Working Lives

Seams and stitches of my life (1948-1986)

Location: Dereham

Dorothy moved Norfolk when she was five years old. She loved needlework at school and is passionate about quilting and embroidery to this day.

I was born in 1926, in a village on the borders of Wiltshire and Gloucestershire called Willesley. We moved to Norfolk when I was two and, as my father was a Norfolk man, it was like coming home to him I think. We lived at Great Witchingham and I went to Great Witchingham primary school when I was five years old. I can’t remember much about it, except that the first day we sat on mats on the floor and played with bricks.

Needlework at Great Witchingham Primary School

I did learn to read quite quickly and I went up from the infant room into the junior room, where the teacher was Miss Utting. I’ve realised as I got older that she must have been a wonderful Needlework teacher, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I think she brought out all the things in me that were probably inherited from the family, because my mother was an expert knitter; she taught me to knit when I was very young; my father had four sisters, who were all needlewomen, and my mother’s sister was a dressmaker.


I have a book with samples of all sorts of work in it, which I must have done by the time I was 11½ years old, because I left then and went to school in Norwich.

I knitted a miniature heel and toe of a sock and some of a glove. I did bindings and buttonholes, different scenes, patches and bits of embroidery. Another thing that went in the book was darning. So it’s an example of the things we learned all those years ago that at that time were useful and it stayed with me all my life.

I’m glad I kept it; it’s something that modern young people don’t even know about. Well they don’t need to know about flannel patches and things like that… I mean it’s an old-fashioned way, but at the time we had to learn to do all of that; even things like making a gusset and gathers for a skirt.

Now, of course, with modern materials that don’t fray so easily and the fact that material is quite expensive, people buy readymade and they don’t sew very much.

Needlework at Blyth Secondary School for Girls

I went to the Blyth Secondary School for Girls, where they did still teach Needlework. I made an apron with my initials embroidered on it and various other things, including a bag with lots of different embroidery stitches on and did it gradually as I went through the school.

When we got a bit older, in the 4th and 5th forms, I don’t think we did Needlework. When I got into the sixth form though and was going to take Higher School Certificate, I was taking Art and the Art teacher said ‘I think it would be a good idea if you did Needlework as part of your Art exams’. I looked at her a bit puzzled and she said ‘well you paint better with a needle than you do with a paintbrush’. So that was what I did. I used to knit at home; I always knitted, always, and I used to embroider things like tablecloths with stencils on, but I didn’t really design anything, except what I’d done at school.

Hockerill Training College, Bishop’s Stortford

I didn’t go to college straightaway, but two years later I went to Hockerill Training College in Bishop’s Stortford and became a teacher. I joined the Craft Group there and we made lots of different things. I had to make something for myself to wear, which was a blouse. I made a fire screen with appliqué and embroidery based on shapes of leaves and flowers out of the college gardens. I made a tea cosy in patchwork and a picture with very fine embroidery thread. I also made a tablecloth and hemstitched the edges with a design on each corner. It was on fine linen and I counted every thread to do it. I actually worked quite a lot on this when I was in sickbay with mumps…

‘Modern’ Embroidery

I did learn a lot from that stitching at college and I went on doing it after I became a teacher. I taught infants, so I didn’t get much chance to teach Needlework then, but I always enjoyed it. At one time I went to a refresher course with a lady at Fakenham. She led me into modern type of embroidery with beads and all sorts of funny things on. I even remember my mother-in-law saying ‘well that’s peculiar’, but it was the modern way. I just picked it up and got interested again in it, for instance, making presents for people.

Canvaswork and the WI

By the early 80s I was living in Norwich after being married and having my children, so I didn’t do much then, of course, except making clothes for them. However, I joined a group doing canvaswork, which set me going on that, because it was embroidery, but in a different way. I had no idea how many different stitches there were for canvaswork. So, of course, I bought all the books and went ahead doing quite a lot of it. In the end I finished up teaching canvaswork to WIs all over Norfolk. I ran classes at WI office in Norwich and I would go out giving talks and trying to encourage people to take it up and I think a lot of them did, so I really enjoyed that.

