This hand pieced clam-shell quilt was made over a period of more than a year, but the idea for it marinated for almost a decade.
Back in 2010 I had been making quilts for several years and blogging about it since 2008, back when writing a blog about making quilts was a pretty niche pursuit! Because the field of potential quilt influencers was so sparse back then 🙂 I was delighted to be invited by the press team at the V&A to the preview showing of the Quilts 1700-2010 exhibition.
This exhibition was a watershed moment in my quilting life because it marked the realisation that there was a British history of quilting.
Let me start at the beginning. I became a quilter after a stint living in the US in 2000. Because I was young and carefree and twenty-something I didn’t ever find time in a social whirl year to get to a quilt shop in the US, but I bought home a yearning desire to sleep under a quilt again and that desire lead me on a winding journey to teach myself to make a quilt for my bed.
Almost 10 years passed and in those years I got married, had a baby, bought a vintage quilt top from the US on the new phenomenon that was ebay, sitting up until 3am to bid on the quilt of my choice. When it arrived, unquilted ( I hadn’t realised that a quilt ‘top’ meant no quilting!), I set to learning how to hand quilt. I took a class with the legend Sandy Lush, drove 200 miles to Devon because I found a ‘quilt shop’ in the yellow pages.
Pre widespread internet access, the quilting community in the UK was invisible to me. I persevered with my quilting education, and armed with a beechwood hoop and a wooden spool of waxed hand quilting thread and a lump of beeswax and I fell in love with the tactile nature of the act of rocking hand quilting and it’s equipment. I obsessionally hand quilted my US quilt over the course of a year as mothered and started to learn the associated art of patchwork, joyfully creating quilt after quilt as my little family grew. Around 2007 as internet access became easier, I found a mention (in one of the US quilting magazines that I greedily devoured whenever my husband travelled to the US with work), of flickr – a photography sharing site and a group called Fresh Modern Quilts. I started sharing pictures of my making and writing a blog and suddenly a world of other quilters opened up! I still had never met another quilter in real life apart from the lady who ran the only quilt shop I knew in Devon, despite sewing quilts for almost 6 years at this stage!
In 2010 when the invitation to travel to the V&A came through I couldn’t have been more excited. As a stay at home mum of three 3 kids under 5, a day of culture was irresistible! I turned up at the V&A without much thought of what the exhibition would include (just leaving the house alone was the kind of treat that only other mums of pre school children can really appreciate – the heady taste of that sweet freedom!) other than ‘lot’s of nice quilts’ but that day in the V&A changed my life. Gallery after gallery of British quilts, the story of British quilting and a scholarly exploration of trends and social history – as well as a challenging modern gallery questioning and reexamining what quilts could and should be today.
I now know that I should have been braver, to approach other quilters, talk about my passion, instead I felt slightly fraudulent – but my head was spinning with ideas. Quilting friends I made years later via the online modern quilt world also attended that landmark day and the true impact of that exhibition in bringing British quilt making out of the domestic shadows for a whole new generation of women with young children who were re defining quilting through the Modern Quilting blossoming has been under appreciated. I do wish that the V&A exhibition had happened 2 or 3 years later when the true ‘craft revolution’ had happened alongside the recession and it was cool to craft – it’s effect could have been even wider – but nevertheless I was the lucky beneficiary of it’s shot in the arm of inspiration, and a strong dose of the wider social and historical context of the quilts I made. You can read my original review post here
In that exhibition were so many quilts that still inspire my work ( and several that I still hope to return to for new work) but one of my favourite items was a set of exquisite clam-shell bed curtains for a tester bed. They used the clam-shell ( a pattern I had assumed was american 1930’s in origin instead of British 1730) in this elegant elongated diamond pattern. I had more usually seen clam-shells in neat rows or constrained in blocks. I always wanted to return to clam-shells and revisit this fish-scale-like layout but it took almost another 10 years for me to do so.
I had made various cushions and pouches and other small quilted items over the years using clam-shells, but the usual methodology hides a malevolent secret which is that the unusual pattern makes perfect accuracy hugely challenging, and as the rows grow these tiny errors of alignment magnify and grow – making the ends of the row open up yawning chasms of alignment, thus refuse to match and sit flat. Many a grand clam-shell project has floundered on the rocks of clam-shell reality.
In the spring of 2017 I was lucky enough to take a class with Australian quilter Irene Blanck who taught her method for making clam-shells – it’s foolproof – i’d encourage you to search it out ( shes written several patterns and books ) if you want to give clam-shells a go!
Because of the labour intensive nature of the clam-shell ( hand basting the curves then appliqueing them together) this quilt grew slowly, which is the kind of sewing I love. Hand pieced, little snatches of time here and there, careful placement and gentle winding progress. I sewed this quilt on several holidays, on Greek islands and on the windy Northumberland coast – all the memories sewn into the final quilt.
The finished diamond was appliqued onto this peachy pink background and I quilted it in an all over pattern reminiscent of bubblewrap – as perfectly peachily plump as the clams themselves.