The Varuna Quilt Project
by Carolynne Gordon
Once the quilting bug took hold there was little I could do to shake it. However as a writer with a powerful calling to pen a memoir, I traded a weekend at the machine for a visit to the Blue Mountains for the annual Open Day of Varuna, The Writer's House. The sprawling 1930's home, painted deep saffron yellow, is nestled among towering gums and pretty gardens at the bottom of Katoomba's Cascade Street. A wooden plaque staked into the front garden signified its purpose, "SHHH, QUIET ZONE, WRITERS AT WORK." Bequeathed to wordsmiths of Australia in 1989 by Mick Dark, the son of its original owners, novelist Eleanor Dark and her husband Dr Eric Dark, Varuna is Australia's only dedicated writer's retreat centre, hosting novelists, poets and memoirists for residential stays.
Inside, every room was lined with floor to ceiling shelves groaning with books published by writers-in-residence, but from the moment I walked in there was something different about the house. In the living area, through the large throng of visitors, a woman's hand hovered over a pile of quilts spread over the dining room table. Her name was Monica Flynn, a member of the Quilts and Coffee Group of the Upper Blue Mountains Ladies Probus Club, and she was about to talk about the Varuna Quilt Project. I knew in that moment the atmosphere of Varuna would support the many hours of difficult pleasure I would experience writing about my connection to quilt making.
The Varuna Quilt Project started almost a decade after the house opened its doors to writers when a sewing basket of fabrics, along with paper piecing for a child's quilt, were found in the cupboard of Eleanor's old sewing room. They were given to Ruth Buchanan, a Board Member of the Eleanor Dark Foundation who honoured Eleanor's spirit by furnishing the house with quilts named after her stories and books, including Timeless Land and No Barrier. Ruth enlisted the help of online group Southern Cross Quilters who rallied more than 100 quilters to volunteer enough traditional 12-inch blocks to make twelve quilts in colour palettes influenced by Eleanor's fabric stash. The blocks included Flock of Geese, Stars and Squares, Beacon Lights and Fireflies and after a later call out, were joined by orphan blocks including a delightful Dresden Plate made by Monica that sits at the centre of one quilt. A local Leura resident and longtime Varuna volunteer, Monica was involved in two quilting bees at the house, laying all the blocks out in the open spaces of the downstairs living area, to arrange before putting together.
"People came from all over the mountains, and some from Wagga and Canberra," said Monica. "We did it in a productive, fun way. We knew if the house had quilts it would be more homely, and friendly. It was a rare and very exciting project."
A later quilting bee in Canberra aided the binding, with the final quilting completed by Ruth so each of the beds in the five rooms has a quilt, with spares draped over the back of armchairs in each of the accompanying writing spaces. Aside from adding beauty, they are wonderful tucked over knees on crisp autumn days or while writing in bed on a cold winter's night. There's no doubt they bring a sense of comfort to writers during their isolation.
"Writing is a very solitary process and we want to support and encourage writers. To be wrapped in an individual, unique creation and have colour to look at, I think it does help stimulate the writing brain and encourage creative development, " says Monica who cares for the quilts with members of her group. Vulnerable to a writer's occasional carelessness, with a few damaged by ink splotches and highlighter pens, she has spent hours with her group discussing repairs and rummaging through fabrics to best match the original, carefully appliqueing and quilting over damaged areas.
"We're mad keen patchwork quilters and we designed these quilts to help writers," said Monica. "We want our writers to enjoy the quilts and feel comfortable, warm, creative, loved and appreciated as they create their masterpieces."
Last year I stayed at Varuna for the first time and was allocated The Sewing Room, where I discovered both the joy and challenge of being in a dedicated writing space. Once I faced and accepted the stillness of writing, the walls began to whisper phrases I hadn't heard before. The words came with ease - each like a single stitch connecting one to the other; a sentence a seam, a paragraph a block, a chapter a whole liberated section of comforting, stimulating and nurturing thought which formed the foundation chapters of my book. During a second visit, supported by a QuiltNSW Scholarship, I worked through the second draft. The book remains a work-in-progress, along with a few of my larger quilts, but am confident that by chipping away at it over time, the ideas will formulate a strong final narrative. A third visit to Varuna is scheduled for later this year where I look forward to reconnecting to the writing and living for a week among the quilts made, like all community quilts, with generous benevolence.
In 2012, the Quilts and Coffee Group, in the Ladies Probus Club of the Upper Blue Mountains, made a quilt and gave it to Varuna for fund-raising purposes. The title of the queen-size quilt was Black, White and Red all Over (shown in photo). It was hand and machine pieced and machine quilted. Raffle tickets were sold at the 2012 Varuna Sydney Writers' Festival, and the winner was Brian Bright.
The same group is currently carrying out repairs to the quilts at Varuna, The Writers’ House.