Marilyn H.


I was born in 1952 in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, UK. I am the second daughter, my older sister was three when I was born.  Mum and dad were thirty and thirty three respectively when I was born.  Both came from families with siblings so we had lots of aunties and uncles.  Dad had spent most of the war years as a prisoner in the Far East.  I don’t remember when this seemed into my consciousness but this knowledge always seems to have been there. Mum spent her life and the war years in outer London.

When I was nine months old the family moved from suburban Kingston to very rural Gloucestershire.  This is where I spent my life until the age of eighteen.  This must have been a huge culture shock for mum, leaving all of her family and living in houses with no electricity and no buses or trains, just countryside.  I then had two brothers, one two and a half years younger and the other five years younger than me.  They were born at home, in our house which had stairs ‘in the cupboard’, actually behind a door in the wall.  The midwife was there and the ‘homehelp’ came to help with the job of raising a family.  So there were six of us all together in our family.  Mum, dad, two girls and two boys.  And Monty the cat and Sally the dog.

I remember playing outside, in a large garden with fields beyond.  Our main friends win the village were the children of a couple who were a similar age to mum and dad and had moved into the village at about the same time.  They were to remain close friends with mum and dad for the rest of their lives.  We would walk to their farm and play, go home at dinner time or have a picnic, go to the woods, endless play outside. That is what I remember anyway.

We moved to another house in the village, still no electricity and a toilet in the shed out the back with a hole in the roof.  It was farther from the main village, an old farmhouse.  Dad would light the ‘tilley lamps’ at night and hang them from hooks.  Baths in front of the Rayburn in the kitchen on a Sunday evening, Fran and I first and then the boys. The water was heated in the ‘copper’.  Dad (and us) grew vegetables and raised chickens. Blackberries were gathered in bucket loads in the autumn for dad to sell to the market in Gloucester, this bought our winter school shoes.  We had very little materially, but I never once felt ‘poor’.  Mum made our clothes, I remember helping and doing my own sewing with her.  She and dad were proud people, and so pleased to be alive, healthy and with a family living in the peaceful rural setting.  That was what was important in life.

My sister and I regularly visited aunts in Surrey and toured the London sights.  We would stay for a week in the summer holidays. When we were older (fifteen and twelve) we were allowed to get the train to London and visit by ourselves.  Mum, having grown up there, was always fine with this.

We went to the local village primary school with about forty other children. I always enjoyed school but don’t remember much about this stage really; outside toilets, country dancing.  The learning part just happened I suppose.  We walked to and from school, up the lane, went home for dinners.  We walked everywhere.

I then went on to senior school which was a comprehensive – one of the first in the country.  Everyone I knew went to the same school. There was only one. If you passed the 11+ exam you were in the ‘A’ stream, and the rest of us were graded according to ability.  I spent my time in the ‘B’ stream with some subjects in the ‘A’.  It was flexible and allowed for each person to move up and down according to their strengths.  I enjoyed senior school too, especially music, needlework, geography and some games lessons.  I also have very fond memories of helping with school plays.  Being in the chorus of musicals, but also backstage, makeup, props, costume.  I stayed in the sixth form and enjoyed theatre trips, geography study trips, all kinds of activities.

I went to ballet classes from the age of about five or six until I left school at eighteen. I loved it.  I auditioned for the Ballet Rambert in London at the age of sixteen but wasn’t strong enough so didn’t follow that route. 

I was a member of the girl guides and also helped with the scouts.  Dad was a scout leader and I remember helping out in all sorts of ways.  Camping in the Forest of Dean, great fun and freedom.  Playing the guitar round the camp fire. 

We attended Sunday school and church, it seemed the normal thing to do and we sang in the choir.

Teenage years were spent at school, pursuing the activities mentioned and wandering around with my sister or friends.  At the age of twelve, my baby sister was born.  She was fascinating to me, many happy days were spent pushing her pram along the lanes in the village. 

My memories of mum are of a woman who seemed to be pregnant of looking after small babies and children.  She was at home; she cooked, sewed, did everything a mum did.  Occasionally she dressed up and went to Women’s Institute.  Dad went to work in the car and worked in the garden or at his woodwork.  He was a quiet man, but always welcoming and kind.  I spent much time with him doing all kinds of things. He even used to take my sister and I to the theatre in Cheltenham to see the ballet.  What a special treat.  Sundays would involve a roast dinner followed by a family outing in the car.  Drive, walk, run, home for tea, bath and bed.  Family holidays every couple of years at the seaside.  Nothing fancy just a caravan or cottage seaside and a picnic.  More freedom, visiting places of interest.

My older sister went off to teacher training college.  I used to visit her sometimes, it was very grown up and looked such fun.  The freedom! 

I did a paper round for my ‘Saturday’ job.  Lots of my friends worked in a shop on Saturday but I liked the papers.  Each morning before school.  I earned the same as them but still had Saturday for ballet class etc so it was ideal for me.  We picked blackcurrants for summer work to earn holiday money.  Worked in the packing sheds, packing lettuce, celery and tomatoes. Rural work in a rural area.

I learnt to play the piano during senior school years, and this became a lifelong interest.  Bought a guitar with some of my job money and spent many hours then and in the future playing at folk club.  Long flowered skirts, bare feet, hippy make up, guitar, camping, holidaying with friends families – sums up summers in the late 60’s.

I wanted to go into theatre/ballet costume work when I left school but didn’t make it into Art College and had no local theatres for apprenticeships. In the end I decided that the best option was to train as a needlework teacher. I wanted to be involved with needlework in some way and this would give me the opportunity to leave home and become independent.  I had seen this kind of life whilst visiting my sister. I left home in Gloucestershire and went to college in Essex.  Essex was to be my home for the next twenty years.