Canvaswork is a type of embroidery on canvas usually with wool, but you can use other threads as well. A lot of people, of course, nowadays call it tapestry, but actually true tapestries were woven; they were much finer work. Apparently ladies used to sit behind them and work from behind years ago; the big tapestries that are in the National Trust houses and that sort of thing.

There are so many stitches that are such fun to do, so I made charts of them all, which I took with me. I do remember I had to have an interview at WI office to prove that I could teach it. I said ‘to thread wool through the eye of a needle you fold it over the eye and push it through like this’ and I held it up and did it and it didn’t go through… But they forgave me and let me teach it anyway…

Drayton Ladies Patchwork Group

From then on I really did do quite a lot of different things for myself, for my own pleasure. I then decided to join a patchwork group. So a friend and I joined Drayton Ladies Patchwork Group and I was with them about two years. I helped with a lot of things, but I didn’t actually do a lot for myself; but I learned a bit though.

Lap quilt, using up unwanted blocks and practice pieces

Dereham Windmill Quilters

When my husband retired, we moved to Dereham. Then I heard of a lady called Joan Gilliland, who was doing some classes in patchwork. I went to her classes and that was where I really learned to do proper patchwork and from then on, of course, I was hooked and I’ve been doing it ever since. We hadn’t a name at the time, but because there’s a windmill in Dereham we decided to call ourselves Dereham Windmill Quilters. I still belong to that group after all these years, which is probably about 25 years now. So that’s very nice; I enjoy that.

Influences for Embroidery, Canvaswork and Patchwork

With embroidery, or canvaswork, or patchwork, I think I’m influenced by colours as much as anything. I see nice colours and think that they will make something. Not always though, because when I made my granddaughter’s quilt for her 21st birthday, she wanted blues, so blues she had. But sometimes I see a material and I think that would be lovely done in a certain way with other colours and that is what I do.

Eckling Grange

Living as I do in a sheltered bungalow at Eckling Grange, I go over to the Grange and usually do patchwork, or knitting, and make things for our sale that we have once or twice a year to sell on a handicraft stall and it’s nice to be able to do it.

The Linus Charity

I also do patchwork quilts of all sizes for the Linus Charity, which is a charity for children who need a hug. You can make a tiny one, which would go to a hospital for a mum to perhaps hold her stillborn baby in, or a premature baby, or you can make one up to the size of a single bed for an 18 year old. It’s a worldwide organisation, which is very well patronised. They always seem very grateful for the quilts we make. My daughter and I not long ago tried to count up how many quilts I’d made in the years I’ve been doing it and we got as far as 80…

Embroidery, Quilting and Knitting Aran Jumpers

Latterly I’ve gone back to my embroidery, so that now I do quilt, but I also embroider some of the quilting and that makes it a little more interesting. I still knit as well. I’ve knitted eight or nine Aran jumpers for various males in the family and I’m just knitting another one for oldest grandson, who now lives in Tokyo. He had one to take with him and that was his second one. He’s now asked me to knit another one, because he says the Japanese people are so interested in it and I feel I gave him a little bit of British heritage to take. So he’d like me to knit him another one, so he’s got a spare…

Origins of Quilting

Everybody thinks quilting came originally from America, but it didn’t. English people used to make quilts and they would do them by hand always and stitch them carefully. Some ladies made whole quilts, particularly I think in Durham and Wales and they used to stitch round and make these quilts with a quilted pattern all over one piece of material. Their work was so fine, they had to put the needle through and feel it with their finger to make sure that it was through and then come back again to make an even stitch. Very often their fingers bled, because they’d used the needle so much on the skin.

With Joan Gilliland, the first, or one of the first blocks I learned to make was Ohio Star, which is obviously an American name. Of course, Americans did take up quilting and went on with it until they had developed lots and lots of blocks all with different names. They used to get together and have quilting bees and all sit round and help to make quilts, particularly if someone was getting married they would make quilts for their home. In fact, I have read that there were some houses where they made eight quilts between them to set up bedrooms in a home for American girls when they married. That was the sort of tradition they got into and they did add a lot to quilting.

