A rainy afternoon on Broadway Market in May, and Caroline, Bea and Louise of the Shoreditch Sisters are gathering to complete the final stages of their quilt for Liberty. A labour of love measuring over 2 metres on each side, the quilt features hand-embroidered motifs on a background of painstakingly sewn Liberty print squares. As the Sisters stitched, we talked fabrics, feminism and why the WI isn’t all jam and Jerusalem
Louise: When I first moved to London I didn’t know anybody, so I went to the knitting group run by Caroline, so she was one of the first people I met in the WI. I eventually started running the knitting group (because Caroline didn’t want to do it any more) and then we started up a dressmaking group. The quilting has brought a new element to it!
Caroline: We’ve got loads of different groups, like a book club and Radiant Riders who do bike rides around London. There’s a beer one too, like wine appreciation but with beer!
L: It’s not restricted to beer either, it’s all boozes! All alcohols are appreciated. It was originally real ale but now all drink is drunk.
Bea: Who says the WI is boring?
C: I’m the same as Louise; I moved to London and didn’t know anyone. I saw a jewellery company I knew had done a work shop with the WI, and everyone wasn’t in their 80s, so when I moved to East London and discovered the WI was nearby I went along. I don’t think any of us actually live in Shoreditch any more – we’ve been priced out! It’s just a great way to make friends – rather than just meeting people who you work with you meet people you’ve got something in common with.
Buy the Liberty sewing machine
L: The good thing about having different sub groups is even if you’re not into crafts there’s going to be something for you.
B: I came to it slightly differently; I grew up in Switzerland so I had no concept of the WI beyond Calendar Girls, which is not the best intro! I made friends at University but then everyone seemed to leave London, and I’d been crafting for a while but didn’t know anyone else my age who did it. I saw an advert in Time Out for a WI book club that focused on female writers and female protagonists. I was (and still am) an active feminist and it just seemed like the perfect space, there aren’t that many women-only places where women are supportive with each other rather than critical.
C: That’s how we brought what our branch of the WI is about to the quilt – every year we vote on a campaign. One of the ones in around 1945 was for equal pay for women, and in the 20s they campaigned for female police officers, but if you asked the head of the WI if it’s a feminist organisation they’d probably say no. It’s an interpretation of what the word means – there was a debate in our magazine between someone who wouldn’t say they were a feminist and someone who would say they were, I think it’s an age difference. Ladies in their sixties don’t see the need for feminism any more because they think everything’s been done. One of our rules at the WI is we’re political but we have to be neutral, it’s like the BBC. If we had a speaker from one party we’d have to have all the others.
L: We had a guest speaker from Labour but she had to be party neutral – it was a talk about women in politics.
C: One of the designs on the quilt is a feminist – a feminist mermaid! She’s supposed to be the figurehead on a ship.
L: My part is a handshake, which is a traditional sailor tattoo to represent unity. The Strawberry Thief cuff represents Liberty, and the red and white one is our group colours and we’re linking hands. As a traditional sailor tattoo I thought it was a nice fit with the theme.
B: We had to interpret the theme within the WI – it was nautical tattoos.
C: We also thought about the wood beams taken from the two ships Liberty was built from, we even had pictures of them. Because there’s so much embroidery, it would take one person a year to make this!
B: It’s all hand embroidered and sewn down afterwards
All: We’ve had some late nights!
C: Amazingly we designed it all by consensus, no-one was really in charge, we just made it happen.
L: We hadn’t discussed what we were all actually going to do for our own pieces so when we brought them all together it was really exciting. We were a bit concerned that maybe they’d all be too different, and they are different but it really works. I learned all the names of embroidery stitches while doing this project! If you want to start doing it it’s quite easy. I taught myself on the internet! I had to watch a video for blanket stitch.
Inspired by the Shoreditch Sisters? See the finished quilt on display in-store on the 3rd floor along with the Dalston Darlings’ creation.