Thank you so much dear readers! I woke this morning, wondering why it is that bed NEVER feels so magical in the evening. Outside was dark with the deepening of autumn and as I summoned the strength to shed the covers, the need to be at a city hospital by 7.45 for prac was setting off butterflies in my stomach. So much to do. But then, cup of tea in hand, I paused to read my emails – and the lovely words you shared about my return to university gave me such a wonderful boost. Breakfast was prepared and shared, clothes were ironed and donned, bags packed, beds made and chickens let out and fed. Off I went into the gloomy dawn and my heart was cheerful with your encouragement and friendship. I am so very blessed.
And now, tonight, I have a wee story to tell – one that I was reminded of as I pulled on this favourite skirt this morning.
This is Ruth’s skirt. Ruth Stoneley – one of the pioneers of Australia’s quilting revival in the 1980s. She opened a wee store on the steep slopes of Highgate Hill and for many years, was Brisbane’s only patchwork store. She was immensely talented – her store was filled with rich fabrics from around the world and gorgeous samples. Every visit filled me with more passion for lovely fabrics and quilts. And yet, I found Ruth quite scary. She was very tall, supremely elegant with a thick bob of silver gray pulled loosely back to her nape with a bar clip, and more than a little intimidating. I never took a class with her – I scuttled about the store, bought my fabric – almost apologetically – and darted away before I could draw her attention – which I was convinced would find me wanting.
Then, in the early 2000s, she closed her store. Everything was sold. Including so many of her lovely samples – including this skirt. It was one of many she had made to promote her skirt pattern and its accompanying classes. One that she regularly wore. Being a good 4 inches shorter than Ruth, it is very long on me – sweeps the tops of my shoes – but I was oh so delighted to have something so beautiful that one of my heroes – a true Patchwork Goddess – had made and worn.
Fast forward five years. Ruth was teaching at the Quilter’s Store and once again, offering classes in skirt making. I signed up. Well, you should have seen me the morning of the class. I was truly pathetic. The bed was piled with clothes – nothing looked good enough to wear in Ruth’s class. I did my hair umpteen times – everything looked silly and contrived compared to Ruth’s effortless style. Makeup and jewellery went on, came off, went on, came off. All this before I’d even chosen the fabric for my skirt – a combination which would undoubtedly look dull compared to what Ruth would choose.
By the time I arrived, my mouth was parched, my stomach churning, my palms sweaty. I walked slowly downstairs to the classroom, hoping other students would be there before me so that I wouldn’t have to make conversation with Ruth by myself – ’cause I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say. I walked in, telling myself to get. a. grip. It was just a patchwork class.
There Ruth sat. She was so thin and frail. Her porcelain like skin was grey, dessicated and blotchy. A skewed scarf covered some of her almost bald head. Wispy bits of crinkly white hair covered the rest. Another student was there. We sat down. Ruth began to make small talk and then, began to cry. So did we, as she shared her story of breast cancer, painful treatment, and the coming granddaughter she was terrified she would never meet.
And I had fretted over clothes. The morning I spent with Ruth Stonely, choosing fabrics and making skirts, as she shared so much of herself and what she loved, was one of the most illuminating mornings I have ever experienced. It yanked into such sharp relief the ridiculous manner in which I conjured up all sorts of anxieties for myself. How resolutely I judged other people. How readily I pushed them up onto a pedestal from below which I thought I knew everything about them, how they would behave, what they would think and say, and how they would judge me. I was so busy writing other people’s scripts, I hadn’t realised that the only person who needed a good smack over the head was me.
It was so very humbling. And an absolute privilege to share one morning with a woman who had so much to give. Ruth died less than 9 months later. So very sad for her – she didn’t want to go – and such a loss for her family and the wider quilting community.
I wear Ruth’s skirt every week. And every time I pull it on, I think of her and keep working on looking at every person I meet with clear eyes and heart. As the long, full folds of Ruth’s skirt swish about my legs, they remind me that a person’s story is theirs to tell, not mine to construct.