Saturday, 12 June 2010

History isn't repeating itself

I went to see Quilts: 1700-2010, the exhibition of British quilts currently on at the V&A in London, with my mom during her recent visit to the UK. And I'd recommend it to anyone with a passion for needlework.

It was fantastic seeing quilts from a historical perspective, rather than a modern quilting perspective, in a museum setting. And the array of old British quilts was awe-inspiring. I can't say the same for the modern art quilts interspersed among the old. It's not that they weren't well made or conceptualised — Punctuation was a thought-provoking piece of modern textile art that clearly took Sara Impey hours and hours to create. It's a detailed, extremely neat and poignant work. But Punctuation was the exception. The other pieces from the 21st century simply did not draw the crowds.

I think what struck us most was that the old quilts were involved, detailed and time-consuming, yet they were made for purely practical reasons. And they were made by women who, for the most part, are long forgotten. They were not artists, these quiltmakers. They were homemakers. And they used whatever fabric they had available to them at the time — old robes, sheeting, factory offcuts, ribbons, silk handkerchiefs... You can see where one fabric ran out and another was introduced in some of the exhibits. These women's quilts were not intended to provoke thought or convey social commentary, they were to keep families warm during cold British winters.

'Sundial' coverlet, England, 1797

Because they were made for practical purposes, the old quilts are mostly double bed size or bigger. And small blocks and big quilts make for hours and hours of hand stitching, just to piece the top. Add to this the tendency to incorporate hand embroidery into the blocks and one can only imagine how much time was spent stitching these quilts, probably by candlelight or later an oil or gas lamp.

There was also a trend in days past to make commemorative quilts for special occasions, where quiltmakers surrounded a detailed central panel with uniformly sized shapes that made up the rest of the quilt. But these quilts generally commemorated patriotic or royal events, such as King George III reviewing volunteer troops in Hyde Park, rather than family events. The only downside of the exhibition was the inability to scrutinise all these central panels. Many of the quilts were exhibited on "beds", putting the panels at an awkward angle for viewing. Tilting these beds towards the viewer slightly would have made it possible to better see the detailed work in the centres.

George III coverlet, Britain, 1803-05

The approach of women past to creating quilts is far removed from quiltmaking today. In a reflection of our times, quilting appears to have succumbed to the larger societal notion of instant gratification. We think nothing of simply going out and buying swathes of pre-matched fabric designed for quilting, whipping up a quilt top in a weekend and then palming it off on the nearest machine quilter to finish off. Scraping the fabric barrel, hours and hours of hand stitching and all that effort for events outside of the family are history, literally.

Another interesting bit of history that came to light was that men, particularly military and naval men, who are considered most manly nowadays, were equally likely to pick up fabric and thread. In fact, they were encouraged to do so while on tours of duty abroad or recuperating from war injuries to prevent them from succumbing to gambling, women and alcohol. One such quilt was hand-pieced entirely from hexagons that couldn't have been more than an inch in diameter, and it's big enough to hide a queen-size bed under. It's only in the past few years that I've heard of perceived manly men picking up the needle again.

The one thing these quiltmakers did have on their sides, though, was time. Before feminism, social equality and the industrial revolution, women — particularly more affluent women — had hours of downtime every day in which to stitch. I like to think only those that enjoyed needlework took it up, although I'm sure there were many who didn't and were expected to quilt and embroider anyway. I'd never wish to live in an age when women were deemed inferior, but I do sometimes envy the amount of time they had to spend stitching. I realise that modern woman's free time is directly proportional to the quality and volume of the work she is able to produce.

As with all historical artefacts, seeing how quilts and quiltmaking have evolved over the past 310 years made us view our own stitching efforts and their worth and purpose in a new light. I've been toying with the concept of time, skill and value from a needlework perspective for a while now, and this exhibition really brought home the fact that dedicating time and effort to one's craft — making time to perfect skills and create masterpieces — is worth it's weight in goldwork threads. And if people were already bypassing the 21st century textile works now, there won't be much to show at the V&A's Quilts: 2000-2310 exhibition if more of us don't start stitching with a little more integrity.


Matthew Moodie said...

To see some amazing modernish, practical quilts, visit Hemingford Grey Manor. Lucy Boston (author of the Green Knowe books) sewed some lovely ones over the many winters she lived there.

Kelly Fletcher said...

Thanks for the heads up, Matthew. Will have to plan a trip to go and see them in situ. Looks to be well worth it.

arlee said...

Actually, there a LOT of us who reuse and recycle old and new fabrics made to look old, hand stitch, design with purpose and intent, and enjoy doing it ourselves :)

Tilly said...

Fabulous post. I wish I could see the exhibition. I remember as a teenager having a go at hand sewing/piecing a quilt. I'm afraid I didn't get too far before I gave up. No doubt the fact that I had a nice lot of blankets on my bed already had something do do with it. Nothing like being cold at night to make you get on and make a toasty warm quilt!