A Step forward for Tilly

As Tilly wiped around the scullery sink in the light of the dying fire, she thought back over the past three years. Since coming to work for Miss Charlotte following the death of her mother, she had not only learnt much more about the running of a household, she was aware of how much she and the elderly lady had come to love each other, despite their difference in station.  Although Tilly still rose at the crack of dawn to attend to the fires, carry up the dainty breakfast tray and start the endless cleaning and laundry, it was now understood that there should always be time each day to sit together stitching at their latest project.

Miss Charlotte had taught Tilly a number of embroidery techniques, and they both enjoyed combining diamonds, triangles or hexagons to make patchwork.

Victorian double-sided babies coverlet
Tilly’s quilting

Tilly’s greatest pleasure though, was still to sit at the quilting frame– she loved the quiet rhythm of her needle rocking up and down, and the extra texture it added to the finished quilt.

Following a visit from Reverend Atkins with her friend Mrs Watson one day, Miss Charlotte announced that she had agreed to join them in sponsoring some prizes for some new Industrial classes at the Barnard Castle Horticultural Show.

Teesdale Mercury 22/1/1890

“Lady Trevelyan has encouraged her villagers to take an interest in the work of art, and spend their spare hours in doing work which would remunerate them; and the Industrial classes at the Cambo Show have included some splendid pieces of work, apparently” Miss Charlotte reported. “I will need to be there of course to see the entries – maybe you would like to come with me, Tilly? I understand that they are putting on special excursion trains.”

Teesdale Mercury 20/8/1890

Tilly enthusiastically agreed – she didn’t get many chances to go beyond the nearby village, and had never even been on a train.

On a rather damp August afternoon, Tilly and Miss Charlotte parted just inside the show entrance.

“We’ll meet in a couple of hours in the Industrial Department tent, and then you can find me a cup of tea” Miss Charlotte decided. “I have spotted some friends of mine over there, so you go off and enjoy yourself for a while”.

Tilly didn’t need asking twice. She sped off to where she could hear the band playing, and after watching the trick cyclists and the Punch & Judy, found her way to see the floral displays and prize vegetables.

Moving into the Industrial tent, she first looked at the model locomotives and the leather work. Then, through the crowds, she spotted something hanging up at the other end of the tent, and pushed her way through.

Breathlessly, she gazed spellbound at the most beautiful quilt she had ever seen. In purest white, it lit up the corner of the tent.

North Country Harle wedding wholecloth

At the centre, there was a huge flower with delicate feathering around each lobe

Centre of North Country Harle wedding wholecloth

A sinuous running feather curled around the inner border, and next to that, perfectly spaced lined circles formed the outer border.

Running feather border of North Country Harle wedding wholecloth

And the stitching! Tilly knew that even her mother had never managed to achieve quilting stitches which were so tiny, neat and even.

Looking at the card beneath it, she was not surprised to see that it had won first prize. “Mrs Simpson of Frosterley” was certainly a woman of talent.

“I would love to be able to quilt like that” she whispered.

“That’s me mam’s” said a young woman standing nearby proudly.

Tilly turned round quickly, and gasped “Oh, your mother made this? It’s wonderful!”

Blushing with pride, the neatly but shabbily dressed young woman introduced herself. “I’m Margaret Simpson, and we’re all quilters in my family. Me mam won second prize for the Quilted Skirt this time too – she nearly always wins prizes in the local shows, and I do sometimes now, too – she’s a great teacher.”

North Country Black taffeta quilted petticoat
Teesdale Mercury 27/08/1890

“Oh, I think I saw your name on the Knitted Ribbed Stockings, didn’t I?” Tilly said

“Yes – I got a second prize for those today. The prize money comes in really useful – my dad’s a quarryman, so any extra we can bring in helps”.

Tilly and Margaret were still happily chatting when Miss Charlotte found them ten minutes later.

“It’s a magnificent achievement” Miss Charlotte declared. “My friend, Mrs Watson has just told me that she intends to present a special prize to Mrs Simpson for this outstanding piece of work”.

Teesdale Mercury 17/9/1890

“Miss Simpson” she asked “Would you be so kind as to present your mother to Mrs Watson and myself? We should like to congratulate her in person.” Delightedly, Margaret sped off to find her, while Tilly pointed out some of the finer features of the quilts to Miss Charlotte.

Even the pouring rain through the railway carriage window on the way home later couldn’t dampen Tilly’s spirits. Although she wished she had taken a notebook to sketch some of the lovely designs on the quilts, her mind was buzzing with ideas and happy memories.

