Tilly took one last look around the cottage from the doorway. Almost all the possessions and furniture that she had grown up with had been sold to pay the debts which had built up during her mother’s last illness, leaving only bare floors and a cold fireplace.
Picking up the bundle and the basket containing her few memories, she turned to the man with the clerical collar waiting outside.
“I’m ready” she said.
“I’ll take you to Miss Charlotte’s then” he said, and led her to the pony and trap.
After a half-hour journey across the moors, they drew up outside an isolated grey stone house.
As Tilly said goodbye, she thanked the vicar for his kindness over the last few weeks, and his help finding her a position as a maid. Going into service was not perhaps the future she or her mother would have chosen, but she had little option now.
Miss Charlotte looked Tilly over.
“You look quite well grown, child” she commented. “Twelve, I think Rev Atkins said?”
Tilly nodded shyly.
“And you can read, he tells me, and sew well?”
“Yes, Ma’am. They taught us to read at Sunday school, but not how to write. My mother taught me to clean and to sew.”
“I made up my dress using the material you sent for me, as you can see.” Tilly put down her belongings, and took off her shawl.
The lavender print fabric had been an unexpected arrival, and although it had been a struggle to complete it in time, she felt quite proud of the results.
The pretty colour was a welcome change from the usual, economical dark blue, where the indigo dye was inclined to rub off onto other things, even after a few washes.
I can see that your mother taught you well” Miss Charlotte said quietly. Tilly nodded, not daring to speak again, as tears threatened to spill from her eyes.
The tears did flow a little later, as she undid the string on her large bundle in the tiny bedroom she had been given at the top of the house. The familiar patchwork, with its bright colours, was the one thing she had insisted on keeping. As a child, she had enjoyed finding her favourite pieces when playing on her parent’s bed, and she had slept under it with her mother since the early death of her father.
It was too big really for the single bed, but it brightened up the spartan surroundings as she spread it out. And she knew it would remind her every day of the person who had made it.
Tilly soon got used to the routine expected of her. Mrs Worthington, the cook came in every day from the nearby hamlet, and her husband, Samuel looked after the garden and any maintenance, but Tilly was responsible for everything else. Up at dawn, she dusted, scrubbed, washed and polished until nightfall.
The only time she got to sit still were the days when there was mending to be done. Then she enjoyed sitting by the window in the sewing room, neatly darning and patching.
When possible, she tried to find an excuse to linger in Miss Charlotte’s room in the afternoon, when the old lady liked to do her needlework. She particularly enjoyed sneaking quick glances at a beautiful piece of patchwork, which had been framed and put on the wall. Tiny stars had been stitched exquisitely from silk ribbons – Tilly was in awe, not only of the skill it had needed, but also the degree of leisure time available to her mistress in order to make it.
One particularly dreary afternoon, when she could see her mistress struggling to thread her needle in the poor light, Tilly plucked up courage and offered to help. Miss Charlotte smiled gratefully and accepted instantly.
“My eyes are not as good as they used to be, even with these glasses”, the old lady confessed. For a few happy minutes, Tilly threaded needles ready with all the different colours of crewel wool that were being used for the embroidery, while they discussed the developing design – a William Morris, Miss Charlotte told her.
One bright day the following Autumn, Tilly was accompanying Miss Charlotte on a rare trip to the nearest small town. She gratefully put down her heavy basket in the draper’s shop, and gazed round at the bolts of fabrics on the shelves, while the shop assistant served her mistress.
“Now, I will take ten yards of the plain Turkey Red, and ten yards of the white”, Miss Charlotte stated. Into Tilly’s basket went the fabric, neatly wrapped in brown paper.
Back home Tilly watched curiously as Miss Charlotte took out a pencil and some drawing paper.
“Could you go down to the kitchen, and fetch a dinner plate please, Tilly?” This was used to draw a curve on each side of a 6” square, which was then cut out.
By the time Tilly saw the fabric again the next afternoon, quite a bit of it had been cut into piles of red and white pieces.
“Come and see, Tilly. I take these four curved red pieces away from the red square, and place them around the white one, and put the white pieces against the red centre in their place.” Miss Charlotte looked up at Tilly’s delighted face as she saw the pattern emerge. “Its called ‘Rob Peter to Pay Paul’” she explained. “I saw one like this a few years ago, and always wanted to try it. Now, could you thread some needles for me, and I can start stitching.”
The patchwork quickly started to grow over the next few days. One day, Miss Charlotte suggested that Tilly could stitch a section, and showed her how to pin the curves carefully.
Soon, Miss Charlotte was asking Tilly to stitch for at least an hour a day with her.
“We need to try to get this finished as soon as possible, and my arthritic hands are finding it increasingly difficult” she said. “We have a visitor coming for Christmas – my great nephew, Edward. He has grown up in India, but he is coming back to go to boarding school in England. I hope that he will enjoy having something so bright and cheerful on his bed”
“Have you decided how you are going to quilt it?” Tilly asked?
There was an awkward pause. “Actually, I was just going to line it,” Miss Charlotte said “I don’t know how to do quilting.”
Tilly stared in astonishment. “But I do”, she burst out “People paid my mother to make quilts for them, and I was learning from her, so that I could become a quilter too. The quilting makes it look so lovely.” Then, realising that she had overstepped the mark, and been impertinent, she stammeringly tried to apologise.
“No, don’t apologise, Tilly – you have a useful skill which I do not. I wonder if you would be so good as to teach me how to quilt? The little boy will need the extra layer to keep him warm – it will feel so cold to him here.”
And so (with some embarrassment to them both) Tilly found herself explaining to Samuel how to make a quilting frame, and set it up resting on the arms of some dining chairs in the sewing room.
