I know that many people could, and would, accuse me of having too many tea towels. Maybe over 900 does seem a bit excessive but I love tea towels, in all their varieties and I do use them, all. I have been collecting them, myself, for over 50 years and, on the way, I have acquired some that originally belonged to other people. They are all a joy to behold.
However, I am aware that tea towels, if used on a regular basis, can show signs of wear: whether that is fading or fraying or becoming thinner, almost transparent, or becoming ripped in a vigorous washing machine or just gathering stains along the way. In terms of fading, the original pattern becomes indistinguishable; in terms of fraying, ripping and thinning, it is often the cheaper tea towels, those with boring patterns. It is these tea towels that move from the main collection, on hangers in the wardrobe, to under the sink becoming more like cleaning rags. There is nothing wrong with that, it means they continue to have a life and still hold memories.
I had a cheap white tea towel with checks made of thin blue lines. You can find these in any branch of Wilko or Tesco, and have been available for at least 60 years. This particular tea towel belonged to my mother. When she died I took all her tea towels home with me. A friend said “Why are you keeping that tea towel? It is old, worn and nothing special”. My answer is that I would always associate it with her kitchen, her cooking, her domesticity and I loved it. It is true that it had developed some holes, some stains and the ends frayed in places. It stayed under the sink and I always used it to dry the bathroom sinks, after I have scrubbed them with Flash.
Under the sink also lurks a few of Dorothy’s tea towels; tea towels that are stained, boiled to smithereens, torn because she had attached plastic hooks (available from kitchen ware stores) so she could hang them up and they had become ripped in the washing machine. There are a couple of Jean’s, lurking under there, that had been boiled in a pan on the stove to remove stains (which wasn’t successful) which gave them a rigid feel, and certainly lost their absorbancy. There is no way I could get rid of these; it’s not my job to make value-judgements about the state of other people’s tea towels.
I always assumed that this pile of tea towels would just grow, in a huge pile under the sink, until someone else (probably Jai) would clear it out after my death, wondering what I was doing keeping these.
Then something magical happened at the end of November 2017. I had joined a Creative Writing Class which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was part of the Over-55 Learning Programme at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. The Learning Co-ordinator visited all the groups and told us about the Puppetry Festival that was happening in March 2018. There were 12 places on a Puppetry Workshop for Over-55s, where participants would be taught to make a puppet and then be part of the Festival.
Liz and I thought ‘That sounds like a good idea, something that would be outside of our comfort zones. Give it a try’, we thought. We applied and each got a place. The Introductory Worskshop was on 5 December 2017. ‘What have we done?’ We asked ourselves. The first proper, three hour, workshop was on 11 January. We had sort of forgotten about the whole project, and our misgivings, because Christmas came in between. After the first workshop, we thought ‘What on earth have we done? But if we back out now, it will seem that we are chicken’.
The concept for the Puppetry Group was a “Raggle Taggle Wolf Pack”. Neither of us knew anything about dogs; nor did we know anything about puppetry; more importantly, we didn’t know much about crafts or sewing. We asked ourselves yet again ‘What the hell are we doing?’. We could choose what sort of dog we wanted to base our puppet on. There was also one other problem, both of us walk with sticks and can’t go anywhere without them. Stephen, the Tutor, assured us that all things are possible!
I had an idea; all I needed to do was convince Liz that this was ‘the best idea since sliced bread’ then together we would have to convince Stephen that this was a great idea and then, of course, he would have to show us how to put it into action. I started with Liz: “Got this great idea. Why don’t we do two Afghan Hounds, a big mother and her pup. The big hound could somehow incorporate a walking stick AND we could make it out of old shredded tea towels (all those ones under the sink)”. She looked at me like I was crazy but didn’t dismiss the idea, out of hand. We spent hours looking on the internet for pictures of Afghan Hounds and their puppies. The puppies were more difficult than the adults; eventually we found what we wanted to achieve, not that we had any idea how we were going to put this into practice. What we did know was that we wanted to ‘dye’ the tea towels with tea, something close to our hearts.
So we explained our ideas to Stephen, together with the pictures we found. Stephen was not at all dismissive, was positive about how the frame for the adult could be made, and gave some excellent advice about how to make the dog faces.
It soon became clear that we were going to need a lot of tea towels, to give a fullness to the body of the dog. Between workshops we started dyeing the tea towels, and identifying more tea towels to be dyed.
In the end, we needed at least 30 tea towels, some to wrap around the wadding to create the faces, some to cover the pipe lagging for the body, some to be cut into strips with pinking shears for the long hair. We worked hard through eight workshops, cutting, building, sewing, all the time learning new techniques. Week after week, we worked hard but we didn’t seem to be making any progress, half-made dogs with bits not attached. I missed a class because of the norovirus; finishing these dogs seemed like a mountain to climb.
Then, suddenly, in the last but one workshop, our two Afghan Hounds seemed to come together. They took shape, they weren’t finished but they looked like the beginnings of two Afghan Hounds. It began to be exciting. The frame made a great walking stick.
Of course, making a puppet was not the end of this workshop. We had to be able to work it, to act like puppeteers (albeit very amateur). We needed to understand what our dogs were good at, what their unique characteristics were and how we were going to make them come alive; we had to understand how the dogs would move around and essentially how they would interact with the public on the day of the Puppet Parade. We had to learn how we were going to work together, with other dog puppeteers, to walk from the Theatre Royal to the Market Square, interacting with the public all the way.
Today was the day and I can honestly say that it is a long time since I have enjoyed myself so much. I loved the way that very young children, as well as older ones, were inspired to interact with the dogs. Stephen’s advice had been that if we wanted to see ourselves as puppeteers, we needed to dress in black to try and make ourselves invisible so that it is the dogs that were the centre of attention. He was absolutely right, it did work. Small children, as well as adults, just seemed to want to interact with the dogs. It was great fun.
The fact is that this was a great Puppetry Workshop which took me way out of my comfort zone, got me to try things that I had never done; the day of the parade was fantastic and all that was brought together by tea towels!! So if you think you have too many tea towels, I have an idea for you, try joining a puppetry workshop and make a few puppets!!