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

Old Mother Hubbard

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard

to fetch her poor dog a bone

When she got there 

the cupboard was bare

And so the poor dog had none

Old Mother Hubbard is not the only senior citizen maligned as inept in nursery rhyme. As an imperfect pet-sitter myself,  I can only sympathise with her repeated failures at appeasing the mutt.

Amy Amelia Earl (AAE) stitched the scene with the old mother in her kitchen. The cupboard is barely there itself, let alone having any provisions in it. I suspect she’s been spending the housekeeping money on fine lace and red shoes, not to mention the splendid silk portrait of King George. Not even a bone could be bought after that wanton extravagance.

A cloth picture with appliqued dog and woman with a lace apron
Old Mother Hubbard by AAE

And are those mittens, or furry paws that OMH is gesturing with?

There are many more verses to this rhyme and Raymond Briggs has laid them all out in the wonderful Mother Goose Treasury which deservedly won the Greenaway medal in 1966.

Double spread from a children's nursery rhyme book with black and white line drawings
Raymond Briggs brings Old Mother Hubbard’s dog to life and death and back again

The steady progression of disappointed doggy into Restoration dandy is captured as a pen-and-ink comic strip, pre-figuring his later triumphant Father Christmas (who also had a dog, surely a cousin of this one.)

Harold Jones has a more sinister view of the old woman.

An illustrated verse from a children's book showing a coloured picture of a witch
Old Mother Hubbard by Harold Jones

Don’t let the curtains and wallpaper fool you. This witch is hoping to conjure something up for the wolf at the door, who looks as if he won’t be the one playing dead if the cupboard really is bare.

Apologies for the blurriness of this image from the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt, which doesn’t disguise the poor doggy’s ribby hunger. Once again though the old lady has been impecunious : trimming her shawl before stocking the cupboard.

Cloth picture shows a dog on its hind legs and a woman reaching up to a shelf
Old Mother Hubbard in the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt


I was not wearing lace when this picture was taken, but Jasper is perfectly channelling his feeling that if I go to the cupboard, for him it will be bare. No amount of pipe-smoking or licking dishes will transform me into his servant, and he knows it.

A black-and-white dog stands on brick paving
Jasper plays the part of The Dog