Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Stitching the cape

In preparing for my Conflict Exhibition in Mid Wales Arts Centre, one of the pieces shown in the exhibition is a nurse's cape that I'm embellishing with stitch. This cape is one actually worn by a nurse whose name is stitched on the inside of the cape and I was very kindly given this cape when I visited the hospital just over a year ago. I had to hand in my cape when I left.  The nurse who wore this cape worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast and this has direct links with my own history, as I was a student nurse for a while in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, until I had to leave because I didn't have enough resistance to infection.

The two hospitals share the same site and are directly beside one another, though the building I worked in is now being replaced by a new one  -  I'm not sure if any of the old building will remain.

A view of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children

I will always treasure my time spent as a nurse and perhaps because it was for a limited period, I remember very clearly many of the patients I nursed and wonder how their lives have worked out. I also, of course, recall many of the procedures I learned and feel it was a privilege to have been a part of a team of people dedicated to healing.

The main front entrance to the old building

This Hall of Residence for nurses was right by the hospital and I lived here during my time as a nurse. It is being demolished now to make way for a newer building!

My nursing was in the 1970s , at the height of Northern Ireland's 'Troubles' so working at this time in Belfast involved experiences not always part of nursing sick children. One of these was when a bomb was planted in the carpark of the Children's Hospital  -  I was on duty at the time and some of the  children who were very ill couldn't be moved, so we had to pull down the blinds on the ward and move their little cots as far away from the windows as possible. Mercifully, the bomb was diffused. I have such admiration for the soldiers who perform this hazardous duty. They save so many lives, always at the risk of losing their own.

The Quiet Room

This room is for meetings now but when I nursed in the late 1970s, it was the quiet room where the body of a child who had died would be placed. Part of our training was to sit, alone, for an hour with a child's body. This was because a child could die when we were alone on night duty and we had to be able to deal with this situation. I sat once with a young boy who had died owing to leukaemia; he was extremely peaceful and I felt peaceful with him. 

To return to the nurse's cape . . . .

Self wearing the nurse's cape in Mid Wales Arts Centre at set up of Conflict Exhibition September 2017

I had to hand in my cape when I left my nursing but I did love it! Nurses' uniforms have changed so much now and I don't think the capes form part of them any more but those capes that seem to have been worn since the 1900s until recently were so warm!  Deep navy in colour and made of heavy, felted wool, they could be lined either in red or blue  -  a shade in light ultramarine or royal blue, so differentiating clearly from the outer navy hue  -  and the lining was also wool.

The cape in position for the Conflict Exhibition.

A sweep across the gallery with the cape in its corner and more of my pieces on the wall.

The cap told a story, in this corner of the gallery space, of healing and survival together with the two portraits of my Dad  -  one in his RAF uniform c 1943 and the second a stitched piece that I made in 2016 from a pencil drawing of him that I had done c 1970. Alongside these were the little cotton scrap from a nightie with the red stitches, a poem to my father, some of my 'The Invitation' books and business cards, mostly the ones with a detail from Requiem: les Fleurs du Mal.

My father was a survivor of both WW2 and the Troubles. Sadly, he died in 1991 before he could see the Peace Process that got under way just a few years later.

Stitched portrait of my father.

With some images on the cape now, there are more that I will do and I have found stitching by hand into the felted wool is quite different to stitching into cotton or linen. Threads of the stitches tend to sink into the wool as I stitch so a slightly different technique is required.

I am including various images on the cape and am allowing it to grow organically so the whole thing is not planned out beforehand.

The hospital is situated on the Falls Road, so I have stitched this in Gaelic and English on the cape and beside this, the outline of a baby. The figure of the baby connects with my time nursing children and there is a memory of a particular baby who I nursed that will never leave me. He was only a few months old and we knew we couldn't save him, so care was palliative.

One day, this tiny child kept down half a feed and smiled at me  -  I was so joyful for him and had just come from being with him when there was a commotion in the hospital with people running  -  a six-year-old girl had been shot through the head on the Falls Road. She was rushed to theatre but I don't know if she lived or died. No doubt, the shot had not targeted her deliberately but it seemed so ironic that I had come from a baby who knew nothing of life except how precious it was and how he struggled to keep it. He fought for every breath he took and here was a child whose life may have been taken in an instant  -  the tragedy of conflict.

The figure of the girl going to help the wounded victim of a bombing says much to me of healing. I am also stitching cloud/smoke billows around several images on the cape. In Japan, some kimonos are cloud kimonos and my cloud images speak of the smoke from bombings but also of skies where clouds drift in times of conflict and of peace.

A hankie corner and the blanket stitch is done all round the border of the cape.

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