Through her humble quilting shop, Quilts ‘N’ Calicoes, Ira Joseph not only touched the lives of her customers but her community as well. Pouring herself into each and every project she worked on, that Ira brightened up our world is an understatement. Her son, Sanjay, shares with us his mother’s story and legacy.

Speaking over the phone with Sanjay Joseph, 43, about his late mother, Ira Joseph, one cannot help but marvel at the life of a woman who was filled with passion and dedication, inspiring those lucky enough to have known her. Better known as the founder of Quilts ‘N’ Calicoes, Ira turned her love for quilts and quilting into something more than just a business.

Growing up in a privileged household in India, Ira was exposed to the arts at a young age, immersing herself in drama, dance and painting. Her mother was artistically inclined, and taught her and her two sisters the finer points of domesticity such as sewing and cooking, inadvertently planting the seeds of quilting in Ira.

When she was 18, Ira eloped with a Singaporean journalist, who was 17 years her senior, to Singapore. Their promising future was dealt a heavy blow when, at 21 and pregnant with her second son, her husband suffered a stroke that left him semi-paralysed. Sanjay was only three at that time. Ira eventually had to leave him with his grandparents in India for several years, so she could care for her husband and Sanjay’s two younger brothers (his youngest brother had been born when Sanjay was in India) in Singapore.

Not one to take a handout, Ira worked multiple jobs such as teaching crafts at the Singapore Leprosy Association, teaching English at St Michael’s School and teaching night classes to adults, which meant she often returned home past midnight. When Sanjay came back to Singapore at the age of 11, he and his brothers would sometimes take the bus to Mayflower Secondary where his mother taught night classes to go home together with her.

For as long as Sanjay could remember, his mother had always been sewing and crafting, making toy dolls like Raggedy Ann.

On 24 October 1984, The Straits Times ran an article featuring Ira. Photo Courtesy of Sanjay Joseph

“I remember going to Big Splash, and they would have weekend markets, and she’d be selling her wares there,” he said.

In 1987, Ira set up Quilts ‘N’ Calicoes at Riverwalk Galleria with two friends, before moving to Coronation Plaza (where after 5 years she bought out her two partners), then Holland Village, and then Tanglin Mall. She ultimately moved the business to Bukit Batok a couple of years before she passed on. Even though her hours were still irregular, she was able to return home by 8 or 9pm. Sanjay recalled how his mother always brought quilting materials home. The figure of his mother quilting or patching was a perpetual fixture at home and one of Sanjay’s fondest memories of her.

Ira’s reputation and business really began to take flight in the 1980s. Besides working on small projects, in the late 1980s she also wrote a Sunday column for The Straits Times about arts and crafts. Over the years, Quilts ‘N’ Calicoes played host to a global clientele, and people from all walks of life.

At the time, only mostly expatriates were interested in quilting, and getting locals involved was challenging. Yet, it was because of expatriate patronage that awareness of Quilts ‘N’ Calicoes spread by word of mouth, with Ira’s name becoming synonymous with quilting. Many expatriate women had their own quilting guilds back home, which helped to grow Ira’s reputation overseas. Ira once even had a client from the U.S. who specifically sought her out to restore a 19th century civil war quilt – a testament to her skill as a quilter.

Ira (fourth from right, in black) at ‘Flora & Fauna – A Quilt Exhibition’ held at the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2010. Photo Courtesy of Sanjay Joseph

Ira was also involved in various local projects in the community, which put her in the spotlight. She put together a large quilt that was hung in the lobby of an old HDB building in Bukit Merah – a slightly abstract piece that featured the layout of a township. The quilt, symbolic of home and maternal domesticity, provided a soft touch in contrast to the otherwise utilitarian character of HDBs.

Sanjay and his brothers helped out with her quilting projects whenever they could, even though none of them really had an aptitude for quilting.

In the aftermath of the SARS outbreak in Singapore in 2003, Ira was asked to be part of the Fabric of Our Nation project to commemorate the bravery and resilience of Singaporeans in the face of the epidemic. Sanjay recalled that although it had been a stressful time for his mother, given the colossal scale of the project, she had been excited to be part of the deeply symbolic undertaking.

In an outpouring of national solidarity, 15,000 patches of quilt made by people from all over the island were collected and sent to Ira to be pieced together into 60 quilt panels. Ira mobilised her friends, customers and students to help out; Sanjay and his brothers chipped in to carry the bags of fabrics and align the pieces of fabric. The “Fabric of Our Nation” exhibition showcasing the quilts was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the HDB Hub Mall in Toa Payoh on 8 April 2004, with a live television broadcast. Sanjay remembers being unable to contain the immense pride he felt for his mother.

