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Mrs Jones, Crafty Maven

Dementia and crafting for therapy

There is no way to sugar coat this topic. Dementia is a horrible and brutal disease that robs too many people of a gentle and graceful exit from life. It is also a difficult disease for family to cope with. When parents stop recognising children, when even the most routine tasks become terrifying and baffling for your loved one and you must watch them suffer the fear and loss.

My husband’s aunt Leona has Lewy Bodies Dementia, a form of dementia that shares symptoms with Parkinsons Disease and Alzheimers. She has hallucinations, difficulty with coordinating movement, and now a great deal of difficulty speaking. For a woman who dedicated her life to caring for others it is very hard to watch her suffer such a lonely and isolating disease. I visit most weekends when I am in Brisbane. I chat, keep it upbeat and try to act like all is normal, but always drive away feeling as if I have picked at an open, never healing wound again and it can leave me feeling so angry and despairing for the rest of the day.

It’s been a five year journey so far, and with each stage we have looked for different ways to engage with her and calm her. Her family and her childhood have featured strongly in the things we talk about that help to reduce her stress. I wanted to make her something beautiful for her room (those nursing home rooms can be very hospital like!) that would be familiar, so I decided to make a memory quilt.

Memory quilts are made for all sorts of reasons, weddings, births, anniversaries, so there was lots of good information on what to do. I gathered black and white photos from the family and included pictures of her on the farm as a young woman, her parents and the new generation of children. The photos can then be printed directly onto white fabric with an inkjet printer. The fabric patches were pulled from leftovers and stashes with a few extra purple (her favourite colour) fabrics purchased and added. I hand quilted with a fine cotton yarn for speed! It isn’t the most precise quilt I have ever made, but it has made a wonderful talking piece for her room, visitors and staff able to ask about the photos. Her vision is deteriorating and the quilt has faded a bit, but it’s still a beautiful handmade piece in her otherwise fairly sterile room.


As her disease has progressed, Leona fidgets and pulls at fabric most of the time, feeling textures, tying knots in and scrunching up sheets and clothes. I started to think about a new quilt – a fidget quilt for something to do with those hands.

Now I spend part of my time in Canberra and I work fulltime. My wonderful mother and her husband have adopted Leona as a friend, and visit her most weeks too. My mum has spent her life working in early childhood, and in the latter half of her career with young disabled children. It has given her wonderful insight into child development, developmental psychology and disability. She was quickly on board with the idea of a fiddle quilt, and after a few discussions about what and how, she undertook to make the quilt! The result is wonderful, as that lifelong crafting skill came together with an understanding of diversional therapy and supporting people with special needs!

The quilt is made from a pillow case and scraps! The idea is a nature scene and features a zip up log (with snake inside), a nest with crocheted bird and a hollow with crocheted mouse (made from The Yarn Bar’s Kilcarra Tweed). The really clever part of the quilt is the leaves and tabs that can be picked at and fiddled with. I’ve seen other fiddle quilts online and they come in a variety of patterns and designs and I would recommend anyone planning to make one really just focus on the recipient, what they are doing with their hands, what they can see and what is familiar. Mum thought to add crinkly plastic in some of the leaves for texture and sound (like baby toys) but she couldn’t find the right plastic!


I know for some dementia suffers, the simple act of holding and unwinding the yarn while their loved one knits can be engaging. Perhaps for those who are still mobile an apron with things in pockets and textures on the apron. I guess you can just try these things and see if you can create something that brings some small joy or comfort each time.

For all the heartache this disease has brought, it has also been a chance for my mum and I to work and share together. Maybe it is also a reminder of how precious family and life are and how fleeting each stage of life can be.

I would love to hear other people’s experience of crafting something for their loved one with dementia or perhaps another mental illness or other debilitating disease. I’m always looking for new ideas.

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Waste not, want not

Collecting, stashing, recycling, reusing…hoarding. Ok so there can be a fine line between collecting reducing waste and hoarding but in an increasingly throw-away society, its worth reflecting on stuff, what we do with it and how we value it!.

