When I first read the story of the Hawick quilter Janet Pow (1884-1962) the fact that jumped out at me was that she lived in a mill town, and she came from an extended family of textile workers. Of course, she was also a quilter. I was already fascinated by the quilts she helped to design and make.
Textile factories assault the senses, an ear filling din of shuttles, the heat of plant machinery, the dust hanging in the air, the smell of cones of yarn being spun or knitted into soft textiles, bundled into huge wheeled hoppers. I grew up in the East Midlands in a textile area, surrounded by factories. Historically the heartland of frame knitters working piecework in their cottages, and latterly the home of hosiery knitting. I was geographically immersed in soft manufacturing, as a child I bowled around the factory, a tall ceilinged creaking Victorian building with huge heavy doors and wooden floors worn to a high shine, entranced by the knitted socks as they were spat out of angry machines that ran day and night. Textiles have always been in my blood, looking back at a distance of decades I see that now. The industry that I knew, and that employed generations of my family, is long since gone; the factory building now a micro brewery. As I occasionally pass it on trips home to see family I still hear the machines and catch a drift of the clean fresh yarny smell of my childhood – the magic and the power of manufacturing industry.
In the summer of 2020, as the Covid restrictions temporarily lifted, we booked an impulsive week in the most isolated cottage with a beautiful view that we could find, it happened to be on the outskirts of the Scottish Borders town of Hawick. Hawick is situated in Roxburghshire in the Southern uplands of Scotland. In the eighteenth century, like the East Midlands, the area was famous for stocking manufacture, but the beautiful setting of the town at the confluence of fast flowing rivers and on the main routes north and south saw it develop large textile mills during Victorian times, becoming famous for its cashmere and lambswool trade. As a quilter though, it’s most fascinating textile history lies in the quilts that a small group of women, led by Janet Pow and others made. In a period of about 40 years between 1900 and the late 1930’s a prodigious output of quilts came from the makers of this area, sold as fundraisers for the local churches. Quilt historian Linda Lane Thornton has researched Janet in Volume 9 of Quilt Studies – “The Hawick Quilts”.
The quilts that these groups made, often communally (the quilts show variation in stitch ‘handwriting’ suggesting that several stitchers of varied experience worked side by side), occasionally come back onto the market and The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection holds the stunning blue version above, and collector Pippa Moss has a lovely selection.
My recent adventures in British heritage wholecloth quilt making have seen me bring a modern quilt aesthetic to a North Country Quilt in my The Misses Barron Quilt, and to eighteenth century floral linen wholecloth quilts in my Daisy Quilted England Quilt. I’ve long had the Hawick quilt in my mind as a rich source inspiration for a new modern quilt in this genre, and in keeping with my now almost-yearly tradition I decided that a ‘holiday inspired’ quilt might be the perfect project for the long Covid winter that inevitably awaited us on our return from that brief summer idyll of relaxed restriction.
Regular readers will know that the part I love the most about making a quilt, is the research. I frequently find I can eek out this stage for many months if not years. I find having a quilty research plan to be delicious, something to turn over in my brain, a commentary running in the background of home-schooling or dog walking, a comforting refrain in these times of near constant worry. My usual research technique is to read as much as I can find about a subject, to save, pin and stick ideas in a folder until a day of reckoning when it all tumbles out onto my kitchen table and I start to draw. I am in possession of almost no artistic skills in the drawing department, but that holds me back none! I am just as happy with a scribble, its role is just to record, sort, and start to systemically arrange ideas into a square or rectangular design for a quilt.
Hawick quilts offered all manner of rich material for this process with their mixture of classic design ( single colour wholecloth) with idiosyncratic quilting designs. With their roots in the vernacular quilting traditions of the north country in England, a style that stretched over country and county borders across the Cheviots, Pennines and Dales, Hawick quilts were both familiar and unique.
These quilts were refreshingly simple and bold, their designs a mixture of form and function. Hawick style quilts were made by small local groups who probably worked from the same set of templates, or were inspired by, or sharing each other’s, tried and tested fundraiser style. They were quilts made simply for many hands to make light work of. It’s suggested that many of the stitchers weren’t really quilters, they were just lending a hand and joining in, therefore intricate designs wouldn’t have cut it. Thus the practical pragmatic designers including Janet Pow clearly settled on a quilt pattern that worked for all. Simple and quick enough to make lots of to sell, but bold and striking enough for discerning buyers to bid for in their annual church fundraisers.
Designed around a familiar style of a central motif surrounded by secondary border design, but unlike their cousins the North Country Quilts, they did not embrace the flowing detailed sweeping borders of my Miss Barron Quilt, or the strict frame structure of Welsh quilts at the time. Instead they opted for a unique ‘grid’ where two borders, top and bottom, or indeed side and side, were drafted, with simpler treatments for the other sides. The open space of the quilt top was filled with bold big motifs, and the whole then stitched with an infill pattern to give texture. The unique border plan meant that quilting in a fixed frame became much easier as there were no corners to turn or patterns to match, just a concerted burst of stitching effort for the first and last turns of the frame as the quilt unwound to be sewn. In fact these pragmatic stitchers also joined their three layers together at the start when adding the quilt to the frame to cut another corner (only one textile to baste to the leaders on the top rail) in construction and the Quilt Studies paper by Pauline Adams “Evidence for an Unrecorded Way of Setting Up a Quilt in the Frame” in Volume 3 (2001) explores this unique little quirk of construction too.
I loved these stitchers of the past, I loved their bold design and their airy insouciance toward quilting convention – it was the perfect project for a pandemic period – an irony not lost on me as I surveyed the making dates for many of these quilts in the 1920’s.