“I do remember telling a lot of my friends that if they went to the airport they would see [the quilt], and that it was done by my mom,” he recounted.

Ira (third from left) at the “Fabric of Our Nation” exhibition that was launched by PM Lee in 2004. Photos courtesy of Sanjay Joseph

Through the years, Ira’s friends, many of whom started as her customers, have become like family to the Josephs. One of them is an English lady whom Ira and her sons call Mashi, Bengali for ‘Aunt’, has been a de facto mother to Sanjay and his brothers. The son of Ira’s friend from the U.S. would be sure to always visit Ira on behalf of his mother whenever he was in Singapore. When Quilts ‘N’ Calicoes closed down in January 2017 after Ira’s passing in 2016, Sanjay revealed that “when we were closing the shop, I found photographs of kids and all that from all over the world and cards and stuff like that.” Ira’s enduring friendships are a reflection of her warmth and love for those around her.

Despite being generous and selfless with others, Ira was less so when it came to herself. When she wanted to attend the annual International Quilt Festival in Houston, she carefully deliberated if spending $1,000 on the flight was worth it, however, if her sons needed the same amount, she would immediately get her cheque book out. She was, in fact, not the least bit calculative – she did not care much for the business as long as there was enough money to keep things running. To Ira, Quilts ‘N’ Calicoes was a place where she could work on her own art and impart her knowledge and passion for quilting; business was secondary. She loved fabrics, especially Robert Kaufman designs, and was very particular about them. Mostly, she focused on when the new fabrics would be coming in and the full release of fabric collections.

“And up till her last day she would say that she really didn’t know how to run a business even after doing it for 30-something years,” Sanjay said. “But she was passionate beyond words.”

To meet promised deadlines, Ira would burn the midnight oil hand-quilting until 4 or 5am, and at times she would go for up to 24 or 48 hours without sleep. When inspiration struck, she would wake up in the middle of the night to work on ideas and sketch out quilt designs.

The composite nature of quilts makes them perfect for repurposing sentimental keepsakes such as baby rompers and college football T-shirts. People often went to her shop with these and asked her to piece them into a quilt. Sanjay reckons that he still has about 50 of her quilts at home, and revealed that a lot of her favourite quilts have been sold over the years. “Because for her, if somebody else likes it, she would rather let that person enjoy the quilt, as she could always make another one,” he explained.

Sanjay’s most treasured quilt is one that he had begged his mother to make for about eight to 10 years before she finally got round to it.

“Well I’m in the F&B business, so I have T-shirts with bar logos and stuff like that which I collected over 20 years, and she made a quilt with those T-shirts for me,” he said.

Ira’s giving, selfless nature is perhaps what enabled her to navigate life’s deepest trenches. Sanjay remembered that she would sometimes skip meals just so her sons and her husband had enough to eat.

“She would make rice, something like a porridge, for my brothers and she would drink the water that came from that as her dinner,” he said.

One of Sanjay’s favourite quilts made by Ira featured at the Singapore Botanic Gardens for ‘A Quilt Exhibition’ celebrating the latter’s 150th anniversary, 2009. Photo courtesy of Sanjay Joseph

A great advocate for breast cancer awareness and research, Ira actively raised funds for the cause, even putting up a sale where she matched whatever was sold dollar-for-dollar. At another breast cancer awareness event, both she and Sanjay had shaved their heads. Sadly, in a tragic twist of fate, she eventually succumbed to breast cancer in 2016.

The phoenix quilt (for ‘A Quilt Exhibition’ at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, 2009) is one of Sanjay’s favourite designs by his mother. It was never sold as he wanted to keep it. Photo courtesy of Sanjay Joseph

A few years before Ira’s passing, she moved to Bukit Batok near Sanjay’s place, so that she could have some downtime to focus on the things that she wanted to do – write a book on quilts and design a “Singapore fabric”, which had been something she had long hoped to create but was inhibited by her lack of computer skills. Despite her attempt to get away, people still came to her, and she never had much time for herself. She was later limited by her cancer and sadly never got to finish the two projects.

Ira quilting at ‘A Quilt Exhibition’ held at the Library of Botany & Horticulture, Botany Centre, Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2009. Photo Courtesy of Sanjay Joseph

Perhaps all these stories about Ira cannot fully capture the immensity of her spirit, but through her incredible projects that have brought people and communities together, her passion and determination, as well as her palpable love for her family and friends, we are able to catch a glimpse of the beautiful tapestry of her life.

Written by: LY Kang

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