Over the next few weeks, Miss Charlotte occasionally spotted Tilly drawing on scraps of paper. She was able to praise the sketches of the waving “worm” border design they had seen on a nice Turkey Red & Sand strippy quilt.

“I thought I might be able to do something easier like this by myself” Tilly confessed.

Turkey Red & Warm Sand Strippy quilt; worm design

Remembering something her mother used to do, Tilly collected some large leaves as they blew off the trees in the garden, and was able to draw round those in a similar way to make another design

Quilted leaf design
Turkey Red & Warm Sand Strippy; pairs of leaves design

but neither of them could remember enough to properly draw the variation on a cable which they had liked.

Turkey Red & Warm Sand Strippy, cable variation

As November drew on, Miss Charlotte was careful not to let Tilly see some correspondence she had started to engage in, tucking the letters away securely into a pigeonhole in her bureau. She still hadn’t finally decided whether to go through with her plan, even if it proved possible – in many ways she didn’t want to, but in her heart, she knew that would be selfish.

After they had been to church on Christmas morning and lunch had been served, Miss Charlotte asked Tilly to come into her parlour and sit down. Seeing her employer’s serious face, Tilly tried to think what she might have done wrong – she tried so hard to please the gentle lady who was so dear to her.

“Tilly, I have in this envelope, a special gift for you – if you would like it.” Slightly puzzled, Tilly stretched out her arm and took the paper.

After scanning it several times, Tilly looked up, still confused, but with her heart beating. She could read reasonably well, but had never seen a legal document before, and there were a lot of complicated words.

“I can see my name here, and I think this says ‘Mrs Ann Simpson of Bridge End in Frosterley’ but I don’t quite understand” her voice tailed off…..

Louisa Taylor: Indenture papers to a wigmaker, 1886

“This is an indenture, Tilly. If you wish it, and are willing to sign this, Mrs Simpson has agreed to take you on as her apprentice.” Aware that tears were beginning to gather in her eyes, Miss Charlotte continued unsteadily “She would teach you all she knows about quilting; about the stitching, measuring and designing too. You would be promised to her for five years, and although you would receive nothing except your partial board and lodging for the first two years, you would then earn a small wage rising from two shillings a week in the third year to four shillings per week in the final year.”

Although Tilly was by now crying too, the smile which filled her face was sufficient for Miss Charlotte to know what Tilly wanted.

“But how can I leave you here alone? And I will miss you so much!”

“I will miss you too, my dear, and will want to hear of your progress, so the arrangement would be that you will come back every weekend. Rev Atkins has told me of another young girl who is in difficult circumstances, and if you can train her up first, she would take over most of your work here.”

“It’s what I have always wanted” Tilly whispered as she read the document again. Haltingly, she took in the amount of the premium that Miss Charlotte was prepared to pay for her – £20; more than a year’s wages. “What have I done to deserve such generosity?”

“You have made me feel loved and cherished, Tilly, but I can’t keep you here for ever slaving over an old woman,” said Miss Charlotte. “You deserve a life of your own, and it will give me pleasure to see your talent develop.”

Auckland museum thimble from kit, sewing, 1966.243, col.1273, Photographed by Richard Ng, digital, 14 Aug 2018, © Auckland Museum CC BY

As she stood at the upstairs window of her sewing room, Miss Charlotte watched the retreating figure through her opera glasses until Tilly reached the stile leading to the path across the field

And so it was, several months later, that Tilly prepared to set off with her basket on her arm, filled with her provisions for the week. Tucked firmly into the top was her rolled up “housewife” containing needles, scissors and a pretty new thimble – a parting gift from Miss Charlotte.

Miss Charlotte’s opera glasses
Tilly’s path

Without knowing whether she could be seen or not, Tilly took a last look at her home, and gave a final wave:

“I’ll soon be back” she shouted and turned towards the path which lay ahead.

Tilly & Miss Charlotte were first introduced in my 2020 Christmas Story A Patch of Love. Although they are both fictional, Mrs Ann Simpson of Frosterley and her daughter Margaret were real people. Mrs Simpson’s record as a regular prizewinner for her quilting was identified by Joan Foster in her British Quilt Studies Group paper “Competitive Quilting from Northumberland and Durham from 1870 – 1919” which was the inspiration for this story. If you are interested, the paper is included in Quilt Studies Journal 20 which can be purchased from the Quilters’ Guild Shop. Newspaper extracts are from the Teesdale Mercury Archive and the quilts illustrated are all from my personal collection – click on the pictures to read more about these.

If you have enjoyed this story, and would like a copy to keep or print out, you can “buy” a free download at A Step forward for Tilly in my online Shop.

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.