I had a lovely, happy, secure childhood with loving, trusting parents but was now ready to find out about life myself.  Three years at teacher training college studying Dress and Design and Art to become a secondary school teacher, teaching children from eleven to eighteen years of age.  It was a college by the sea, I have always loved the sea.  I learnt a great deal about all aspects of my subjects as well as life lessons.  Played the guitar, sang, drank, met boyfriends etc.  On Saturdays us needlework girls would run up skirts and dresses for our friends to wear to the disco that night.

I met my future husband in the 2nd year at college, he was at the university nearby and a year ahead of me.  We spent a great deal of time together and went on an eight week summer holiday camping around Europe together.  He left to begin his career and I focused on completing my final year.  At the end of it my options were – get a job near him and get married, (there was no living together then, not for me at any rate), get a job near home or go somewhere totally different. Lots of our friends were getting engaged and married so that was what we decided to do.  I got a job near him and we got married nine months later at the grand age of twenty two!

We had a wonderful time, our own house, dinner parties, meeting friends and family, being newly married. Our children arrived when I was in my late twenties.  Emily when I was twenty six and Michael when I was twenty nine.  I finished work and became a full time mum.  I loved it, everything about it.   Playing, reading, walks. Making their clothes, helping them develop their creativity.  It was what all of us new mums did.  Husbands worked flat out developing their careers and the wives brought up the children.  When my son was four I looked at going back to work and decided to retrain as a Home Economics teacher so that I would have more options.  Then I met the love of my life.  I split up with my first husband, remarried and began a different lifestyle.  During the week I had my two children and worked part time, at weekends and holidays they would either be with their dad which meant we had time to ourselves or they and my step children would be with us. This was the pattern for the remainder of their growing up years.  I went back to teaching Textiles and Home Economics.  In 1997 my daughter went off to university to read music followed a couple of years later by my son.

At around this time I decided to focus more on my own creative work and embarked on a distance learning programme studying City and Guilds Embroidery which lasted about six years in total.

Mum and dad both died from cancer in 2000, just six months apart.  Mum was in the same ward and was wheeled along to be with dad when he died. This all tore me apart.  Such overwhelming sorrow.  They had always been my rock, so dependable, always there. It took a lot of getting over.  My husband, siblings and the bereavement counsellor all came to the rescue. We are a close group, the five of us siblings, and have held together to support each other and come through.  At about this time I hurt my back in a ski accident and decided to quit teaching.  I embarked on a new career and set up my own bridal dressmaking business. This has served me well for nearly fourteen years now.

Following the successful completion of my City and Guilds, I decided to carry on to the part time degree programme. This led to many wonderful friendships, new challenges and the joining of the exhibiting group Prism.  Following graduation, we took our degree show to ‘Festival of threads’ in Toronto and on to a gallery in Germany.  Distance learning gives you friends around the world!  Five of us decided to set up an exhibiting group of our own, to support each other, challenge ourselves and exhibit regularly. 

My children are both independent now and my husband and I are fortunate to have a little bolt hole in Cumbria which we escape to for mountain walking and enjoyment of the great outdoors.  I love the garden, visiting the theatre for ballet and plays, concerts, museums and galleries.  To be within reach of the city is wonderful.  Recently I have discovered family history which has become my new addiction, so fascinating.

This year I have decided to retire and close my dressmaking business.  Enough of deadlines and stressed brides and their mothers. I have really enjoyed doing it and know I was good at it.  I have always been good at fine quality dressmaking.  I don’t remember ever not being able to do it.

I have two sides to my textiles – neat, perfect, precise, clean

That about sums up my life in a very brief way.  Each bit could become an essay in itself. 
I realise am rooted in my family, both the immediate and extended.

My work is abstract and conceptual.  I didn’t really plan it that way, it just evolved.  I know that I haven’t been interested in representational work for a long time. Sometimes I research around an area and let the information that I find gradually seep in and form into ideas.
Other times there are exhibition titles to work towards. These spend time in my head.  Thinking, forming ideas, dismissing, rethinking.

Then there are the times when I just do what feels right at that moment.
So sometimes my work is carefully planned and thought through other times it is spontaneous.  And I have to say that it is the spontaneous that usually leads to the work I am most happy with, that feels most like ‘me’.

I love sketchbooks and am working at overcoming the challenge of facing the clean white page! They are a way of focusing, observing and seeing what is out there.  They don’t act as visuals for my textile work but might inform colour choices. I have, over these weeks, realised that journaling is a brilliant way of getting the muddle out of my head. Written down it is safe, won’t get lost or forgotten, so I can let it go and allow new ideas in. Mind mapping has also taken on new significance.  Aligning everything is so important and positive.

I use hand running stitch for nearly everything.  The process is a form of meditation, a thinking and reflective time. I work with natural fabrics, often off cuts.  Strips have featured in much of my recent work and I would now like to explore piecing more.

Indigo surfaces each summer but often runs its course by autumn.  It is a summer delight.
I would like to explore natural dyeing – it is something I haven’t done but would be a lovely way of introducing subtle colour.  I am not a colour person – tending towards monochrome.  The cloth, the stitch and the texture are most important to me.

Cloth, natural cloth.  Embedding myself into it with stitch, bringing it to life, helping it along its journey. Cloths have stories to tell.  They are full of meaning, old cloths, Boro cloths etc.

My passion is cloth – it is essential to us from the cradle to the grave, but it is also precious.  I hadn’t identified this as a passion in the earlier lesson, but now realise how fundamental it is to my practice.

Remembering – bearing witness to people and places that have had a significance during my life.
Freedom – to be who I truly am and to express myself through my art.
Family – without them all I would be quite lonely.
The natural world – the great, wild, unspoilt places.