Thursday, 18 March 2010

Quilts 1700-2010 at The Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be invited to the V&A Quilts 1700-2010 Exhibition press preview. Now obviously I bit their hands off as this constitutes just about my perfect day. Up to London on the train, a bit of window shopping, a bought sandwich ( oh the joys of bought sandwiches when you are a mum who makes packed lunches every day!), then an afternoon silently (breath, ahh and relax), perusing quilts in beautiful surroundings.

Where to start. The V+A exhibition, as described by the curator Sue Prichard, is not designed as a comprehensive catalogue of British quilt making, or a purely aesthetic celebration of an art form. It is a social history of Britain, with the quilt as the porthole to the past. As such the exhibition covers a lot of thought provoking ground. From the beauty and sheer creativity of quilts from the 1700's, made as status pieces, to the touching humility of some of the very practical coverings made out of necessity in economically ravaged parts of the country during the seismic economic and social upheavals of communities during Britain's industrial revolution. The exhibition also takes a sometimes uncomfortable look at what domestic arts really mean. Are they paths to freedom for women looking for an outlet for creativity within the strictures of motherhood and housewifery, or are they something much less joyful, an economic necessity for starving mining families, exploitation of women aboard convict ships on their way to Australia? 24 hours later and my mind is still whirling, surely the sign of a great exhibition.

The V+A kindly allowed us to photograph the quilts, but many are low lit under conservation grade lighting so some of the shots are a bit murky, or under glass so the flash bounces back. I'm afraid you will just have to go and see for yourselves(!), or if you can't make it there I can highly recommend the book of the exhibition available from the V+A Bookshop.

These are my highlights, where I have a picture I've added it, I'll also annotate the book pages in case you have a copy when you read this!
1. Creativity and Innovation

From the George III Coverlet 1803

I was amazed by how many new blocks and applique shapes were to be found. We are very used as quilters of the generation of '1,000 quilt blocks' style books of feeling like we've seen every variation of block, more or less. The British quilts from the 1700 and 1800's showed amazing innovation in their use of shapes, and so many circles and curves, I drew pages of new curvy blocks, all so fresh and new it's amazing to think some are 300 years old.

(these two pictures from a quilt dated 1797, the colour was much more pastel in real life, it was my favourite thing there)
(Also see the Bed Hangings c. 1730 (page 164) with their curved piecing, it reminded me of the Denyse Schmidt pattern Hills and Hollers. See the Bed cover 1690-1750 (p172)possibly from Exeter, those circular blocks could have been designed last year they look so fresh and of the moment to today's tastes.

2. Stating Britain's contribution to the Quilting Narrative.
George III reviews the troops ( but look at the pattern on the green fabric - It could be contemporary, It's very Jessica Levit Timber style isn't it?)

As a British quilter I really enjoyed the celebration of the history of our tradition here. I love the history and narrative of the US Quilt tradition, but for the first time through this exhibition I could actually feel our contribution to the worldwide narrative of quilt history.
Quilt from 1860, in Cardigan in Wales made in wool flannel

From Welsh Immigrants moving to Pennsylvania and the obvious parallels in style between quilts being produced in the valleys of Wales in the 1870's and the Amish style seen in the US at the same time, to the influence of Indian style and fabrics evident in so many of the quilts with their rich colours and paisleys and chinz.
(Also see the cot cover by Priscilla Redding c.1690 from Deal in Kent ( page 165) - it 's positively Amish in it's use of colour)

3. Quilts and Women

I found myself wondering, can you be a feminist quilter as I wandered, looking at pictures of careworn women itinerant quilters in Northumberland, earning a pittance to support their destitute mining families. Looking at a quilt made by women being sent to Van Diemans Land, but sold by their male jailers. As women today we chose to make quilts as a (self indulgent?) luxury buying new fabric lines like fashions, making a quilt in a weekend. Do we disrespect the history of women in the past who made quilts because of poverty and hardship?
Caren Garfens Quilt 'How many times do I have to repeat myself?' is both aesthetically beautiful, but also very thought provoking. It features pictures of all of the modern household appliances women are still slaves to. Yet her message is more complicated, suggesting that women also embrace the domestic and can feel like the modern world has stolen domesticity from women, making it no longer acceptable to prefer the domestic realm? Or has feminism delivered us the ultimate goal - choice?

This part of the exhibition also features some amazing quilt patches made by men serving life at HMP Wandsworth. They speak of the freedom of creativity, of going outside of yourself in creating something of beauty that has longeviety, like a quilt.
I found this whole area fascinating and very thought provoking, it is not always comfortable viewing, certainly not the comfy cosy emotional territory of your average quilt show.
I found myself concluding that in all of the stories these quilts tell, from women with money and time to indulge in magnificent show quilts, to prisioners stitching in a cell; what is common to all of the quilts i saw is that they are all made with pride, and in pride there is also joy whatever the hard circumstances they spring from. Isn't sewing and making about just this - a certain sort of joy that being creative brings, whether as a hobby or an economic neccessity? Quilts 1700-2010 is a joyful celebration of British Quilts and the women and men who have found some peace and quiet making them. amen to that.


  1. What a great oportunity and lovely photo's. I love looking at antique quilts and thinking about the history behind them. I have a quilt (not patchwork) that my grandmother made in Wales in the early 1900's which is very special. I have just come across your blog and will visit again!

  2. Deb, I so enjoyed your post about the V&A show! I'm very much looking forward to the Sue Pritchard's book!! Those are some very interesting blocks you've shown us and I can't wait to see more!

  3. I am so looking forward to seeing this exhibit! Thank you for the sneak peek and the prisoners quilt is done under the auspices of Fine Cell Work
    I just wish my prisoner partner would join in!

  4. what a heartfelt review of this exhibit! I think we all have that feeling of guilt at the indulgent life we lead today, as opposed to the women who quilted to keep their clans together in the past. thanks for sharing your thoughts with us all!

  5. I lived in England for three years and some of my favorite times was taking the train up to London and wandering through the V&A. I am trying to convince my Dh that we need to go back so I can see this exhibit! Thanks for the review!

  6. Thank you all for stopping by my blog, I do hope you get to make it to London, but if not the book to accompany the exhibition is more than a consolation (Hidden Histories and Untold Stories by Sue Pritchard) , also this months Selvedge Magazine features the exhibition and is a fascinating read too!

  7. Hi, I just popped over from Barbara Brackman's Material Culture and I really enjoyed your review of the exhibit. I am from the middle of the US, where our history is only a couple of hundred years, so quilts from 300 years ago would be amazing to see! Thanks so much for giving us a peek!

  8. Deb, loved your review of the exhibition and your thoughts...oh and you made me laugh about the bought sandwiches!