While she stitched the end of the backing fabric across the tape nailed to one of the long pieces of wood, Miss Charlotte quietly picked up the basket of neglected mending.
“I’ll just darn a few of these stockings while you do that” she said with a smile “I’m keeping you from your usual work, and we don’t want Mrs Worthington shouting at us, do we?” Tilly tried to protest that this was not work fit for a lady, but Miss Charlotte insisted.
“My mother considered it part of a lady’s education to know all about domestic tasks; she expected me to marry a gentleman, and be capable of running a large household. It didn’t work out like that, but I haven’t forgotten everything I was taught.”
After fitting the newly made stretchers at the sides to complete the long rectangular frame, Tilly then spread the cotton wadding over the first section of the backing fabric, and then covered it with the end of the completed patchwork top, to which she had machine stitched three borders, alternating between red and white.
As she sat at the frame, ready at last to start the quilting, Tilly felt a little flutter of excitement. They had decided to start with a big cable across all three borders, and she had made a cardboard template the correct size.
Laying it down on the right-hand end of the layered quilt, she held a large needle vertically against it, and “scratched” around the outside, and around the small “eye” cut in the middle. The template was moved along, and marked again, until she reached the other end. Because it was a continuous line pattern, it was an easy one to get back into the quilting rhythm, and Miss Charlotte watched as Tilly’s needle rocked up and down, forming neat lines of stitching, as she first did the outline, and then filled in the strands of the cable by eye.
But although Tilly tried her best to explain, Miss Charlotte just could not get the hang of quilting. Her stitches were uneven, and crooked, and looked big and ugly beside Tilly’s neat quilting.
She was also much slower than Tilly, and Miss Charlotte started to worry that the quilt would not be finished by the time Edward arrived on Christmas Eve.
The final straw came when Mrs Worthington and Samuel both went down with flu a week before Christmas. They stayed away in their own cottage to make sure that they didn’t expose their mistress to infection, but it left Tilly with a lot of extra work to do.
After Miss Charlotte had finished the solitary meal that Tilly had served her in the dining room, Miss Charlotte thought that she would help by taking the dirty plates down to the kitchen. She found Tilly up to her elbows in a sinkful of washing up, and ordered her to step aside.
“Now, I am going to do that – it will ease my hands to have them in hot water for a while. You go and get on with that quilting.”
Tilly’s horrified protests were ignored, and she was sent away upstairs to get on with quilting the tulips.
Miss Charlotte looked around the dirty kitchen, and her heart went out to the young girl who tackled all this, day in and day out for her benefit. Finding one of Mrs Worthington’s large aprons, she set to work. She soon discovered that greasy pots and pans were less pleasant than the few dainty tea cups that she had been shown how to wash by her governess, and that she needed to keep the large kettle boiling to provide enough hot water. However, she stuck at it, and was just wiping down the large kitchen table when Tilly came down to make sure that the range was stoked up sufficiently to keep burning all night.
For the next few days, Miss Charlotte became much more familiar with the running of her household behind the scenes. She cooked the few simple meals that she knew, swept the floors, cleaned Edward’s bedroom and made up the bed for him.
Tilly was working hard too. Her back ached, and her eyes were sore, but the quilting was progressing swiftly to their mutual satisfaction.
Once Miss Charlotte found Tilly fast asleep slumped over the quilting frame late at night, and sent her up to bed before adding a few more amateurish tulips herself.
Tilly didn’t even spot that Miss Charlotte had taken to bringing in the coal each day, realising that the girl would have to spend precious time cleaning her hands and changing her apron before getting back to the quilting frame. For the first time in many years, Miss Charlotte went up the attic stairs and into the maid’s bedroom, and then returned, carefully carrying the brimming chamber pot downstairs to her own water closet to be emptied and scoured, along with her own.
By the time Tilly heard a carriage draw up at twilight on Christmas Eve, she was well into the last border.
She looked out, and watched as Miss Charlotte guided a thin, shivering child up the front steps. As arranged, she ran downstairs, served them all some hot soup, and then helped Edward to bed with a stone hot water bottle at his feet.
She and Miss Charlotte looked at each other, and then hurried back to the sewing room. While Tilly put the last few quilting stitches into the final cable, Miss Charlotte measured and cut the long strips of red fabric needed for the binding.
After taking the quilt off the frame, they started stitching on the red binding, each starting at opposite sides so that they could work on it together.
At last it was finished, and Tilly stretched as Miss Charlotte fastened off the last threads.
“Come on”, she said “lets go and give Edward something worth waking up to in the morning”. They stood together at the foot of the bed, and then spread the red and white quilt gently over the sleeping child.
As Tilly went to pull the curtains closer together, she saw a group of people gathering around the door. “Look” she whispered “Carol singers!” Miss Charlotte put her arm round Tilly’s shoulders, and after a moment’s hesitation, Tilly slid an arm round the old lady’s waist, leaning her head on her shoulder as they watched and listened to the voices rising through the chilly air.
“Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour
All for love’s sake becamest poor.
Thrones for a manger didst surrender
Sapphire paved courts for stable floor
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour
All for love’s sake becamest poor.”
Christmas carol by Frank Houghton
Christmas had come.
A sequel to this story is now available. If you would like to discover what happens to Tilly next, go to A Step forward for Tilly . Both illustrated stories are available as pdf downloads in my online Shop if you would like to print out to pass for someone else to read.
All of the antique quilts featured in this story are in my Collection. Click on the links to see more details and photographs in the Antique Quilts pages of this website.
If you would like to learn more about the British quiltmaking, have a look at details of my online Heritage Quilt Club, or at the Study Videos in the Antique quilt study section of my online Shop.