My Journey through a Craft World

Saoirse’s quilt

I remember well as a child, my mother sitting at a sewing machine and making clothes for me. She also knitted jumpers and cardigans. Her own mother was a wonderful sewer and could turn her hand to anything. Cooking, baking and all these domestic skills were the norm for women and indeed men at the time. I inherited my love of cooking from my mother and grandmother and mastered the art of baking from them too. Some were better bakers than others. My Auntie Daisy at home in Caherlevoy made the most delicious pies and we often picked black huts (Freacháins) for her. My paternal grandmother from Tournafulla was a seamstress. Even though she died while I was still young, her quilts lived for a long time after her. For each of her children she made a patchwork quilt. It seemed to be the most magical thing, made from various scraps of fabric ranging from old coats, ties, shirts and dresses. It was full of colour and was displayed on my parents’ bed with much pride.
As I grew older and started Secondary school, I was put in a class that studied the Sciences, Chemistry, Physics and Biology. I envied the girls who were able to take Home Economics. It was a lifelong ambition of mine to be able to make a quilt like my grandmothers. I was, in fact, a grandmother myself before I finally got the opportunity to learn the art of sewing.
In 2010, I heard of a course that was to take place in Listowel. I rang and signed up for it. On my first day, I sat in a class of around twelve other ladies, all with different levels of skill sets. I was clearly at a disadvantage as I had none. But I immediately felt a rapport with our teacher, Priscilla Sweeney. She was a little older than me, but infinitely kind and patient. Clearly, she was an artist at heart and saw beauty in almost everything. My first introduction to creativity was through the Colour Wheel. It took me several classes to understand logically and to spiritually feel the magnificence of colour. It continues to be a source of so much joy that I’ve concluded that my life before the Wheel must have been viewed most of the time in black and white. The natural order of the course was to introduce the class to most creative mediums, and while I enjoyed most of them, I really wanted to learn how to sew. Priscilla sat me down at a sewing machine some weeks later. She’d realised that this was my big ambition, and as I clearly would never make an artist (I couldn’t colour between two black lines!), she set about showing me the workings of a sewing machine. Every broken needle, every messed- up bobbin, every stitch that went awry all served to teach me how to sew. Priscilla would dismiss every mistake. “There’s no such thing as a mistake” she’d insist when I’d point out a wonky square or an off-centre seam. “It’s all art” she’d declare. It took several weeks for me to be confident enough to try it myself. But I discovered a hunger in me to succeed, the making of a quilt still the ultimate goal. Finally, I succeeded, and my first quilt was made. I admit that I’ve never made a quilt that didn’t have an imperfection of some description, but I loved the process and the end result so much that for many years to come, I would make quilts for babies born in the family, every little grandnephew and grandniece, and of course, my granddaughter had several. Along the way, several smaller projects were completed too like table runners, napkins for a Christmas table, and more. It was such a joyous time I could have taken that class forever. As it turned out, I took it for four years. Two friends of mine, Hilda and Angela from my village, took the class on the second year and continued with me. Both of these ladies are accomplished knitters and sewers, and we had great fun during the course. We completed a class project, a giant patchwork horse that Priscilla proudly hung on the wall of Listowel Racecourse that year. We named the horse “Scallarpi” an anagram of the name Priscilla.
We learned to some extent, many crafts like weaving, macramé, embroidery, appliqué, Batik, furniture upcycling (which I still love), upholstery, ceramics and much more, along the way, making lifelong friends. Priscilla made every class special and unique. She was so generous with her time and her knowledge. At one time during our annual Christmas Market, she allowed us to exhibit some of her many quilts. Another year, she and her friend joined us and taught a special craft class for children during the market. She was always available to us, even outside of class times, at the other end of the phone. It was through her influence that our organisation, Tournafulla Sustainable Living, was initiated. She was a genius at re-using and re-purposing. The organisation continues today and is a strong force within the community, organising Christmas Markets and Summer Fairs, and other events that serves the organisations and people of the parish. The friendship with Priscilla served to introduce us to events like the National Quilt Exhibition, The Annual Craft and Design Show in the RDS, and other events that inspired us. Even after the classes finished, the friendship continued. We would often meet for a coffee and a catch up. She retired from teaching a couple of years later and looked forward to being able to complete projects that she’d started previously.
This time last year, I got a phone call from Priscilla’s daughter. She sadly informed me that her mother had passed away the night before. I was shocked to the core. Priscilla had always seemed healthy and strong, but a sudden illness had claimed her life. As my friends and I travelled to Kerry to pay our last respects and bury our dear friend, sympathy for her family and friends added to our sadness. But the sense of loss we all felt at the time is still strong today. On her grave sat a beautiful colourful wreath of fabric flowers and buttons that she herself had made. I’ll never forget Priscilla, or the journey that led to our friendship, or indeed the incredible joy that she brought to my world and to all who knew and loved her.
In this time of lockdown, she is often in my thoughts. I offer a prayer for her and also my total gratitude for the skills that she has taught me. There’s something immensely satisfying about learning old traditional skills. In many ways, the old ways were best. It had been some time since I pulled out my sewing machine, but last week, I finally did and completed a little cot quilt for my grandson Donagh. It’s no surprise that I did this on the week of Priscilla’s first anniversary. No doubt she was still encouraging me and guiding me from her heavenly workshop. Ar Dheis Lámh Dé go raibh a hAnam dílis.