In 2018, after Rik died, his sister offered to make me a memory quilt. I hadn’t heard of them before but it sounded like a lovely idea. So one sunny afternoon my sister Emma and I headed up to the bench at the top of the garden with the extensive pile of Rik’s shirts, and we spent the afternoon cutting large sections of cloth from the backs of the shirts to send to Rachel. It was very soon after Rik had died, in that strange period when you have to do all sorts of sorting out and these things keep you sane, and stop you from killing yourself, because there is stuff to do, ends to tie.
It was hard and it was lovely at the same time. Rik had a penchant for bright, often checked, shirts and to see them all piled up together with the colours and patterns all mixed up in the sunshine was nice. Cutting them up was another one of those things, at that heady, blurry, surreal, only just after he had died moment, that made me realise that he was never going to need his shirts again and it was good to share that hard truth, yet another milestone moment, with Emma.
Emma took the other pieces of his shirts, I was going to say the remains but that has connotations, left after cutting out the backs for Rachel. I work with old cloth, cloth that has memory and history, all the time. But I knew I could never work with this cloth. It was too close, too painful, and frankly just held too many memories for me. I hadn’t thought that a piece of clothing or cloth could hold too many memories but Rik’s shirts did, for me.
At the same time, and unbeknownst to me, one of our best friends, a fabulous (though incredibly and excruciatingly humble about it) quilter, Ros, was making me a quilt. Rik and I had stayed at Clan in Aberdeen during his radiotherapy. Clan is a cancer charity which has a residential centre in Aberdeen for people requiring cancer treatment who come down from Orkney and Shetland or the more remote parts of the Highlands. It is a haven, with amazing staff and volunteers, and they have a minibus that they shuttle people in to and from the hospital for treatment. I had stayed there when Rik first had to go down for a biopsy and then we both stayed there for a week for his radiotherapy treatment.
In all of the rooms, on all of the beds, there is a handmade quilt. I can’t tell you how much this helps, they make the rooms warm, homely and individual. I had sent Ros photos of the quilt in my room because I knew she would be interested in seeing it, and she used ‘my’ quilt (how I did not steal it when I left is a miracle) with its traditional log cabin block with an intense red square in the centre of each block as the basis for making this, secret, quilt.
When I received, through the post, the quilt that Rachel had made, my knees buckled, I literally ended up on the floor sobbing, with the quilt pushed up against my face so I could smell it and feel it and be smothered by it. It was utterly heartbreaking and utterly life affirming at the same time. The response was a total knee jerk reaction, shocking in its physicality and in its suddenness.
I draped it on this chair to take photos of it and it reminded me of the day Rik had sat in that chair, waiting to go to the hospital for a CT scan. Within 2 hours of him sitting there he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, admitted in to the MacMillan Ward and our lives had been turned completely upside down.
Rachel used remaining pieces of Rik’s shirts to make quilts and cushions for herself, his Mum and his other sister. And Emma made bunting, and for me, two wonderful cushion covers with all the pockets, and inside each pocket is a heart with a ‘Rik saying’ embroidered on each one.
Ros gave me the quilt she had made (and James had sewn the binding on to so it’s really from both of them which is very special too) one drunken evening round theirs. She was anxious it would bring back bad memories - I suspect she had worried about that through every second of every minute of every hour spent making the quilt) but it did anything but. How could it? The love and loss shared in every choice of cloth, every cut, every stitch, filled me with joy and awe. How could someone have spent that much time and effort making something of such beauty for me? I think Ros probably needed to make it just as much as I needed to receive it. It is a forever bond, and a memory of a superb man we all loved and continue to love.
Ros walked me home that night down the hill. I think she needed to know I was okay both because I was bladdered and because of the emotion that had been hurtling around the table that evening. She was as rat arsed as me so how she got back home again I’m not sure, but when we got to mine she let me into a secret - that some of the cloth, with stars on, would light up in the dark. It was barking mad and it made me giggle and still does.
Ros’s quilt has pride of place in my new house.
So why think about this all now, five years later? Well, as quilts are designed to be used and are robust and become better with age like a fine wine, these special memory quilts and cushions are as fabulous as they were on the days they were made, and I use them and look at them every day. They bring me joy as well as sorrow (good sorrow if there is such a thing) and are genuinely some of the most precious things I own. If the house was on fire I would grab Ros’s and Rachel’s quilts off the bed and from above the bed and Emma’s cushions in a heartbeat. Secondly, because I have been binge listening to a podcast called Seamside recently, which I wanted to give a shout out to.
Seamside is one element of the amazing work of Zak Foster, an American improv quilter. I came across Zak on Instagram and love his approach to humanity as well as to creating quilts out of found clothes and repurposed cloth. He makes memory and burial quilts and I can’t imagine how brave you have to be try and work with other people’s loss and grief and create something positive and beautiful with such loaded cloth. I was interested in Zak’s work because of the similarities but also the differences in our approaches to working with textiles.
What has astounded me (though why would it really?) in the conversations I feel honoured to have been able to listen in to through the podcast Seamside, is the almost constant and very present discussion of loss, love and memory, politics, humanity and inhumanity that influences every maker. Sewing as healing, as remembering, as honouring, as sharing. It has not only inspired me in terms of my own work but made me go back in to myself and think about my work in relation to love and loss. My work is not overtly about loss, bereavement or memory but the parameters and restrictions I place on my work often bring these things overtly to my own mind when I am making. For example, a series I made which only used cotton thread from my Nanan’s old sewing tin (an OXO tin minus its lid) and then, when that ran out, from collections of threads which had been other people’s grandmothers‘ collections of cotton. The cut ends, snips of fabric and empty reels I carefully saved in kilner jars like an archaeological midden and exhibited alongside the work.
The Seamside podcast explores how working with textiles makes us more human, and naturally humanity‘s richest and strongest emotional drivers come from love and loss. So it’s a no brainier really, but I am finding listening to other makers conversing about the ways they approach their work comforting and challenging at the same time, in the same way that my incredible memory quilts comfort and challenge me and make me incredibly thankful for having such humane and wonderful friends and family.
To listen to the Seamside podcast or find out more about Zak’s work visit www.zakfoster.com
Clan Haven log cabin quilt
Details of the maker, Clan Haven quilt
Memory quilt by Rachel Hammond using Rik Hammond’s shirts
Cushion by Emma Gee using Rik Hammond’s shirts
Ros Aitken’s quilt
Jars of cotton reels and threads, installation view from “All Wool and No Shoddy”, The Loft Gallery, St Margaret‘s Hope