My quilts spin many yarns

Actually, it wasn't Mum who taught me how to do patchwork. It was Auntie Chris Price, she of the nimble fingers and always-immaculate French pleat.

Auntie Chris was a dream of a relative for a little girl eager to make things. Sure, she could sew and knit and do the ordinary things, but she also had a wealth of exotic know-how at her calloused fingertips.

She could tat. She could make traditional lace - filmy white collars that grew before your eyes as she crossed the wooden bobbins on her blue work cushion. Her daughter Rachel wore them stitched onto her Sunday pinafore.

And Auntie Chris could do patchwork. Patiently, she showed me how to cut out stiff paper shapes and then a cardboard template for the fabric. The template had to be exactly one centimeter wider all the way around.

I chose hexagons. I had pastel-colored dress cutoffs in blue, pink, and mauve, all ready to piece together. Auntie Chris showed me how to baste the paper to the fabric with big running loops that would be easy to unpick later. Each patch had to be joined to the next with tiny over-stitches. Excited, I began to see how my quilt would take shape, just like the giant one on her bed.

I stopped after a grand total of 24 patches. There were other things to do, things that happened faster: matchbox-and-toothpick dolls and house furniture to make, and later, history essays to write.

Sometimes, when I was a teenager and then again in my early 20s when I was struggling to forge a way in my chosen career, Mum would nag gently: "Why don't you get out your patchwork?"

I never did. I had to cross the globe and settle in Zimbabwe before I felt ready to take up my needle again. Patchwork was just about the only craft I could do here, far away from sewing shops and a choice of binca canvas.

My first template was a square glass candleholder, my second a sturdy birthday card. At least they had guaranteed 90 degree right angles. I didn't have a set square.

Old newspaper works as a backing for patches if you can't get shiny thick magazine paper, I found. And even Zimbabwe's sparsely stocked supermarkets have white thread.

Nearly three years on, I have three quilts, one for each year of my unexpected marriage. My quilts have not just my own story in them, but lots of other people's.

Most of my patches are made from old clothes. They have buttonholes on them, odd seams, belt loops that disrupt the smooth surface. They have bits of satin from undergarments. Here and there are splashes of brown velour from an old evening jacket.

That tiny green-check print running round the edge of my second quilt is from my husband's grandfather's old shirt. It had come unraveled at the cuffs.

The shiny purple print with the faint violet line is what's left of a blouse I bought in a Cacharel sale in far-off Paris. It looks much better in a quilt than it ever did on me.

The lilac material with the white trellis work was once a summer dress I bought during a year teaching 17- and 18-year-olds in southern France. I was three-quarters of my way through a language degree, and I bought that lilac dress and a matching black one at a shop just off the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, with my final June paycheck.

That light-colored fabric with the magenta and gold flowers I found enclosed in a parcel from my mother, keen to encourage me in my rediscovered hobby. Years ago, one of my little sisters had a party dress made of that material. It had a ruched bodice and spaghetti straps.

When I got to Zimbabwe, I didn't have enough money to patronize one of the few proper fabric houses here. So when I had no more old clothes of my own to cut up, I haunted local flea markets, picking up second-hand garments with lots of material in them.

Those pink-and-white-striped squares on quilt No. 1 are what's left of a man's pajama top. I bargained for it on a dusty market in the east of the country with my new sister-in-law, Sophia, weeks after my wedding. Then she and I went to the scarf stall and chose ourselves glitzy new-to-us wraps.

That light-blue fabric with the green leaves was a funny, flouncy peasant blouse I found in Harare months later, this time shopping on my own. The market stall vendor couldn't sell it to anyone else.

My quilts are far from perfect. All three of them are simple square patterns. One day I'll attempt another, with one of those musical names that curls off your tongue. I'll try a Rising Star maybe, or a Broken Dishes, or even a Grandma Hattie's Blocks.

I made up my quilts as I went along. The patterns aren't always religiously followed. Sometimes I ran out of sleeve or trouser leg to cut up before I'd finished my row.

Two of them are folded up now in rough-hewn teak chests. I don't have enough beds - not yet anyway - to lay them out on. But when I unfold them on a winter evening, I see the hopes and dreams of 2-1/2 hard but happy years.

I see the hours I spent oversewing the edges, waiting for late-night calls from my family in England. The places where the seams aren't straight are because I was working by candlelight during one of Zimbabwe's frequent power cuts.

To me, they're beautiful.

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