Quilts: The Historical and The Personal

Until recently, I didn’t have much of an interest in quilts or their history – I just didn’t feel an intellectual or academic interest in the subject. My only real exposure has been of a personal, rather than academic, nature. I had a ‘blankie’ growing up,  a quilt made specifically for me by a close family friend and skilled quilter. Historically speaking, it seems curious to me that the tradition was still in practice (in the late-1970s) – it was the midst of the woman’s movement and many women were rejecting many feminine traditions.

I suspect though, that many people my age have similar personalized quilts. My husbands grandmother made him several quilts. One, which I’m sitting under now, made in the shape of Mack truck complete with a CB radio in the window and quilted wheels. The same grandmother made a quilt to commemorate our marriage, and it is now treated as a special personal object. Quilting and quilts seem most often used for celebration or commemoration, similar to the place photography used to have – to mark a birth, marriage, or military service.

A quilt, by my grandmother-in-law, to commemorate our marriage.

As you might have guessed, my academic ambivalence towards quilts changed recently, when I came upon and thumbed through a new book, Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories by Sue Prichard, published in March by the V & A (distributed by Abrams in the US). Prichard documents the history of quilts, not only through the objects themselves, but also through paintings, etchings, lithographs and other printed ephemera.  Focused on objects produced in the UK, the book provides a wonderful visual history of quilts, quilted clothing (including tie-pockets, capes, jackets, etc) as well as other home-wares (pillows, curtains, infant bedding, etc).The book presents a series of topical essays by the likes of Clare Browne, John Styles, Claire Smith, Linda Parry, Christopher Breward, Jenny Lister, Dorothy Oser, Joanne Hackett, Angela McShane, Joanne Bailey, and Jacqueline Riding.  Through these essays, quilts are examined through many lenses, providing a thorough presentation of quilting styles, types and changing trends (crazy quilts, block quilt, patchwork quilt, etc).

Doublet and Breeches. Quilted white satin handsewn with silk braid and silk ribbon. England, 1630-40. (V & A)

Nearly Done, published 1898 (aquatint), Sadler, Walter Dendy (1854-1923) (after) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

Prichard’s book, and it’s contributed essays– of course– discuss quilts as celebration and commemoration, but the authors also look at the creation and use of quilts within the context of larger histories, personal creativity, gender studies, craft, technique studies and present a variety of viewpoints. Who knew that male soldiers made quilts between 1851-1910 ? Christopher Breward provides an enlightening and illustrated essay on just this subject.

One of my favorite parts of the book shows how the materials used to create quilts are often artifacts in and of themselves- using, as The Guardian put it “scraps of the real world.” Small pieces of paper (often scraps of newspapers, books and old letters), were used as templates for the geometric shapes. These templates were frequently left inside the quilt, adding to their historical relevance. Obviously, recycling and the ‘make to and mend’ influence is much visible with fabric use as well. Much like lace making, quilting has its own set of terminology – and the books useful glossary, along with an index and bibliography, help to educate readers. Overall, it is an excellent reference of over 300 years of quilting history in the United Kingdom.

Reverse of a revamped quilt with an intricately design of diamonds revealing a newspaper layer, detail. Patchwork of silk, satin and velvet. England, mid-19th century.  (V & A Images)

The book is meant to accompany the current exhibition on view at the V & A, of the same name. The website for the exhibition at the V & A has a number of really interesting applications, tools and ancillaries – that should lead other museums to take on similar practices.  Videos, a pattern maker, and a blog from the exhibits curator help draw potential visitors, or those who can’t see the exhibit, into the world of the show. It’s a wonderful kind of audience engagement. Also accompanying the exhibition is the much smaller, and more practical book, Patchwork for Beginners- a book I hope to test now that my interest in the history of quilting has been peaked.

The BBC also produced and narrated a slide-show giving an overview of the exhibition. I highly recommend watching it, and the video below.

The Changi Quilt from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

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  • M. Wannarka May 05, 2010 08.00 am

    Great article!! I have my grandmother’s journals from the 1960’s about what she did each day (simple, short entries) and she learned to quilt from her grandmother and has done so since she was 15. I hope to make a biography from this as well as a historic record of her quilts (as she took pictures of many). I was also involved in an international class where my partner and I compared and contrasted Korean jogakbo to American quilts.

    So I’ve been looking to eventually publish something academically on this topic as well.

  • Rachel Harris May 05, 2010 11.58 am

    The V&A always has the BEST exhibition related content on their website! They really go above and beyond any other museum.

    Also, regarding your comment about the oddity of making a quilt in the late 70s, I’d argue that handcrafts were really popular in the mid-to-late 1970s. I think it was a holdover of the late 60s hippie interest in handcraft as a rejection of social norms. Making and/or growing things oneself was seen as a way to escape a “soulless” society. By the mid-1970s, this interest had become more mainstream, so that women who had no interest in hippie ideology might have thought to make a quilt. Of course, there were also lots of women who’d been quilting all along!

  • Heather May 05, 2010 01.05 pm

    Thanks for the comment Rachel – you make a good point. In the case of this particular woman, she remains a stalwart feminist (who didn’t take her husbands name when they married in the 1970s-a new thing at the time). She’s a bit of a puzzle wrapped in an enigma: very Women’s Lib, but also incredibly crafty (the whole family is really). Anyway, I appreciate the insight!


  • Petra May 06, 2010 08.50 am

    HI Heather, Great post! Thanks for the information.

    I too have a new found interested in quilts. The Indianapolis Museum of Art has a large quilt and coverlet collection, but more specifically a large collection of Marie D. Webster quilts. Webster was a fascinating woman. She only began quilting at age 50 and started a very successful mail order business that she ran for about 40 years. Her quilts were featured in Ladies Home Journal in the years 1911 and 1912 and she wrote a pioneering book on the subject in 1915.

    Also, are you familiar with the quilter’s of Gee’s Bend?

    And my personal favorite, crazy quilts? I think I am drawn to the organized chaos.

  • Heather Vaughan May 06, 2010 10.18 am

    Petra – I’m a big fan of crazy quilts too – I think its the stitching. Yes, I am familiar with the quilter’s of Gee’s Bend. The de Young had their traveling exhibit on view a few years ago (2006 I think) – I actually got to have lunch with some of the quilters. Lovely ladies!


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