Now I am guilty of all of these things and it stems from a belief that we can not continue to pretend we are not connected to an ever diminishing set of resources and space on our planet. And what a crazy world that we can buy a $10 kettle and then throw it away as soon as it breaks while on the other side of the world plenty of people could desperately use a kettle (and electricity) to boil some clean drinking water.

That sense of making and making do and of seeing the value in materials is strong in me. But it does mean I tend to hang onto things that seem like one day they will be useful. I also have a habit of accepting things other people are throwing away, because that thing is perfectly good or just needs a mend and I can't bear to see it thrown away. I have several things piled up at home that can no longer be fixed or of use but I can’t yet work out how to dispose of them properly.

It does mean I have quite the stash of crafty items! I know I won’t be alone in that. I have found the stash useful at times for those last minute gift ideas….the beauty of which is that sometimes you end up using something you would never have brought for the purpose! Shame I haven’t learnt to take photos, but I remember a toddler dress made from beautiful brown and purple floral quilting fabric, and a jacket/wrap lined in vintage fabric pieced from a stashed dress picked up at a garage sale.

There is also the cardigan made from stashed Noro silk garden and a leftover ball of merino wool. Here is what I wrote on Ravelry at the time:

“Little baby Maxy arrived a little early, but on a sunny winter weekend so I couldn’t resist a cast-on. I rifled through my stash and came up with some leftover Jo Sharp DK to stripe with some pretty Noro that I had been gifted quite some time ago. I ran out of the Jo Sharp about 2 rows from the sleeve end, but managed to find a section of the Noro that was a good colour match and slipped that in!” 


The cardigan was made in a set of colours that I never would have chosen for a baby if I was shopping for the project, but the result was so beautiful!

A great challenge is to make something out of what seems like it should be destined for the bin! There is nothing new about this and while we now have the luxury of choosing to make do, we come from a great history of making from scraps! I have a stunning old quilt made from shirt samples. It comes from the late 1800s and some lucky quilter somehow came by shirt fabric samples (from some travelling salesman perhaps? Or salvaged from a general store?) and hand sewed an entire quilt. Can you imagine? But here it is more than a hundred years later and still so beautiful.


When my granddaughter Olivia arrived I made a snowball quilt. The trick is to take a bigger square and stitch smaller squares across the corners to make the snowball shape. You then end up trimming off a pair of triangles on every corner!

That meant I was left with 280 pairs of tiny triangles! I could not bring myself to throw away carefully cut, pretty pieces of fabric, so I have started piecing them together to make a dolly sized pinwheel quilt for Olivia’s toys! Of course with that many tiny triangles, it’s a marathon project! Hopefully Olivia won’t be a teenager before I get it done.


Tiny triangles are not the only stashed mini bits I have. I have tightly rolled balls of yarn left over from knitted projects, and I know one day they will come in handy! I have a collection of scrap yarn ideas on Pinterest. Bits can make small toys, cute bootees, decorations and embellishments or embroidery, or bring them together for blanket squares (knit or crochet) or a tea cosy perhaps?


Lucky for me, I'm married to someone who also believes that one day, that thing you have salvaged will come into use! Our yard is full of great  structures from things like old pig stye timbers, old fences and recycled packing crates. We must have one of the most palatial chicken houses, made from a packing crate found by the side of the road and a patchwork of flattened tin.

One of his pride and joys is what we call the "folly trolley" - a timber trolley which finally made use of old cast iron wheels hoarded for over a decade and timber recycled from a hundred year old balustrading destined for the rubbish!

We also have a collection of beautiful (in my mind at least) old things that we use to decorate my spaces. I will confess many of the things we have in our house are things we have bought or found or inherited with no plan for where it will go or how it will be used. Its more of a mission to rescue beautiful things, and things that you know that someone else has hoarded and valued themselves. We’re just keeping up the tradition!

What do you collect?


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