I treated myself to a morning off and headed for the Quilts exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. If you get a chance to go (it’s on until 4th July) you’ll be glad you did. The exhibition is both full of incredibly beautiful artifacts and is a fantastic piece of social history from 1700 to the present day.
Quilts to celebrate occasions
One of the first quilts to take my fancy was a creation to celebrate the marriage of John and Elizabeth Chapman on September 19th 1829. Embroidered into the centre was this delightful verse to remind John of his good fortune – presumably by the fragrant Elizabeth – or possibly her proud mother!
O lucky husband blest of heaven / To thee the privilege is given / A much loved wife at home to keep/ Caress, touch, talk to, even sleep/ Thrice happy mortal envied lot / What a rare treasure thou hast got / Who to a woman can lay claim / Whos tempers every day the same
Quilts are wonderful sources of memory and history. They act as both a record of their particular times but also a personal history of individual families and their stories.
The exhibition has many examples of commemorative quilts, from the early 18th century Christening quilts and quilted pincushions to mark the arrival of a baby, celebrations of monarchs and battles won, and those depicting historical or biblical stories. One applique quilt from around 1875 was an illustrated alphabet of love from Admiration to Zingari (gypsies – presumably telling a lover’s fortune) by way of Hopes, Quakings and Tiffs!
So passionate were people for quilting in the nineteenth century, that a whole new lexicon for quilt patterns sprung up, with popular magazines publishing the latest motifs such as the Jockey’s Cap or the Mariner’s Compass.
Not just for girls!
During the 19th Century the men got in on the quilting act too, especially tailors, members of Temperance Societies (anxious to offer self-help to keep fellows out of the pub) and the military services. There’s a beautiful military quilt with small mosaic style shapes dating from 1864, as well as several examples of soldiers’ work, often recycling worn military uniforms. I was rather taken with a painting showing Private Thomas Walker in 1856 sitting up in bed wearing a jaunty nightcap and happily sewing a quilt from the uniform laid out in front of him. Perhaps his injuries meant he no longer had use for it.
This male craftsmanship continues to this day with a striking example in the very moving quilt project made by the men of Wandsworth Prison. As well as the quilt itself there is a short film of the prisoners discussing their quilting and how it has helped them. The quilt has many different stories contained within it; of despair – please of innocence and miscarriage of justice and a portrayal of a prison suicide; of religion (various creeds); of humour; of boredom; of longings for home and family.
It is clear that many of the older quilts represent the loving work over many long days and nights of ordinary women, working by the fireplace. This exhibition is a real testimony to their skill, patience, creativity and real thrift. There are quilts made from old blackout curtains after the last War, a simple effort made in Northern Ireland out of leftover striped cloth from the local pyjama factory and several recorded voices from the past, recounting the work of quilters in the 1930s and 40s in depressed rural communities.
21st Century quilts
Whilst many of the contemporary quilts are very beautiful and show remarkable creativity in their use of textiles, I did feel that they were (perhaps inevitably in a national exhibition) more self-consciously artworks and as such had lost the sense of domesticity and love so evident in many of the earlier works. I loved the simplicity and skill of Pauline Burbidge’s Applecross Quilt (2007) a monochrome piece, evoking the landscape and reed beds of an area of North West Scotland. Grayson Perry’s Right to Life was a colourful and interesting take on the classic rhomboid quilt motif with tumbling foetuses among the tumbling rhomboids, an observation on the US abortion wars. And Tracey Emin had made her bed this time!
Quilts is on at the V&A London until July. You can book tickets online at £10 plus various concessions. >> V&A Quilts
From the blog – >> Making a journal quilt