Back in the dog days of last summer I embarked on a palma non sine pulvere – a project of great reward in exchange for great effort – I decided to hand quilt a king sized North Country wholecloth quilt.
I’ve always been a hand quilter ( see my previous post for how and why this became my favourite skill) and I’ve hand quilted more quilts than I can remember, but like so many modern makers, the idea of a wholecloth seemed too daunting to seriously consider.
When you tell a room full of quilters that you’re hand quilting a wholecloth you get the whole gamut of reaction, from the encouraging, to the ’you must be mad’, but when you analyse what’s at the heart of the ambivalence it’s a simple list…..
i) it’ll take too long
ii) I like patterned fabric too much to forgo it
iii) I wouldn’t know where to start with the pattern
The more I read about the history and heritage of wholecloth quilts, the creativity and discipline, the glamour and the toil, the more beguiled I became. I needed to overcome my simple but compelling list of reasons not to try and learn a new skill.
I’ve always loved North Country wholecloth quilts for their glamorous exuberance. I love visiting the county of Northumberland and wanted to make a quilt in celebration of one of our favourite yearly holiday locations. I picked a couple of historic quilts to study their patterns with a view to trying to figure out just where you started in drafting a pattern of this complexity. I had the gem of an idea to combine appliqué with hand quilting to make a modern celebration of the shapes of the quilts of the past.
As a member of The British Quilt Study Group I was lucky enough to be offered the use of the original RIB templates ( I talk about the work of the RIB in the 1920s and 30s in my previous post ). These template shapes were all the characteristic symbols found in this style of wholecloth, and I started to see how joining them together in different combinations could build up the pattern for my quilt. I embarked on a fascinating journey of exploration, breaking the pattern into sections and figuring out how to transfer it to a king size bed sheet. I took the most dominant shapes from the central rose and used the quilting templates as appliqué templates, creating freezer paper shapes that I appliquéd to the background by hand.
The choice of fabric for this project was also a head scratcher. The original quilts that I loved so much were often made in sateen. This is a fabric that was clearly a staple, and easy to get hold of in 1930, but these days it was a fabric type that just didn’t seem to exist in the quilting world. In the end I settled on a king size bedsheet from John Lewis with a high end threadcount, and a slight sheen. It also had the benefit of no seam in my 84” square top. Several commenters on my original IG post about this quandary expressed concern that the tight weave might inhibit smooth sewing, but my experience was that it quilted really well. The quilting stitches don’t nest into the weave of the fabric quite as much as they might with usual quilting cotton but I quite like the stitch definition that is created. For the back I used several FQs and some yardage of the Lecien Durham Collection from Sew&Quilt. For the appliqué shapes I used a combination of fabrics including my favourite Colette Moscrop and Karen Lewis printed fabrics from the UK alongside Liberty prints, which I try and work into my makes because they are such strong signifiers of fabric being made in this time and this place, to root my makes to here and now.
When I embarked on this make, my motivation was as much about the experience than the final item. I wanted to create, design, mark and sew my quilt in the same ways as the women and men who marked and sewed theirs a hundred years ago. By walking in their steps, using the same processes, solving the same design challenges I hoped to get a better insight into the process of this making.
You learn so much about a historical quilt by making a modern version, I look at all wholecloth quilts now with different eyes. The haptic experience of marking, basting, stitching, edging all tie us to a long chain of makers over hundreds of years. To keep a tradition living it needs modern makers to pass a baton on. So much knowledge is lost if we don’t evolve the traditions. Whilst we can always look at an old quilt and copy a pattern, we can’t ask the maker how they marked it, where they started quilting and why, what hints and tips they employed, how long it took to make it, where they bought their fabric – so many questions that reveal so much more about a makers life. By researching the history of these quilts and making my own I hoped to try and access at least some of the experience of making this characteristic style of British quilt. Reading the research of Dorothy Osler and Mavis FitzRandolf into North Country quilting helped me answer such mundane but crucial questions as ‘should I start quilting at the top or the middle?’ – an impasse that held me up in a cloud of uncertainty and fear of ripples, for a week!
Marking the outer border was the most challenging and I was massively inspired and encouraged by seeing the work of Margaret and Aiden Nichol and talking with them at a seminar this autumn. Experts in transposing traditional patterns and understanding the ‘bones’ or structure of a pattern, looking at their detailed work gave me the conviction to begin. Dorothy Osler answered my many practical questions about the lives and challenges of the original makers and bought this project alive for me. I wrote recently (Winter 2019) in my column Modern Notes on Quilting for The Quilter Magazine about the huge inspirational benefits of belonging to a National Guild as diverse as ours and I’m always grateful for the wealth of experience that is so generously shared, none more so than for this project.
The British quilters of the North East produced items of such refined beauty, in situations of often real financial hardship. Items of starched clean purity in lives of manual grind in a rural and industrial area. I was fascinated by the practical considerations of this make. How do you keep a light coloured wholecloth quilt clean as you stitch over many weeks and months? How do you live alongside a piece in progress in a small room? How do you mark your pattern, or find the space to see the pattern as a whole? How long does it take to stitch? How does the experience of stitching a wholecloth quilt differ from that is a piece quilt? How much thread does it use? Where do you begin in designing a pattern? I’ve partially answered many of these questions but been left with a hundred more. This definitely won’t be the last time I visit this rich area of British quilting past.
Traditional North Country wholecloth handquilting is a heritage craft. I’m passionate about exploring ways to give this unique regional style a modern twist and a living breathing evolution. Whilst I love studying the quilts of the past, the root of my fascination is with how the designs and practices are a link to the culture and heritage of a place, how can we keep those skills alive whilst creating new work? Drawing on the traditions and designs of our British quilting past is so important to preserving the unique origins of patchwork and quilting in our country. I’m often puzzled at the discrepancy in respect that is given to other heritage crafts and much less to patchwork and quilting. We are fortunate that patchwork and quilting skills are still alive as a craft and practised by so many, unlike many heritage crafts. However the downside of this ( wrapped up in traditional issues of patriarchal undervaluing of women’s ‘hobbies’) is that it can be dismissed as something trivial, fluffy, commercialised – rather than something with integrity.
Learning about, and making my own modern wholecloth has been an enlightening experience. It’s been hard labour for great reward because I’m delighted with my finished quilt. I wanted to make something modern, but with clear roots, a quilt with history and integrity but with a fresh modern style. I’ve loved every stitch. I’d encourage you to explore this fascinating style of quilt too.