However, going back right to the beginning, quilts were made because they wanted to make use of all the odd materials that they could find. So they used odd bits from everything; scraps were never thrown away; they were always used; always incorporated into quilts. Everyone had a stash of quilt material that they wanted to make into quilts in time and they never threw anything away. That’s why most quilters have lots of drawers full of quilts and full of material as well to make more quilts…

I think some quilters are influenced by areas where they live; some are influenced by materials. I think something starts you off always thinking about what you’re going to make, because of the area, or a colour, or something like that, that you know will just fit into what you’re doing.

Importance of Labelling Work

So I think with everything actually, patchwork, quilting and embroidery, you do it because it pleases you to use that particular colour, or those particular materials and make it something that somebody will enjoy, somebody will really like and use and have as a memory of you. Also everyone who makes any kind of embroidery, or anything, should really put a label on the back with their name and the date on it, because that does make quite a difference when quilts are kept in families over years.

I’ve got one quilt in Germany and two or three in Japan at the moment… So it’s nice to think they’ve been signed, so that people can remember them.

Painting on canvas

Embroidered ‘Painting’

At one time I was doing some canvaswork for a competition and I made a picture of a garden with a green lawn in the middle and a pond. I used colours going all through the colour range; from browns through to oranges, reds, then up through pinks, greens, mauves and purples, blues and down again. I was able to use as many stitches and colours as possible and I really enjoyed doing that. One particular stitch I used for the roses was Norwich stitch. I think it might have been invented by somebody at a class in Norwich at the time, or something like that, because it’s quite a popular stitch now.

Westonbirt Arboretum

When I went to Westonbirt, near where I was born, I took pictures of all the trees in autumn colours and the house where I was born. I then made a book with all those pictures and a canvaswork cover. The cover is pictures of leaves traced round real leaves we brought home from Westonbirt. So that’s a really nice memento of where I was born.


The Patchwork Tea Rooms, Australia

I went to Australia when I was 80 with a friend. We went to a place called The Patchwork Tea Rooms and when you sat and drank your tea, you could look at examples of quilts all round the walls and also the kits that they sold to make them. I bought a kit for a double bed-sized quilt and my friend said ‘you’ll never do it’, but I did. It’s a big quilt and consists of a picture of shops with little rhymes and verses all connected with a girl’s day out shopping. I haven’t now got room to have it on a bed, but it’s hanging on my bedroom wall for me to look at, at night.

That quilt is a combination of embroidery and quilting. I think that’s one of the reasons I went back into embroidery and quilting at the same time. I’ve made one or two things now that involves both and it does really make quite a nice job of it.

Quilts that give Dorothy the most pride

Having made lots of quilts through these years, there are some that I think I’m most proud of. One is my Australian one. Another is the quilt I made my daughter, which is a very big one, which has sides and a bottom bit hanging over and it’s all in creams, greens and beige; very pretty. I made one for my son and his wife. His wife was very fond of everything Egyptian, so it has Egyptian pictures all over it. Lastly, the one that I made my granddaughter for her 21st birthday, including pictures relating to our lives really; different things she likes, her initial is in it, grandmother’s flower garden and grandmother’s fan and so on. So they all seem to belong to that particular quilt and I like that.

In 1997 our quilting group made a double-bed sized quilt in the “Mille-Fleur” design. We raffled it for charity, selling tickets all over the British Isles. At our exhibition in the autumn, the chairman of the local charity came to draw the winning ticket – and the winner was my daughter Kim! £1000 went to the charity. All my patchwork friends felt it was appropriate that Kim won the quilt as that was the year that my husband died.

Hand-made vs. Machine-made Quilts

I did all of those by hand, except for perhaps just putting blocks together and squares together, but otherwise I didn’t use a machine. But times are changing. Many people now use machines to make quilts and to quilt them. Personally I don’t like it; I like hand-quilting. I think hand-quilting is the correct way to do it; it’s an old tradition and I think it should always be done that way.

But, of course, times change; people have machines now that do wonderful things and they do make some beautiful clothes and quilts, but I personally still like the rather old-fashioned way of stitching the blocks together and making a quilt and quilting it by hand. I think that’s really the nicest way and so I shall keep to that while I can anyway.

Dorothy with Verity’s quilt

Dorothy Oldman (b. 1926) talking to WISEArchive in Dereham on 9th February 2017.

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