Sing a Song of Sixpence

As convoluted as any royal story in today’s gossip mags, Sing a Song of Sixpence offers plenty of scope for illustration : on paper and in fabric.

This is the only nursery rhyme which I’ve attempted in quilt form (to date.) Completed in about 2002, I didn’t even try to pretend that it was for either of my children. A long and fairly directionless period experimenting with dyes left me with sizeable samples. The consequence of this experimentation was of course that the fabrics go with nothing but each other.  I chanced on one of those serendipitous buys in an op shop : six rolls of indigo cotton, each 14″ wide and more than nine yards on each. This gave me a ground and sashing to attempt my own rebus retelling, in a 5 x 4 setting.

Coloured fabric squares and naive representations of birds and crowns
Hand-dyed fabrics and rough appliqued version of the nursery rhyme

At the time, I felt that the colourways were reminiscent of Raymond Briggs’s rendition of the song. (My linear guess-what’s-happening storytelling can’t compare with his.) The chef’s triumphal entry in full view of the suburban royalty whose house is surely too small for such a theatrical dish. Engaged in their separate activities, their majesties watch the escaping birds like TV. The maid cheerfully and impassively goes on with her laundry, unaware of the one escapee attracted by her cherry red nose.

Coloured picture from a children's poetry book shows a baker staggering under the weight of a pie with birds escaping from it.
Briggs imagines the royal scene as a domestic disaster

William Stobbs shows his monarch doubting the daintiness of the dish. The birds’ open beaks portend the attack on the maid’s nose. Her raised forearm, built up with years of laundering, may triumph.

In a children's songbook, a king reacts with surprise looking at an enormous pie full of birds
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

Given all these possibilities, then, this block from the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt is not one of its best. Only familiarity with the rhyme could identify this blonde bouffant with purple bubbles as a pie. The stripey deep dish is commodious enough for the two dozen blackbirds, but so much effort has gone into the working of the title that the needleworker was forced to merely sketch a few of the birds escaping.

Appliqued and embroidered picture of a fruit pie with birds flying away from it
Nineteen blackbirds have already flown the block

I’m planning a new quilt based on another nursery rhyme – inspired by the two I’ve studied and written about since seeing NGV’s Making the Australian Quilt, nearly a year ago now.

A novelty children's book collection with line drawings by Randolph Caldecott
Miniature versions of classic illustrated children’s poems and songs
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