I Saw a Blue Patchwork Sky

 Recently, an internet friend of mine, Sharon Everest, went to visit her sister in Australia for a month. Sharon makes beautiful dolls and bears under the name Modflowers. I have one of her bears. His name is Dudley and he lives in the Modern Dollhouse which sits on my work table in London.

I love having my dollhouse right on my table where I can think up stories for Dudley Bear and his pals. Here, Dudley and friends are celebrating finding a “Dudley” pencil.

Like musicians with their instruments or artists with their pencils and paints, Sharon wanted a sewing machine that she could use as soon as she arrived in Australia. After a few false starts, she found one to borrow and started sewing. This reminded me of my life on tour and my visits to friends and family. I always feel a bit funny if I don’t have an instrument on my travels or a way to sew or knit. Of course, I could do without, but I do feel a bit unsettled.

So, when I travel, I take my needle and thread or knitting with me and a banjo or guitar if possible. Luckily, in the states, I have instruments at my home in Nashville and I get to play my Dad’s instruments when I visit my Mom. I also have access to my Mom and Grandmother’s sewing machines and fabric. And often we sew together.

Sewing with Mawmaw at her kitchen table while on a visit ten years ago.
Here’s the quilt we made at Mawmaw’s kitchen table.

While visiting her sister, Sharon came across some cleaning cloths which reminded her of teddy bear fur. So, she started cutting them up and making bears. I asked her if she was going to bring some of these curious cleaning cloths back to Britain with her. She said she was already looking for them in shops! This reminded me of when I went to India with my friend Robyn and the things I loved best aside from the Kantha quilts were the brooms.

Yes, brooms. Indian brooms are just not like the brushes on long sticks we use in England and the USA. They have brooms for sweeping leaves from grass – these were about 2 1/2 feet long and made from very stiff bark and reed-like material. There were brooms with very soft uneven bristles for cleaning sand from floors and from between stones. There were short stiff brooms which were really paintbrushes for washing color across rendered walls.

When I bought my brooms on the streets of Jodhpur, the broom-selling men looked at me in wonder. Why would a foreigner want such domestic things? But I wanted to be able to take them home and touch them. If I ever had any sand or leaves to sweep, I would be ready. And I would remember some of the feel of India through them.

One of many beautiful brooms at the Arna Jharna folk museum near Jodhpur, India. Stop everything and go there now.

This week, I’ve been sewing patchwork quilt blocks by hand. I could sew them on my machine, but sewing them by hand means I can sit with others and still be part of the general flow of the house. Sewing by hand is quiet and slow. That’s what I want right now.

The log cabin quilt blocks I’m sewing by hand this week.

As I sew, I’ve been thinking about the tactile nature of things – Sharon with her teddy bear cleaning cloths, my brooms from India, and the carpets in Mawmaw Margie’s house. I can make map of Mawmaw’s house in my mind just based on the textures of the floor coverings. The slippery kitchen vinyl looked like pretend bricks. My room had stiff red carpet. My sister’s room had yellow. The carpet was acrylic and wool and quilted in a curving pattern.

I remember the plastic runner that Mawmaw had over her hall carpet to preserve it. Her trousers were a thick polyester with a seam down the front of the legs. Her hair was soft and curly and prematurely white. My favorite pillow on her bed was a red cotton pile with floppy red tassels.

I was determined to give Mawmaw Margie some of this cake. You can hear a song about Mawmaw Margie here.

One of the most important things in my life has been the color and the feel of things. When I travel in the passenger seat of the car, relax on the sofa, or sit at my desk, I want thread or yarn in my hand. I want to transform fiber into something beautiful and useful.

I can see a coat or a shirt in a secondhand shop or a sheet or a tablecloth at a flea market and my hands itch to turn them into something else – something like a bear.

A couple of weeks ago, I sewed this bear using a women’s linen shirt and a child’s corduroy dress from the charity shop. You can sew this bear, too, in your own fabric by following the pattern in Hillary Lang’s book Wee Wonderfuls. I call my bear Teaberry after the gum my parents liked. Mawmaw and her sisters used to collect teaberry leaves and berries to eat which I write about in this new song.

My songwriting is like this, too. I pick up parts of Mawmaw’s stories, memories from my Appalachian childhood, black and white family photographs and I piece them together into a song. I want the tune to sound familiar, like something I sang in church or something my Dad sang to me from a folk song book. This is my plain and simple musical patchwork.

My love of sewing, of piecing, of inventing something new from other things became the song “Windmill”. Oral histories from the extraordinary book The Quilters, my own girlhood watching and listening in Appalachia, the familiar litany of quilt block names – these were my colors and textures. “Windmill” is one of my favorite songs I’ve ever had a part in writing because it celebrates something so powerful inside me and inside my sister, mother, and grandmothers, the wish to touch, to transform, to retell.

I hope you enjoy this never-before-released recording of “Windmill.”

I send you kindness and all good wishes in your own making and telling.

Your friend,



Mama settled west from Virginia –
from a house with columns 
and grass as green as her eyes.
Never once did she cry
on that long wagon ride,
‘cause she loved Daddy as soon as she saw him.

Mama said that first year was the hardest
between the dust storms coming
and a freeze that took the cows.
I came along in spring –
a wild smiling thing.
By my first step, I was already running.

The sound of the windmill was my lullaby
and that windmill seemed bigger than the moon.
We came like birds in flight
to this west Texas life,
and Mama thought we’d die
beneath this endless Texas sky,
but that windmill a-spinning got Mama through.

Mama quilted stars and sunflowers
from the old feed sacks
as pretty as could be.
She told me of her life
of the Richmond street lights.
I’d thread her needle and climb her lap to see.

I saw our windmill a-turnin,’
a flock of geese flyin,’
and a fierce wind a-blowin.’
I saw a blue patchwork sky,
a starry Texas night,
and it was all right there in Mama’s sewing.

Oh, windmill keep spinnin’, I’m still listenin’ for you.

Jeni Hankins, Vocal, & Billy Kemp, Harmony Vocal, Guitar, & Harmonica.
Recorded Live on 07 July 2015 in All Saints Church, Barwick-in-Elmet, West Yorkshire, England, by Si McGrath with additional recording by Si at Eiger Music Studios, Leeds, and Mind the Gap Studios, Bradford. Additional recording in the USA by Craig Eastman at Guy's Boogity Shoe Shop, Shutesbury, Massachusetts. 
Craig Eastman, Fiddle. Neil Innes, Double Bass. Mark Walker, Trap Set. Lisa Mallaghan, harmony vocal.
Mixed by Si McGrath & Billy Kemp.
Written by Jeni Hankins and Billy Kemp ©2010

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Happy Birthday to Mawmaw who has inspired it all. 23rd April 2024, 91 years young, and still the busiest woman on Smith Ridge.

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I’m working on a bunch of new songs based on Mawmaw’s stories. If you’d like to give me the gift of time to write, you can send a tip to me here on PayPal or here on ko-fi: TIP.

Two new songs to hear and stories to read – a bonus for reading all the way to the bottom!

Ice Cream Will Always Be Here (January 2024 New Song)


Damson and Peach (February 2024 New Song)

Find me on InstagramFacebookYouTube, and Modern Daily Knitting.

I write about found things, knitting, sewing, doll rescue, Mawmaw, and what I see.

My Shop where you can also listen to nearly every song I’ve ever released.

My Website.


My most recent article for Modern Daily Knitting is about Andy Warhol’s commercial fabric designs! You can read it here.

My latest knit is the Crowberry Cardigan from Modern Daily Knitting Field Guide No. 26, Moss. All of my yarns have stories of their own which you can read about.


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