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Stitched with words of love: Dress made in honour of teenage aunt who lost her life 79 years ago

Cycling home from work, 14-year-old Kathleen Hutchinson was killed in a tragic accident. Now, some eight decades later, her niece, Heather Richardson, tells Stephanie Bell about the extraordinary work of art that she has created in a tribute to this beloved aunt, sister and daughter

Family history: Heather Richardson with the dress in tribute to her aunt
Family history: Heather Richardson with the dress in tribute to her aunt
Family history: Heather Richardson with the dress in tribute to her aunt
Family history: Heather Richardson with the dress in tribute to her aunt
Sleeve notes: the back and arms of the dress
Kathleen Hutchinson

It was a life cut short at 14 and forgotten by all except those closest to her. But now, almost 80 years after her death in a tragic accident, a young Co Londonderry linen worker's life is being celebrated by her niece in a unique work of art.

Belfast author Heather Richardson has spent the last two years engrossed in what has been a labour of love, creating a dress for her late aunt, Kathleen Hutchinson.

The story of the dress, shared on social media, has captured the imagination and hearts of people of all ages who would never otherwise have heard of the young girl whose life inspired it.

Called A Dress for Kathleen, the stunning linen embroidered gown is what Heather imagines her aunt would have worn on her 21st birthday, had she lived to celebrate it.

The material used to make it came from William Clark & Sons linen factory, where Kathleen started working in 1939.

The 14-year-old, one of a family of 11 children, was cycling home from work when she died in an accident.

Heather searched the internet for a dress pattern dating from 1946, the year her aunt would have turned 21.

Family history: Heather Richardson with the dress in tribute to her aunt
Family history: Heather Richardson with the dress in tribute to her aunt

Using memories from her father, who still mourns his beloved sister after all these years, she embroidered words on the dress capturing historic details of life at the time as Kathleen would have experienced it.

This result is a beautiful one-off piece, which is going on public display, alongside outfits from fashion designers, as part of Northern Ireland's Linen Biennale in Lisburn's Island Arts Centre.

Heather (54), who has written two best-selling historical novels, Madgeburg and Doubting Thomas, as well as numerous short stories and poems, says she was inspired to make the dress by her father's memories of his sister.

"Kathleen was my dad's big sister," she adds. "She had just started work at William Clark & Sons linen factory in Upperlands in 1939 but died following a cycling accident on her way home, just a few weeks short of her 15th birthday.

"The dress is a sort of gift for her, imagining that if she'd lived she might have had a dress made when she turned 21.

"It's made of linen from Clarks, using a vintage dressmaking pattern. The words on the sleeves are taken from her father's notebook, but the ones on the rest of the dress are my re-imagined idea of things she might have thought."

Family history: Heather Richardson with the dress in tribute to her aunt
Family history: Heather Richardson with the dress in tribute to her aunt

Heather, a mother of two boys, Isaac (22) and Leon (18), lives in Belfast and is married to John (51), a personal trainer.

She left Northern Ireland at 18 to study at university in England, where she stayed for a number of years, working in numerous jobs, from a bus driver in Leicester to a marketing executive at a private hospital in Harley Street.

She had a love of writing as a child and, when she returned home to Belfast in 1993 and became a mum, she decided to devote her spare time to writing short stories and poetry.

When one of her stories was picked up the Brian Moore Short Story Award, it gave her the confidence to write her debut book, Madgeburg, a historical novel set in Germany during the Thirty Years' War, which was published in 2010.

Her second book, Doubting Thomas, a story of sex, drugs and blasphemy in late 17th century Edinburgh, was published last year and made a top 10 best Scottish novel list.

To push herself out of her comfort zone and give herself a fresh challenge, Heather decided to create a dress as a memorial to her aunt, Kathleen.

Kathleen Hutchinson
Kathleen Hutchinson

"I wanted to push myself a wee bit and try something different," she says. "Sometimes doing that can refresh your approach to writing.

"A lot of families have stories about relatives in the past which are tragic or sad.

"I always knew Auntie Kathleen died in a cycling accident in 1939. It was always there in the background when I was growing up. It wasn't talked about much because it wasn't the done thing to talk about anything that was distressing.

"I'm a keen amateur stitcher and I like embroidery and dress-making. I brought those two things - Kathleen and my hobbies - together.

"I wanted to explore her story and not do the normal thing, which would have been to write about it, but instead tell it through the form of a dress.

"I tried to imagine what her future would have been if she hadn't died. She was an ordinary country girl, and I tried to put myself in her head. I didn't want it to be sad or morbid.

Sleeve notes: the back and arms of the dress
Sleeve notes: the back and arms of the dress

"I thought that life would have been very exciting for her in some ways because she had just started to work and had the whole world ahead of her. I wanted to capture that vibrancy."

Kathleen was the eldest girl in a family of 11 children, another of whom died as a baby.

She grew up in Kilrea, where her father, Thomas, was the local railway keeper.

Thomas, who lived to the age of 96, was a Somme veteran, and he and his wife, Hannah, were well-known in the area.

Heather used details from a notebook her grandfather kept - to record events in the village and on the railway - to inspire the words on Kathleen's dress.

Her own father, Tom Hutchinson (85), was eight years younger than his sister, but he fondly remembers her.

"Dad was only six when Kathleen died, but he remembers that at Easter she would have given the younger children chocolate chickens," Heather says.

"There is this sense that she was kind and thoughtful and used what little money she would have had to treat the younger members of the family.

"Dad remembers her funeral, which is a traumatic memory for him in a way. When I talked to him about her, he became quite upset. I think it is powerful how that pain can live on for so many years.

"All he has left of Kathleen is one photo and her birth certificate and her death certificate.

"He has been quite puzzled by my endeavours to create the dress, but quite touched as well - in a very private way.

"A family memory is being honoured, and he appreciates the thinking behind it and the fact that it has been done as a sort of memorial to Kathleen."

Putting herself in Kathleen's shoes, Heather embroidered words on the dress which she imagined would have reflected her aunt's feelings about her school days, starting her first job and her dreams.

She also used exact quotes from her grandfather's notebook to reflect life at the time.

"I tried to think of how she felt in school with the maps on the wall, dreaming about the big world out there, and then how she felt when she got her first job and had to travel six miles to work every day," Heather says.

"The factory supplied all the big stores in Belfast and London, and I thought about the sense of wonder she would have had about those fancy shops.

"I also wanted to talk about her mum and dad.

"My grandfather was known for his strong opinions, and my grandmother would have unpicked old flour sacks and remade them into bedsheets and pillowcases.

"Grandad recorded everything in his notebook, things like 'Mrs Kelso's goat got loose on the line today' or 'I bought a pig today' and some of that I have also used on the dress."

Throughout her two years of painstaking work on the dress, Heather posted details of her progress and the story behind it on Instagram, and was astonished by the interest.

"I was surprised by how many people got in touch to say how lovely Kathleen's story was," she admits. "It is very touching to think this little life that ended so many years ago means something to people who had nothing to do with it, and I am really happy it is having that effect."

As a result of her project, Heather was invited to exhibit her dress as part of Northern Ireland's Linen Biennale, which aims to celebrate the past, present and future of the material

"I'm not a professional textile artist, so I feel very lucky to be exhibiting alongside everyone else who is," Heather says.

"It is very hard to judge your own work, but I hope that people who do know about this stuff will not look at it and think it is rubbish. I just hope it is a fitting memorial to my aunt."

The dress can be seen at Lisburn's Island Arts Centre's Lost in Linen exhibition, alongside other linen garments, mostly made by designers and artists, until October 26.

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