The quilting motifs that Hawick quilts employed bear greater examination. Reflecting their proud Scottish geography, and perhaps reflecting armorial or town arms in the area, these quilts are most well known for the bold use of the thistle and the ‘ragged heart’. I knew straight away that these motifs deserved extra prominence on my modern version, and I loved making them in applique as well as in the quilting to better show them off. The origin of the ragged heart is much discussed amongst quilt historians, perhaps it reflects the story of local knight Sir James Douglas who legendarily carried the (ragged?) heart of the great Robert the Bruce to Spain (or Palestine depending on which account you read) on a crusade, and whose family ruled this area of Scotland in the 1300’s, their heraldic arms still appear on the towns crest. Others argue that it might just be another pragmatic quirk of these doughty stitchers who needed a way to flatten down the unruly ‘puffy’ centre of the quilted heart shape on their super-sized patterns? You can read all about this debate in Janet Rae’s book on Scottish quilting ‘Warm Covers’.
As well as these unique motifs there are more familiar shapes like the huge central daisy shape, called a Gowan in Scots quilting parlance, and other secondary shapes like the yin/yang circle motif ( they were clearly such chill quilters I mean, why not go all in?!) and the little daisy made up of 4 hearts back to back – a motif that recurs in various forms across British quilting applique and piecing patterns for at least 200 years from the 1718 Coverlet and maybe before?
The original quilts were made in a shiny sateen, a fabric that I always bewail no longer seems available, which gave that characteristic vintagey softness that I am beguiled by in old eiderdowns and whole cloths. In lieu of that fabric ( a long search previously for my The Misses Barron quilt turned up no affordable options for this) I decided to go with my next favourite wholecloth quilting substrate; 100% linen bedsheets from the mighty John Lewis. The original makers also chose a different front and back colour, sometimes beautifully complementary, occasionally weirdly clashing but perhaps they were running short of combinations, it was after all a fundraiser? One extant version had a black back, a colour choice that has always intrigued me. I had bought an inky blue linen sheet to be the backing of this project, the front was designed to be a chalky perfect-pink (i’m so picky about the right pink), but when I started to lay out the motifs it was immediately clear that they needed to be reversed and placed instead on the ink background to properly sing.
As with my ‘The Misses Barron Quilt’ I am again indebted to my friend and colleague Heather Audin the Curator of the Quilters’ Guild Collection who went above and beyond when it was safe to do so in this crazy year, to dig out a set of quilting templates from their amazing archive that were created by another group remaking a Hawick quilt some decades before, and who had drafted them from extant Hawick quilts. A little lockdown jiggery-pokery with my printers scale feature and I had made extra large templates that could then be transferred to freezer paper to make huge applique motifs.
The fabric for the applique shapes in my original plan was to be Scottish wools to reflect the heritage of the quilt, but the shopping limitations of this year meant that in the end I gratefully returned to a scheme that I first used in my Bertha Mitchell Quilt, (a pattern I wrote for The Quilters’ Guild a few years ago). I’m not Scottish and I like my ‘new’ versions of old quilts to not be copies but instead to be evolutions that reflect me as a maker today, drawing inspiration from the styles of the past. In my Bertha quilt, and this, I decided to use just fabrics that were printed or designed in the UK to best create new pieces that were also regionally or nationally ‘linked’ to where they were made. I like to think of it as ‘hefting’ quilts (to steal the sheep farming concept where sheep know their home geography and can find their way back if they stray) in this global quilting market we work within today. For my appliqués I used beautiful linens and Liberty – a combination I love. The linens were from a combination of British designers screen printing their own fabric here; Colette Moscrop, Lu Summers, Karen Lewis and Vanessa Arbuthnot
After appliquéing the motifs in place I had to plan the quilting. I’m a quilting chameleon as I’m a longarm quilter who loves to hand quilt as a hobby. Basting my hand quilting projects is one of the perks of the job when I can ever get my frame empty these days.
Because I had originally planned to use the pink as the front I had picked out the perfect quilting thread and I decided that I would just go ahead with the pink thread to give an interesting stitched texture on the front, whilst creating a classic wholecloth look on the back. As I’ve quilted it I’ve fallen more and more in love with the classic traditional back as a foil for the modern front and as you can see the hand quilting outline succeeds in creating an accurate replica of the original pattern style on the back.
Many of the Hawick quilts used what we might call a ‘clamshell’ hatching as their background, but it was referred to at that time as ‘mother of thousands’ or ‘scale’. I love these old names, it’s always thrilling to read about them and I always try and use them again to keep the living chain of this history alive.
I’m a messy quilt marker, but I’ve learnt from study of old quilts that makers were always dealing with the very same problems of accurate placement, I’ve learnt to embrace the wonky (especially when using loosely woven linen) as a lesson in historical quilt practice!
As we start to emerge from the third Covid lockdown this spring here in the UK I reached the end of the handquilting on this quilt, and it feels so timely. I like to follow the vernacular for edging and bind these British quilts using knife-edge as the makers of the past here would have done, but I usually can’t resist playing with it a bit. My first knife edge was my version of the 1718 Coverlet , and as befits this venerable textile I did the job ‘properly’. But since then I’ve had some fun, adding a stepped edge and a velvet ribbon backing to my The Misses Barron Quilt ( to reflect the legendary Misses Goulton who ran my childhood village haberdashery shop, filled with velvet ribbons for school ponytails and bunches) and a zingy yellow corded binding to my Daisy Quilted England Quilt (as a nod to the Leicestershire Corded Quilt that inspired the pattern of that top). For this one I went back to my original idea of Scottish wool, inserted as a flash of tweed between the front and back to give a small outline and a cosy edge. A flash of the textile roots in a modern quilt for today.