When I was eight years old, I read A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. First published in 1939, A Traveller in Time tells the story of Penelope Taberner, who, when visiting her aunt and uncle in Derbyshire, is transported back to 1582. She finds herself in the midst of the Babington Plot which aimed to free Mary, Queen of Scots from captivity, and place her on the English throne in place of Elizabeth I. I found this book completely magical and it led directly to my desire to study history.
Uttley’s vivid recreation of the Derbyshire countryside and the people who lived there was enhanced by her evocative descriptions of objects. The magic of an old chest containing “cashmere shawls, the silk-embroidered waistcoats, the pistol with its mother-of-pearl and incised roses and leaves,” and drawers full of “old bits of jewellery, silver buttons, jet and amber brooches, and broken earrings,” still make me want to dig around in forgotten corners of antique shops. I read about Mistress Foljambe’s Book of Hours and dreamed of the illustrations that captivated Penelope.
Most tantalising were the fabrics. How I longed for a sewing workbox like Aunt Tissie’s, full of “curious spools of silks”. I wanted to make a rag rug from an old waistcoat, trousers that were a hundred years old, and a scarlet soldier’s coat. I dreamed about the embroidery sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots, and, years later, was delighted to find some of it on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The best thing of all was some wonderful, abandoned patchwork:
“There was a needlecase with a cover of ancient blue taffeta, like the kirtle of Mistress Babington’s gown. I had found it in Aunt Tissie’s patchwork bag, where there was a storehouse of treasures, ancient silks and faded velvets, and scraps of half-made patchwork, each with its lining of stiff paper. I saw faded writing and crabbed words and odd spelling, with poems and hymns half-concealed in the squares and diamonds of the patches. Some of the paper was parchment, I was sure, but Aunt Tissie said they were only old documents she had found in an oak chest when she was a girl, and cut up for her quilt linings.”
How could I fail to become a quilter after reading that?