A Visit to Green Knowe 

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The Manor, Hemingford Grey

I have a large collection of books about sewing. This collection has changed over the years: to begin with when I first started learning to quilt, I bought books that focused on technique, that set out rules about thread type, dictated strict seam allowances and hinted at the correct way to press fabric. As my quilting developed and I stopped following patterns – and gained the confidence to dispense with the rules that didn’t work for me – these books were given away and replaced with books about quilt histories and culture. But one book has stayed with me from the start: The Patchworks of Lucy Boston by Diana Boston.

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I knew that Lucy Boston (1892-1990) was the author of the children’s Green Knowe series and I remember reading The Castle of Yew years ago. But discovering that she was a stitcher meant that I looked at her work with new interest. The names of her quilts intrigued me: The Babes in the Wood Patchwork, The Patchwork of the Crosses and – most exciting of all – The High Magic Patchwork. These names give the quilts additional depth, for the naming of quilts is an important way of conveying the intention of the maker. Lucy Boston may have described the occupation of patchwork as “disorderly and messy, the room littered with snippets of paper, cotton and lengths of thread, and a maelstrom of materials,” but from disorder and mess comes beauty and deliberation.

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Tolly “saw the head of a giant stone man, carrying a child on his shoulders.”

Last week I visited the Manor at Hemingford Grey, near Huntingdon, Lucy Boston’s house and the setting for the Green Knowe books. It is a beautiful house, with the oldest parts dating back to the 12th Century. Its situation by the river Great Ouse makes it very easy to imagine the floods that open The Children of Green Knowe when the boy Tolly approaches the house by boat in the evening when “the windows were all lit up, but it was too dark to see what kind of a house it was, only that it was high and narrow like a tower.” To Tolly it is like a castle, and he wants to know “Do things happen in it, like the castles in books?” And of course they do.

I don’t actually remember reading the Green Knowe books as a child, but I must have done because, when I went into the room at the top of the house, “a room under the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof, with a ceiling the shape of the roof and all the beams showing,” there was Toby’s Japanese mouse and I knew him straight away.

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“On the chest of drawers Tolly had seen two curly white china dogs, an old clock, and an ebony mouse, life-sized with shiny black eyes. It was so cleverly carved that you could see every hair, and it felt like fur to stroke.”

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And there was more – “a beautiful old rocking-horse … a horse whose legs were stretched to full gallop, fixed to long rockers so that it could, if you rode it violently, both rear and kick.” The creak-croak of the rockers was almost audible. It was The Children of Green Knowe come to life – perfectly.

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As well as the joy of finding Tolly’s room, I had the pleasure of seeing Lucy Boston’s quilts. I was especially privileged to be able to touch them, as, wearing white gloves, I helped our guide, Diana Boston, turn them out for viewing. The quilts are made from an eclectic range of fabrics – from wartime dusters to silk, from needlecord to embroidered wedding dress cotton, from heavy furnishing fabric to Liberty prints. Many pieces were fussy cut – with the sort of precision that I admire but never have the patience to achieve – and the piecing is extraordinary. There is a stunning Mariner’s Compass quilt – with twelve of that most complicated of blocks (which I have never dared attempt). When making it, Lucy Boston experienced a feeling known to all quilters: “My patchwork is proving very difficult indeed. It has large circular patterns that will not lie flat. They all heave up like rising tea-cakes.” The Babes in the Wood was a triumph of applique, as owls, birds and squirrels wandered amongst leaves and flowers in autumn colours. My favourite was the High Magic Patchwork: a mass of stars, suns and the phases of the moon. Lucy Boston made this piece when she was writing An Enemy at Green Knowe and noted that it “served to keep my thoughts moving.”

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The Manor is open all year round and can be visited by appointment. The photography policy is very generous and visitors can take pictures all over the house and gardens. However, it isn’t possible to photograph the quilts. Instead, Diana Boston’s lovely book The Patchworks of Lucy Boston can be purchased from the Manor along with cards featuring some of the quilts (and proceeds go towards the upkeep of the house and garden). And the Patchwork of the Crosses, probably the most well-known of Lucy Boston’s quilts, can be seen here thanks to the British Quilt Study Group of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

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Seeking Nelson’s Victory

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Nelson’s Victory block, October 2015

Last year, when I was working on my Nelson Quilt, I came across an old quilt block called Nelson’s Victory. I made a number of these Nelson’s Victory blocks with the long term aim of designing a quilt with a Battle of Trafalgar theme. I absolutely loathe sewing triangles, so I was quite surprised to find I’d completed eight of these blocks over a month or so – I’d been inspired by the fabled “Nelson Touch” once again.

I have a feeling that the Nelson’s Victory block dates from 1905, the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but I don’t have any real evidence to back up this feeling. However, once my interest is piqued, I can’t resist a research job, so I decided to see what I could find out about the history of this block.

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Old sewing books are a great source for old quilt blocks such as Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, Birds-in-the-Air, The Little Giant and so on.  They also provide all sorts of interesting snippets about the making of quilts; regional and national variations in quilt style and culture; and show how the quilting tradition has been constantly evolving over centuries.

I started with Averil Colby’s Patchwork, first published by Batsford in 1958. I found no mention of Nelson’s Victory but the book’s index pointed me to a couple of Nelson references. According to Colby:

After Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile … the streets of Naples were decked with flags and streamers to welcome his return; among them were banners of blue-printed white cotton, on which the name NELSON was surrounded by a design of acorns and oak leaves. Pieces of this cloth were brought home by a young naval officer and used in a patchwork coverlet begun in the same year and finished in 1805, after Trafalgar. (page 31)

Other victories and occasions of the time do not seem to have been immortalised in patchwork patterns, except for the pieces of the Nelson print and an octagonal panel printed on the occasion of Princess Charlotte’s marriage to Prince Leopold in 1816 (page 112).

I would love to know what happened to that coverlet. Does it still survive? And where did Colby learn about it? Did she actually see it?

All truly fascinating stuff (and another research project for another day) but not quite what I was looking for. And Mavis Fitzrandolph’s Traditional Quilting: Its Story and its Practice (Batsford 1954) may have proved a fascinating read about quilters and rural industries but it didn’t provide any clues about Nelson’s Victory.

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Old Patchwork Quilts by Ruth E Finley

Then I stumbled across a copy of Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them by Ruth E Finley published by J P Lippincott in 1929. And there, on page 75, was a diagram of the Nelson’s Victory block.

Finley provides a detailed analysis of different types of quilt blocks and their construction and says that:

The four-patch in general resolves itself into flock, star and wreath designs. But there are notable exceptions, like the Fly Foot and Bow Knot patterns and such well known blocks, based on the same idea yet distinctly different when made up in colour, such as The Pin Wheel and The Churn Dash. Nelson’s Victory, an old Connecticut pattern of the cross variety, is another exception … This pattern was widely used in every-day quilts.

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Nelson’s Victory Blocks in progress, October 2015

So thanks to Finley’s book, I can trace Nelson’s Victory back to 1929. The reference to “an old Connecticut pattern” gives me a further clue and indicates that it was an established block by the time she was writing. So I will carry on searching for clues and hopefully will be able to find out whether my 1905 date is correct. Even if I can’t find the evidence, and even if I turn out to be wrong, I know I’ll learn lots of interesting things about quilts and their history along the way.

Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905? Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block