Issue 33 Quilt
THE IDEALISED IMAGE of a group of women huddled together supporting each other through life’s difficulties while working communally on a quilt is enduring and comforting. Whether or not it is true is another matter. Hollywood likes the idea, it appears in Peter Weir’s ‘Witness’ and ‘How to make an American Quilt’, and novelists too make use of this example of feminine solidarity. Some are wary of mythologising a craft that was, for many who perfected it, a skill born of harsh necessity. The wives of unemployed miners, who made quilts to make ends meet during the 1930 were stitching for survival not social entertainment, that was left to the patrons of Claridges who slept beneath their handiwork. In some ways the beautiful stitched designs and the intricate patchwork that women made are marks of pride and defiance in the face of difficult circumstances.
Americans are rightly proud of their quilting traditions but they share them with every country where thrift is part of everyday life, and isn’t that everywhere in the world? The technique is traced to Ancient Egypt and can be found in kanthas, the stitched quilts of Bangladesh and Japanese Boro textiles: the oldest quilt I know of is the Tristan quilt from Sicily which was made in the 14th century. Today, it is in the permanent collection of the V&A Museum, London, a fitting location as the UK has an illustrious quilting tradition. We also have an unfortunate tendency to hide our talents under a bushel. Hopefully the major spring exhibition at the V&A Museum will change that. Skillfully put together by Sue Prichard, Quilts 1700-2010, explores the stories told in 65 British quilts from the last three hundred years, from figurative 19th-century quilts to the work of contemporary artist Natasha Kerr. The exhibition inspired us to put together our first ‘technique themed’ issue and in doing so we have been struck by the commitment and energy of the women who champion craft, from the dedication of Jen Jones to Welsh quilts, to Denise Lewis’ desire to revive rural traditions.
The exhibition’s launch comes in the middle of British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s radio series TheHistoryoftheWorldin100Objectsin which he is attempting to tell a history of the world through objects in The British Museum’s collection (daily, 9.45am, BBC Radio 4). To date there has not been a quilt – but if this issue has taught me anything it’s that a great deal can be discovered by piecing together the clues found in a quilt.
Polly Leonard, Founder