For this exercise I chose this cross stitch tapestry that I stitched in my later teens – over 30 years ago.
“Mrs Chicken” features a jolly hen design surrounded by flowers. I made it up into a cushion cover and it used to sit on the sofa in our living room, initially whilst I was still at home with the parents and then later in my own home. When we moved house 2 years ago it was packed in a box with a lot of my fabric and yarns that I have only recently been able to sort out. It needs a really good wash so I am waiting for a sunny day to hand wash it and hang outside to dry.
Every year from the ages of 7 to 17 (apart from 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to the Greek military backed coup) I and my mother spent 3 weeks of the long summer holiday from school staying with my Greek grandparents in a one-bedroom flat in Athens. My father would usually join us for one of these weeks but no longer as he was working hard running his own shop and couldn’t spare the time away. I, and my parents are only children and so these holidays were a bit boring for a child who couldn’t speak the language of the family she only saw for a handful of days a year and there were not many children of my own age to play with. A lot of my time was spent reading. My mother (who also did not speak Greek in those days) and I would fill one of our suitcases with library books to keep us entertained while the olds were watching either one of the two televisions stations of an evening. I especially found the afternoon siesta tedious because I wasn’t used to sleeping in the middle of the day.
Amalia Megapanou’s tapestry design pattern books published in the 1980s.
To help combat the boredom my mother found some wonderful books when we visited the Benaki folk museum in the city centre. I still have these books which are printed on glossy paper and full of colourful illustrations of cross stitch designs developed from traditional textiles in the Museum’s collection. The designs from these hand stitched or woven household linens and clothing have been translated into detailed cross stitch charts for tapestry and Mrs Chicken was my favourite. This design comes from Designs From Greek Embroideries Vol I by Amalia Megapanou [Benaki Museum 1981]. The book has a colour plate showing each of the finished tapestries but not the original inspiration for the designs, which is a pity.
I loved going into the haberdashery shop to buy the canvas and choose the correct colours to match the chart in the back of the book. I couldn’t wait to start stitching. I cannot remember how long it took me to complete. Perhaps it was longer than it should have been because I might have run out of one of the colours and had to wait until we next visited Athens to match the correct shade or I might just have put it to one side as I had become bored of stitching the background, I’m not sure. I do remember how soothing it was stitching the crosses one after the other. I am one of those people who can get lost in a repetitve activity and my mind wanders off to who knows where, very relaxing.
Traditionally, until the lure of well-paid jobs in factories and tourism drew them away from home, Greek women would produce household textiles for their trousseau and this would form part of the dowry on marriage. Women from wealthy families would spend a lot of their time sewing, embroidering and making lace and this was considered an appropriate activity for a maiden from the upper classes, as it was in this country 100 and more years ago. Women from the labouring classes would also spend a lot of their spare time spinning, weaving, sewing and embroidering household textiles but they would be fitting this in with their chores looking after the family, the housework and farming. My grandmother grew up in a rural community on the island of Ikaria, one of 8 children. Initially she worked as an attendant in one of Ikaria’s thermal spa therapy centres. In the 1930s she left her island home to work in the capital, married and my father was born during the German occupation of Greece in WWII. She would have bought factory made household textiles and clothing for her trousseau. I remember the overwhelming odor of moth balls when she used to open her linen cupboard and let me play dressing up in a beautiful acetate rayon embroidered kimono dressing gown she must have had from this time.
The tapestry comprises cross stitches (all in the same direction, I remember being very particular about getting that right and diligently unpicking if I made any mistakes) in tapestry wool on canvas. Using the sewing machine I backed it with a cotton sateen furnishing fabric in a green to co-ordinate with the design and inserted a zip to get at the cushion pad. The colours are, on the whole, muted blue-grey, mauves and greens on a cream background, with a vibrant pop of red and pink here and there. I recognise now, after my recent work on this last colour project that this piece includes a lot of the colours in my chosen theme – so it is definitely those colours I am continually drawn back to.
The hen design is naive but detailed and I was always fascinated by the strange, many-legged figure in the top left corner. I don’t think the book mentions it but I have a recollection that it is supposed to represent a mandrake, the strange mythical plant later popularised in the Harry Potter stories. The book states the design was developed from a bridal cushion cover from the Ioannina region of Greece. I did stitch a couple of other designs from this and the other books in the series but this was always my favourite. Now that I keep hens myself I can appreciate some of the detailed observation that has gone in to this design. I particularly like the little spur on the back of the hens foot and the way the simple zig-zagged lines under the hen’s tail captures the softer downy-feathered area here.
Looking back and remembering how my grandparents doted on their only grandchild I know that they wanted to spoil me when I visited and that my mother would have been given a wad of thousand Drachma notes to treat me to something I would like. So buying the wool and canvas for this project was a very special and expensive treat but it was also something that I had a part in creating and it has endured. This makes it even more precious.
Me dressing up on my first visit to Greece, aged 7 (1971).
I know that I was reproducing someone else’s design so this piece is not particularly creative but just looking at it takes me on a journey back to the heat and dust, the crashing boredom punctuated by the occasional seaside visit with some distant cousins and the memories of my loving and indulgent grandparents that sadly I never learned to communicate with properly. I would have loved to talk with them about their lives growing up in rural Greece in the mountains and on the islands. My father has told me a lot of their stories but it is not the same as chatting to someone in person. Being able to ask them about details that they would take for granted but that I would find fascinating coming from another culture would have been so precious.