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7th February 2017

Pauline Macaulay, 77

Award-winning quilter, head teacher and social anthropologist Pauline is currently leading an oral history project about quiltmakers in the UK. Pauline is also mother of Sarah Brown, wife of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and charity campaigner for global education.

“All the way through life, your age is both a blessing and a constraint. Part of it is because from birth, society or people have expectations of how you should ‘be’ at a certain age. One of the blessings is that this is dissipating somewhat. Older people can run around in jeans and t-shirts and do mad things if they want. But we do suffer the invisibility factor. I certainly experience that sometimes.

Life is full of contrasts and challenges – I’ve learnt to value living in the present moment.

I started teaching in Tanzania when my children were very young. I didn’t want to just do the coffee circuit; I wanted to work and be with my children. So I started a nursery school and it was there that I realised that teaching was something I wanted to continue. When I got back to the UK I did a post-grad at Cambridge and it went on from there. By the 1980s I was a head teacher in a challenging inner city school. I had 5 young teenage kids and my husband, Patrick, was sometimes away working for weeks at a time. I needed some space for myself so I tootled along to a quilting evening class at a local school and learnt the basics. It was a great course with a wonderful bunch of women from all walks of life. I had no idea at the time it would take me where it has.

What really interests me as a social anthropologist is the way people engage with quilting and the meanings they attach to their quilts. I have two quilts that I hold dear. One is a big wall hanging I made as a final piece for a two-year course I did – it is inspired by the spice trade, it’s very colourful and machine and hand-stitched. It got Visitors’ Choice in an exhibition. The other is a tiny miniature one made from strips of silk – this was made as a grieving quilt for the loss of my little granddaughter at ten days. Making the quilt was part of my healing process.

At the moment I’m working on an oral history project called Talking Quilts: Saving Quilters’ Stories to collect and save the stories of people who are quilting around the UK. It’s a three-year national project generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and we’re training volunteers to go off and record and transcribe quiltmakers’ stories. They will be uploaded to quiltersguild.org.uk, so people can read the transcripts, and listen to them at The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles. This rich heritage can be captured forever.

Life is full of contrasts and challenges – I’ve learnt to value living in the present moment. My husband Patrick, my children and grandchildren are all the loves of my life. The family is an ever-growing circle of love – which sounds a bit naff but it’s true!

My plan from here is to try being as healthy as I am today. I love my Pilates. I also try to laugh a lot, and try to keep up to date with technology, which is hard. If you are fortunate enough to be in good health at this age you can keep being engaged with stuff and carry on learning.

Two mottos I live by are ‘Laugh often, love much’ by Waldo Emerson and ‘Do one thing every day that scares you’.”

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