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

Roy’s Writing


In 2015, my mini quilt celebrating the war service of my paternal grandfather toured Australia and New Zealand as part of an exhibition called Lest We Forget. It’s a tribute to William Roy Robson (always called Roy within the family.) He was with the New Zealand Ambulance Corps in France from early 1916.

Fabric folded and pieced into pictorial quilt with soldier's portrait
Roy’s Writing mini-quilt 25 x 25cm

The full exhibition has been made into an ebook – Roy is number 151 – and you can read there how it was made.

Here are some entries from Roy’s diary which he kept throughout his military service in France.

Sat 8th July 1916

Usual number of sick today. Very few wounded. ..We had just got to bed about 10 when they started to put them (shells) over the town again, so at 10:30 we had orders to evacuate to the cellars. At 1am we returned and got into bed again with no more disturbance until Reveille at 6am.

Wed. 12th

Received 5 letters today, 18th and 25th May. My afternoon off. Answered letters. While I was writing Fritz put over 400 shells into the town, thick and heavy. Went round to cemetery after tea. Over 270 there now. Fairly busy day.

Fri 14th

We were stirred out early this morning and on going down found things going ‘some’. The rush had started just after 4 and until 12 o’clock we never stopped. Over 130 wounded were first through, mostly with 4 or 5 wounds. Over 100 stretcher cases. For 6 hours I stood almost in the one place changing men from the trench stretchers onto clean stretchers with blankets and so on. At 12 the sick started to come in and it was 4 o’clock before we got clean and had a chance to have a wash and something to eat. Over 150 all day. Cause of this was an unsuccessful raid by 1st Otago (Battalion). 20 got back out of 190 odd, the remainder being killed. Received parcel from Hilda today.

Thur 20th

This morning 40 of our fellows were sent down to help the Australians about 10 miles away. Owing to being on duty in the Casualty ward, couldn’t get away. I was left on my own in Ward 2. Had a very busy time. Some of our fellows returning this evening and the remainder in the morning. The ‘Aussies’ attempted an advance but were dreadfully cut up. Estimated casualties of 7000 or 8000! Very excited air duel in the evening. One of our very small planes chasing a ‘Taube’ and driving him off.

He survived, with a lung damaged by gas, was treated in England for a year and returned to New Zealand and married Hilda. His children Ken, Colin and Barbara are pictured here with him as he prepared to go back to Europe in 1937 on a business trip.

A black-and-white photograph of a man holding a baby with one boy on either side.
William Roy Robson with his children c1937

Colin was my father – both he and Ken are gone now -and Barbara now has the quilt hanging in her home in Tauranga, New Zealand.

If you’d like to read more, my cousin Nigel Robson’s excellent transcription and scan of the diaries are available from National Library of New Zealand.

I’ve been privileged to work, in a small way, with Gregory Crocetti and Briony Barr of Scale Free Network on their first two children’s books. I’m proofreading their latest book, a graphic novel called The Invisible War, over the next week or so.  Roy would have known the microbiology firsthand.