Are you one of those who are fascinated by patchwork — and the works of art that are created out of bits and pieces of cloth?
When we were touring the United States a few years ago, we were fortunate to visit a small museum tucked away in Idaho. Apart from the interesting lessons in history we found there, there were also beautiful paintings on display and a slew of patchwork quilts made by the local population. While these were works of art to sigh over, they were also a reminder of how much planning, patience and hard work went into the making of a bedspread or table runner or cushion cover that would go on to become an heirloom for whoever eventually acquired it.
Patchwork was easy to take up in our home because Mother’s guilty secret was that she could not part with cloth. Luckily, she compensated for this “failing” by being a gifted and industrious seamstress and using and reusing every length of cloth available to her.
Therefore, by the time our eyes tired of our daily linen, it reappeared as something else. Well-worn sheets were converted into pillowcases, our thick and durable curtains found a new life as reupholstered settees with matching cushions and then went on to become plaited floor mats and finally super-absorbent mopping cloths!
It was the same with our clothes. Mother sewn them all — and then converted them to something different when we outgrew them.
As youngsters, we squirmed with embarrassment at Mother’s firm refusal to splurge on something we saw in a shop window and her insistence on recycling what we had: either reproducing it in a completely different avatar (her old saris into kurtas or dresses for us and old white school uniforms into dyed trousers with a dashing seam at knee level), or giving it a new look with trimmings from her “rag” bag of leftovers.
That bag of scraps was actually a treasure trove of varying lengths of material in a myriad of colours and prints and Mother often delved into it to find trimmings to lend character to whatever she was working on. As we grew older, she allowed us to rummage in the rag bag and raid it — provided we used whatever we took out.
Having spent our early years seeing all those artistic “conversions” of cloth, the well-matched trimmings on pillowcases, runners and tablecloths, the hems of our dresses and the sleeves of Mother’s sari blouses, we felt that we could be as creative on our own, as well.
We started with patchwork kitchen pot holders, then went on to larger creations and thus, as a teenager, I put together a patchwork skirt that I considered party-wear although it was constructed roughly, with no colour coordination, no symmetry in the size or the shape of the patches: just a haphazard blaze of colours and prints that delighted me but probably jarred everyone else’s senses and could have been one of the reasons why most people kept their distance and I was usually a wallflower!
In later years, my attempts at patchwork were more organised and hopefully more tasteful and pleasing to the eye; and now, when I peep into the cupboard and confront my old, worn but well-loved items of clothing, I imagine them all as something quite different. So, instead of tossing them out, I resolve to get down to some creative recycling.
It is helpful and heartening while doing this to hear the raised voices of young people, celebrities and the environmentally conscious who are taking positive steps in support of limited wardrobes and the reusing and repurposing of clothes we own — what is nicely termed as “preloved” clothes — to prevent environmentally dangerous piling up of cloth in landfills.
— Cheryl Rao is a writer based in India