Stray in stitches: New home wanted for Harrogate wall hanging

It's 20 years since Jo Bebbington and a team of quilters created a wall hanging depicting some of Harrogate's landmarks. Now she hopes to find it a new home. Stephanie Ferguson reports.

Jo Bebbington.
Jo Bebbington.

They’re five feet long, took two years to make and have nothing to do with Vivaldi. These Four Seasons depict Harrogate Stray in meticulously stitched patchwork panels which once graced the corridors of Harrogate Hospital’s Strayside Wing. Created by the Crimple Valley Quilters more than 20 years ago, the quartet of wall hangings received the royal seal of approval when the wing and its mother and baby unit was opened by the Queen in 1998. But last July they were deemed surplus to requirements during refurbishments.

They are now back in the hands of Jo Bebbington, chair of the quilting group, following help from treasurer Christine Truman and is now looking for a new home for them.

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Jo, 82, throws the panels over a pile of quilts at home in Plompton, Knaresborough, and lovingly points out who did what. The work was truly communal at the time, with 20 Crimple quilters adding their own touches to her design.

It’s a celebration of the Stray in all its glory with Bettys tea shop, St John’s Well, and flora and fauna from hanging baskets to hedgehogs. “I did all those tulips,” says Jo as she brushes a finger over the little quilted pink flowers. “If you look closely there’s a fox in the flowerbed that someone wanted to add.”

Because they have been behind glass for so long they have kept their colour and seem as fresh and bright as when first stitched. The essence of the Stray over the year is captured in all kinds of fabrics and techniques, with piping, thread work, beading and appliqué. Fairy lights twinkle in the winter trees beside a snowman, snowballs and holly berries; crocuses blaze across the spring lawns; plump little gardeners work away near the old green taxi pavilion. A hot air balloon rises in the summer sky over the funfair below. Someone has even worked in their green Morris Minor.

There are stained-glass windows from the churches, autumnal cornucopias of fruit and flowers, landmarks like the war memorial. The quilters more than rose to their marathon challenge.

Jo opens an old photo album and recalls how she captured the Stray on film to get inspiration for the panels. The images were then drawn onto the base fabric in pencil to form patterns. It was obviously an epic labour of love. But now Jo and the quilters want the Four Seasons to go on permanent display rather than end up in landfill.

“We recovered them because we considered they deserve an alternative new home with a Harrogate organisation or company, particularly if they could continue to be viewed by visitors who could see the pride we quilters have in our beautiful Stray,” says Jo. “We want them to be seen and will let them go for a donation to our charity, Yorkshire Air Ambulance.”

To reach a wider audience, she has entered the panels in the group class at the Great Northern Quilt Show at the Harrogate showground next month.

The Crimple Valley Quilters meet once a fortnight at Bilton Community Centre and as well as running sewing days and workshops have guest speakers. Jo started quilting 30 years ago and has been more than handy with a needle since her school days. She used to make up smock frocks for a local baby shop when she was a teenager. “I was always stitching something and I still am. I can’t just sit and do nothing. I wonder how many million stitches and tacking threads I have done over the years?”

She married husband Brian in 1956 and taught fashion and design at Southend Technical College. When the family moved to Harrogate she was looking for a new challenge. She bumped into a friend who suggested quilting and now, miles of thread and tons of fabrics and waddings later, she is an expert in the field. Jo’s bedspreads are unique and nearly all worked by hand. She reckons she has made around 50 over the years as well as tiny quilts for the doll’s houses of her grandchildren Christopher and Ben and now great-grandchildren Elsie, Maeve and new arrival Isaac.

Her workroom in her barn conversion home is a kaleidoscope of colours packed with pieces in progress, her sewing machine the hub. She says it was all a bit DIY at first. It was difficult to find books on quilting, but now titles are knee-deep. The first quilt she made was for a miniature four-poster bed. “I used to design the middle bit first and then like Topsy, it just grew.”

Jo’s collection also includes stunning quilts inspired by the interiors at Harewood House. She throws a blue, white and grey number over the table, just like a piece of Wedgwood moulded in fabric rather than clay. It was based on a ceiling and is detailed work done over several years.

For the pearl anniversary of the Quilters Guild in York she made a sewing casket with 30 panels scattered with pearls showing different quilting styles.

Jo has recently moved into working with gold thread and is currently having a go at a church altar front and has just worked an image of God in gold on white. “It keeps me out of trouble,” she says.

Her husband says he is a quilting widower rather than she a golf widow. Jo chuckles: “I saw some American women wearing t-shirts. On the front they said: ’My husband says he’s going to leave me if I bring home more material.’ On the back it said: ‘I’m sure going to miss him’. I bought one.”

The Great Northern Quilt Show at the Harrogate showground runs from August 31 to September 2.