• Nicola

The Twelve Days of Christmas Sampler: part one

With Christmas on the horizon and a new Block of the Month programme underway, I wanted to give you a proper introduction to our 2021 quilt, the Twelve Days of Christmas. This past year Andrea and I have been posting parcels of glorious Tilda fabrics to our Block of the Month participants and celebrating all of the gifts in that whimsical Christmas song.


As there are twelve blocks - of course - this is the biggest quilt we've made thus far, so I'm going to devote two posts to all of those wonderful blocks. In this post I'll introduce the birds at the centre of the quilt - and share a favourite trimming tip with you - then next time we'll meet the galivanting lords and ladies from the quilt's border.


At this point I should be typing a link to the shop so that you can purchase a copy of the pattern book, but I sold the last of my preview copies a couple of days ago - I know, timing! - rest assured more are on order. EDIT: they'll be here next week *hurray* and you can pre-order a copy here.



First, a potted history of the Twelve Days of Christmas song, which was first published in English at the end of the eighteenth century but is probably older and quite possibly French in origin. It celebrates the ancient Christian festival of Twelvetide, which commenced on Christmas Day and culminated in the merriment of Twelfth Night.


So without further ado, let me introduce the Partridge and his eccentric flock.

 

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me, a Partridge in a pear tree...



The Partridge is nestled amongst golden pears in a block inspired by traditional Tree of Paradise quilts. In real life, our Partridge would be somewhat surprised to find himself perched in a tree, being a strictly ground-nesting bird. In French, Partridge is translated as Perdrix (pronounced pear-dree) which may explain things a little, because in the 17th century the French red-legged Partridge was introduced to Britain to supplement our native grey partridges, whose numbers were much depleted by hunting. So, technically, we do have both Partridge and Perdrix.


On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me, two Turtle Doves...



If the Partridge was alarmed to find himself perched in the branches of a Pear tree, our dainty Turtle Doves will be most put out to find themselves in the frosty Northern hemisphere at Christmastime, as they prefer to spend the winter warming their feathers in Africa. And as I write this on a cold, drizzly morning, I think they have the right idea.


The Turtle Doves are an original block but borrow the half square triangles from the Gold Ring block for their fluttering wings. The Gold Rings in my quilt are represented by the traditional Wedding Ring block, although it has many other names including - rather charmingly - the Nest & Fledglings, which chimes well with the birds in this quilt.


On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me, three French Hens...



The friendly farmyard chicken is so familiar to us that it's surprising to learn of it's exotic origins: our sociable hens are descended from the wild Red Junglefowl of East Asia. Domesticated many thousands of years ago for cock fighting, it is thought that Iron Age Europeans worshipped them as gods. They began to be bred for food in the eastern Mediterranean and were widely distributed by the Romans around their vast empire, including Britain and, of course, Gaul.

While British hens were kept mainly for their eggs, the French kept them for the table and for centuries the Poulet Bresse Gauloise, a 400 year-old breed from eastern France - with its tricolour of red comb, white feathers and blue legs - was considered to be "the queen of poultry, the poultry of kings" making our French Hen a covetable gift. Chickens now outnumber any other breed of bird, providing us with meat, eggs and, increasingly, companionship.

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me, four Calling Birds...



To discover the identity of our Calling Bird we need to explore older versions of the song. When it was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, the lyrics listed four Colly birds, an old-English term for coal-black birds, or as we know them today, the common Blackbird. Although there's nothing common about this lovely little bird.

Both colly and calling are equally fitting descriptions, as young males will start singing in late January and are described by ornithologists as 'singing to themselves' in the winter months (apparently practising). In my own garden they lead the dawn chorus and are still singing as dusk falls, so I heartily agree with poet William Henley's beautiful lines...

The nightingale has a lyre of gold, The lark's is a clarion call, And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute, But I love him best of all.


We've already met our gift for day five, the Gold Rings, so on we go to day six.


On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me, six Geese a-laying...



Geese were a farmyard favourite in times of yore and roast goose was traditionally bought from the September goose fairs and eaten on the feast days of Michaelmas & Christmas, not the Turkey that we are so familiar with nowadays. Beady-eyed, strident and loyal, geese were also the guardians of the farmyard, as well as contributing down for mattresses, feathers for arrow flights and - most fascinating of all - quills.

Which means that when the Twelve Days of Christmas was first committed to paper at the end of the eighteenth century, it was with a quill. We'd been writing with them for more than a thousand years until they were supplanted by mass produced steel nibs a few short decades later.

Our glamorous goose is sitting on a nest created from - what else - a flying geese unit!


On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me, seven Swans a-swimming...



​Last, but by no means least, let us meet the splendid swan. In medieval times swans were the centrepiece of Royal Christmas banquets - Henry III ordered forty for Christmas 1247 - and they could only be kept by noble families, who marked their swan's beaks to show their ownership. Any unmarked swans belonged to the Crown and, amongst many other titles, the monarch is also Seigneur of the Swans. Even after they fell out of culinary fashion in the 19th century, it remained an act of Treason to kill a swan. The legislation was only repealed in 1998.

Although I am pleased to say they are still protected, in fact the King (how strange it feels to type that) has an official Swan Marker - resplendent in gold-trimmed scarlet blazer with a swan's feather in his cap - and every summer he leads the Royal Swan Upping on the river Thames, collecting data and checking on the health of the resident swans and their cygnets.

 

There are *ahem* one or two half-square triangles in my blocks and when I made mine I experimented with a new way of trimming them, which I've found quick and effective. If you like this method you can put the Quilt-in-a-Day Square Up ruler on your Christmas list. Until then, your standard ruler and a piece of washi tape will do the trick.


After you've cut your pairs of HSTs apart, DON'T press them open just yet...


Mark the diagonal on your ruler - in this case for a 2½" unfinished* HST - with washi tape and line up with the STITCHING line...


Trim then press open (nip off those dog ears too)...


* unfinished means before it's sewn into your block with a ¼” seam allowance, giving a 2" finished block.


Such a time-saver, I hope you find it useful.

 

Now it's impossible to write about birds without mentioning the dreadful bird flu epidemic, which is having such a devastating impact on both wild and domesticated birds at the moment. A few days ago British farmers and bird owners were ordered to quarantine their poultry indoors. The humble Hen was the most popular block in our sewalong and I know many of you are devoted hen owners. I hope your flocks stay safe.


In my next post we'll be meeting the carousing characters from the border of my quilt and I'll be sharing another photo tutorial with you. Until then, I'll leave you humming the Twelve Days of Christmas...


Nicola xx


#twelvedaysofchristmas

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