Making cushions for people with dementia

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On 23 June I was lucky enough to be involved in the end of project conference or, more accurately, celebration for the Tangible Memories project at the University of Bristol.  Most big projects which are funded by the big, official research councils, which are Government funding bodies, insist on a big day at the end when you tell the world about what you have been doing and how it will change the world.  This project was run by Helen Manchester, who works in the Graduate School of Education at Bristol, and her lovely team, Pete and Seana.
The aim of the project is to design technology, or uses for existing technology to make life easier for older people.  The idea is create opportunities for conversations between the residents in care homes, their carers, their relatives and each other, and to work with people with advanced dementia on memory projects.  The memory work also helps older people to overcome feelings of unworthiness and being invisible.
I got involved via Bristol Quilters, when Helen asked me if I could round up a posse to make some cushions to hold small speakers so that people could listen to music and have the sensation of a soft cushion.  This is the cushion in use:
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The quilters, of course, rose to the occasion magnificently, making prototypes, and on the day, showing people a variety of techniques to personalise their cushions.
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I found myself needing to rustle up three cushions before the day with very little time as I had had a fantastic weekend with my Danish family and hadn’t had an opportunity to make anything.  I had a flash of inspiration and came up with a no-sew cushion, which I think I must have seen in a magazine somewhere.  So, I glued on the pocket for the technology with a hot-glue gun, and then wrapped the pad in a vintage silk scarf which I knotted on the front.  They look surprisingly good.  I had been saving the scarves to make a shower curtain, and they had brilliant seventies designs and were mostly pure silk and so they looked rather sumptuous.  I thought you could probably use a favourite scarf of the person you were making it for, and you could change it according to the season.  I might hunt out some more and make some for myself.  They are surprisingly cheap and easy to come by.
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One of the exercises we did on the day was to think about the sort of care home we would like to have ourselves.  It’s quite hard to think about this, but it did make me think what I would want.  One of the themes of the day was loss – which objects do you choose to take with you and which do you choose to leave behind?  Out of all this, I realised the importance of stash, space and studio.  I would hate to have to leave my collections of things behind: fabric, beads, books, sketchbooks, sewing machines, art materials, dolls, pens…  I like having the contacts and the networks I have – my personal space in which I can make things with a certain ease.  I also love having a dedicated space to do my work in – especially since the big clear-up.  I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up all this to sit round watching endless game shows on the tv.
So, I enjoyed watching everyone pile in for the making session, and I really loved playing with the technology, including the virtual reality headsets, but a main and unexpected outcome for me was realising what I have and what I would miss.
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What I did at the weekend, or, the joy of having the right tools

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It’s a bit of a stitcher’s post today, although it rings true for anyone practising their craft, I suspect.

Over the weekend I had to make some prototype cushions for a project we are doing at the University, called Tangible Memories.  The idea is that people with dementia benefit from music and singing and so the team led by the estimable Helen Manchester are making small cushions to put mp3 players in.  This involves making buttoned pockets.

I volunteered to make a couple, and so, had to make buttonholes.  I have done this plenty of times before but a. not recently, and b. not on very thick furnishing fabric, as we wanted to have texture as well.  So, I vaguely remembered how to do it, but being me, couldn’t be bothered to find the instructions for the machine.  In the event I remembered there was a special foot.

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And after much trial and error, I got the hang of it:

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And, as you can see from the second photo, I decided to make the inner buttoned pockets from a much lighter fabric, and to do loops and buttons on the heavy stuff.  I could probably have made it work on the heavy furnishing fabric, but I fear life is too short and walls don’t deserve to have things flung at them when it is clearly not their fault.

Once I had the hang of it, it was clear that it is pretty straightforward if you have the right foot on the machine.  When it came to stitching all those layers of heavy furnishing fabric together I actually managed to find my walking foot, which was a birthday present years ago and, once you can fit it on, which is a real fiddle, is a brilliant tool:

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It lives in this pristine little box in a drawer.  I also used my quilter’s foot with its quarter inch guide to make a block for a Bristol Quilters‘ project and even that came out with the points more or less meeting.  I like having these gadgets, and I find it fun, of all things, to use them.

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Alison Moger at Bristol Quilters

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This post is about lovely Alison Moger’s visit to Bristol Quilters last night, but it is also about synchronicity and that feeling that the whole world is coming together to help you in your work, which is a bit delusional, but most definitely seems to happen to people when they are in ‘flow’ with a project.

Alison Moger is textile artist who is interested in community narratives, specifically the narratives of families and place.  She makes pieces about women’s lives and concerns, working on recycled domestic textiles such as tablecloths, tea towels, tray cloths and shawls.  She then prints and embroiders and burns and bleaches and patches them into textiles which capture the story she wants to tell.  The stories are about women’s lives and how they have changed over the past couple of decades.  She has done commissioned work on hospital wards for people with Alzheimers making wallpaper from blown up stitched pieces which allowed the patients to navigate the space through pictures but also to remember how they used to do embroidery themselves.  She did what sounds like fascinating work in South Wales with families from the area affected by the recent wave of young people’s suicides to celebrate what was good about the community and to commemorate the dead.

She is Welsh herself, and makes pieces to preserve Welsh culture.  So there were pieces about the ‘Fair People’ who had, like herself, blond hair and were mistrusted in a community of the dark-haired, and stories from the Mabinogion with its attendant seasonal customs such as the skeleton horse who seems to have been some sort of trick or treat character.  She also talked about going on holiday to Porthcawl on the coal lorry when the holiday-makers took their own furniture on the truck to camp with.  The posh person with the caravan became the leader of the field kitchen.  Then they all waited for the lorry to return home.  I liked her idea of working into and onto tea towels because women often work out their problems while doing the washing up, and her invaluable advice, ‘Don’t go out with a man from Bridgend Road, especially if he keeps greyhounds.’

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So, it was a fascinating talk, and the work was really lovely.  But over and above that, I was intrigued to see just how closely our interests overlapped.  I am interested in textiles and their connections to women’s lives and identities.  I am increasingly interested in memory and aging.  And I am getting involved in working on community pieces which will have some connection to changing the world around me.  I had had a great conversation with a colleague about this at the university earlier in the day.  It felt like the universe telling me I was on the right path and to keep going as there are allies and helpers out there.  That is a bit Californian wacky-woo-woo New Age for me, but it was a good feeling.