grandma was a compulsive knitter, as was my Mum. Our early dolls were handmade, as were our hats, gloves, scarves, sweaters and even the odd knitted dress. Many of my early dresses were your classic ’60s cotton shift style with bold stripes or floral prints that were then passed down to my younger sisters when I bulged out of them. Nowadays, a person is considered an artisan craftsman if they make their own clothing. Back then, it was just normal life. The past is another world — they do things differently there.

Early in the ’70s, my mother discovered the delights of patchworking. Ever thrifty, she had multitudes of pieces of material left over from all her dressmaking endeavors and never could bear to throw anything away. She had hexagon paper templates that she would use to craft the patches, so that they were more-or-less uniform, and then sew them together. Television was a novelty at the time and I remember her half-watching something and sewing at the same time of an evening. She made herself a multi-colored patchwork skirt, an enormous quilt for her bed and patchwork pillowcases for everyone. My sisters and I had our names embroidered on them. I have three that have traveled the world with me and survived the passages of time and ravages of change; now a bit ragged and holy, but still mostly intact. I couldn’t think how to preserve them.

Some would be of the mindset that old and broken things should be part of a household sweep when they have outrun their use. I am more of a historic preservation type gal. These scraps of fabric were part of the memories of my youth and I could not part with them.

Talking to my cousin — herself a great craftsperson throughout her life — we talked about the fabrics of memory and how they could be just as powerful as photos or music. I told her of my dilemma with the patchwork cushion covers and she offered to put them on the pile of her many creative projects that she would work on over time. That made me feel so much better. I dug out the incredible silk peacock dress that she had custom-made for my mother likely 50 years ago and sent it back to her. As the creator of that work of art, she should have the pleasure of deciding how to best enjoy it.

I had schlepped it around the world for at least two decades now, without a clue how to showcase it as it deserved. It gave me so much satisfaction to package up the peacock and the old patchwork covers and return the peacock to the original creator and the covers to a place where they could be restored or reinvented in some way. I knew she’d do them proud, when she was able. Her son was recently married. She worked long and hard on a memory quilt for him and his bride; a work of art steeped in love and family history.

And that is why I have such a hard time throwing away old treasures. My old green candlesticks belonged to my grandmother. To another’s eyes, they might be considered ugly. Certainly, they are worth nothing; but she was something. I have old shirts that belonged to mother and scarves that were my sister’s. Memory fabrics of any kind are hard to part with, but especially when they were crafted with so much love. That was the dress I wore in 1974 at our school dance, that was the one she made for Mary and, at the time, I wanted in my size. It had cheerful bunnies on it. That one adorned the back of our younger sister and I think the fabric may have come from France. I also remember the dress Rosie was wearing when we got the news that our grandpa had been killed in a car crash. How on earth would the memory be able to dig so deeply and recall and immortalize such moments in time?

I imagine when I am gone, my kids will look at all these antiquated bits of blanket and fabric and pour them all into a dumpster along with most of my other crud. Maybe they will keep the odd story I wrote or photograph I captured; but memory fabric? That will likely disappear, as memories do fade and dissolve from one generation to the next. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I shall do my best to share the story of the green candlesticks or the patchwork pillowcases with whoever will listen, but I hold out little hope for their longevity.

I wonder what my creative cousin will do with my scraps of memory fabric. Maybe she will inspire me to do something fabulous with the other nostalgic pieces in my collection. Years ago, my youngest sister made me a sheer silk dress in her screen-printing class. I knew at the time that I could never wear the dress. Now it is a lit wall-hanging that I like very much. The dress was repurposed to art.

If, like me, you are a sentimental creature and struggle with discarding any slices of memorabilia, be it old T-shirts, green candlesticks or memory fabric, try to keep only what you love-love and repurpose what you can’t discard at the present time. Then know that the next generation will likely dumpster much of what you leave behind for them and you must be OK with that.

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