Quilt historians have postulated that the graphic modern shapes and rich woollen colours of antique Welsh quilts are the origin for the much vaunted modernist quilts that went on to be made by the American Amish. Certainly, non-conformist religious migrant communities are documented as having stopped off in South Wales to restock ships as they began their sea journey from their exile on the continent, to the new world.
It is this beguiling mixture of historical mystery and design beauty that has always intrigued me about old Welsh quilts. More than almost any other area of the United Kingdom, quilt making endured for the longest time and preserved the most distinctive style for us to study the roots of today. Welsh quilts were both a cultural identifier and a practical response to place. The heavy woollen fabrics and the light as air lambswool wadding combined to make warm lofty practical bed coverings. The passing of distinctive quilting motifs, and piecing formulas, between generations served as a mark of welsh-ness at a time when identity was profoundly political, in both the local and the national scale.
Antique Welsh quilts are items of profound aesthetic beauty. Often favouring a simple solid colour frame design, along with a small, perfectly formed set of favoured quilting template shapes such as sinuous cables and leaves and pears. Renowned for a simplicity that suits modernist tastes, along with a level of everyday widespread hand quilting prowess that is less often seen today. If you want to see more Welsh quilts visit Jen Jones’ website, which has the most wonderful selection, or the National Museum of Wales, whose database is online. Welsh quilt makers were domestic, but there was also a thriving commercial sector where quilt makers would travel from farm to farm each year, often combining dressmaking and alterations with quilt making. A quilt frame was kept in the barn and set up ready for the itinerant quilt maker to visit. By the start of the twentieth century quilts were made and sold from workshops, with many professional quilters gaining welcome modest-but-reliable employment in an area where jobs were generally centred on the vagaries of heavy industry and farming. Jen Jones or Mary Jenkins and Clare Clarridge have both written wonderful books about this history.
In common with many places where the highest artistry in thread has been achieved, the glamorous, beautiful Welsh quilts that survive today often seem incongruous when set against the often hard, sparse places in which they were made. This juxtaposition between the sinuous glamour of their quilting and the tough straightforward lives that they were made within, makes them all the more fascinating. It’s easy to fall into a kind of stereotype when we think of nineteenth century rural communities, working the fields as hill farmers or in the pits as miners. Whilst life was unquestionably often hard, and people went without, the desire to make things borne of aesthetic ambition is clear. Is beauty really only the preserve of the rich – of course it is not. In making quilts that were beautiful, but were also unmistakably welsh, made using the patterns of sisters and mothers and grandmothers and aunts, these communities looked beyond what a quilt looked like and invested their stitches in the sophisticated layers of meaning that communicated almost inadvertently what a quilt said about its maker or owner.
In the 1930’s, between the wars in Europe, and during the depression that marked that decade, a government scheme was set up to create opportunities for makers in the most impacted industrial areas of the country. With its ideological roots in ideals shared with the American New Deal, the British Rural Industries Bureau existed to link up skilled makers in the provinces, with more affluent urban markets (read more about this scheme in the latest British Quilt Study Group journal, Quilt Studies), with potters and weavers and many other skills, quilters were seen as able to create items that would sell in the cities. The Welsh quilting heritage was about to become national. The crisp modernist style of traditional Welsh quilts appealed to the consumers in the cities in a time when glamour ruled and fresh modernity was sought. The quilt above was commissioned from welsh quilters by Claridges Hotel through the Rural Industries Bureau. I decided to recreate this quilting pattern for my quilt because the many tensions between town and country, beauty and practicality, intrigue me. Next up was the piecing plan.
In the early spring of 2020, before the world we all knew started to come off the rails due to Covid, The Quilters’ Guild commissioned renowned Welsh quilter and guild member Sandie Lush to create the first PatternBox project. These little projects, taking inspiration from the treasures of the Museum Collection, pairs guild pattern designers and makers with heritage quilts to create new patterns for quilters to try out new skills, revisit old designs, and see our British quilting heritage, both the new and old, in fresh new ways. I admit I have a vested interest in these patterns, they were my original concept that the marketing team developed. This was the first pattern and to mark their inception, and because my first quilting teacher was Sandie, I decided that I’d make my own version.
Sandie’s pattern is a beautiful classic welsh style, designed to be worked as a whole cloth, but I wanted to play with the pattern to reflect the very same modernist aesthetic aims as the original makers. I wanted to create a fresh way to enjoy the patterns of hand quilting templates, an abstracted, simple celebration of shapes paired with texture. I took some of the classic quilting motifs and rendered them in patterned fabric – a methodology that I’ve also applied to a north country quilt , a Hawick quilt, and a West Country quilt. The result was the fun little mini quilt above.
It was the perfect entree to making a bigger version using the same idea. I had a package of antique fabric pieces salvaged from old textiles collected by Jen Jones. I paired these precious old fabrics with some fresh modern screen printed fabrics by Colette Moscrop and the juxtaposition of old and new felt just right to tell the story of new modernism. A quilt with its feet in the past, but relevant today.
Pairing the abstracted appliqué idea to the Claridges quilting pattern I created a quilt top, then marked it with hand quilting lines. I originally pieced in some vintage barkcloth along with some 100% woven wool (upholstery?) fabric from my stash, but the resulting quilt top was so heavy I could hardly hold it up! In the end I settled on some brushed cotton to give the same cosy feel without the weight.
It was an obvious choice to opt for 100% wool wadding, almost all welsh quilts of the past contain the nations most iconic export, but I sought out the bounciest wadding I could find for maximum hand quilted texture. The final top and backing were pieced together just as the covid crisis hit in the spring of 2020. Like so many others my sewjo took a dive, not least because we were hit with a dose of covid in March of the first wave, which was mercifully not serious in the context that we now understand, but nevertheless felt like the worst illness I’d ever suffered. After my brush with the virus I just had no appetite for this quilt at all, and I embarked on my strange summer of quilting silk petticoats and making eighteenth century shifts, and sewing eco projects – choices that, with the perspective of a years distance, was a clear escapism from a real world that was just too overwhelming for so many of us.
As the autumn rolled around and it began to dawn on us all (all except many governments around the world it seemed!) that we were not ‘out the other side’ of the global pandemic but merely in the autumnal foothills of a long hard winter, I decided that to dig in meant to take on a nice big, warm, comforting woollen hand quilting project. Through the long winter lockdowns and on into the wet and dreary summer that we’ve ‘enjoyed’ in 2021, I have doggedly stitched on. Part of the pleasure of a pre marked hand quilting project is that it requires no more creative investment. On dark February evenings, wrung out by full but flat days home schooling and juggling academic and business work, I had no brainpower left for decision making, but this quilt asked nothing of me. Just sit here a while and stitch, it whispered. Just huddle beneath me when the news gets too intense, when the lack of future plans bears down on optimism, just rock the needle and sew on with no thought to what went before and what lies ahead. A calming balm for frayed nerves.
The spring and summer of 2020 was defiantly glorious, we all remarked on how strange it was that as the world felt unhinged, nature stepped in and rewarded us for staying at home and walking our local byways and highways. Of course, 2021 has rebalanced the seasonal average with a spring of cold and wet days and a summer of grey glowering clouds and angry violent rainstorms here in the UK, pathetic fallacy for our ragged tempers. Although, as ever, a silver lining is there if we look hard enough, it’s remained stubbornly chilly enough in the evening to sew on under cloud-light warm woollen covers. I’ve finally finished this quilt as the covid restrictions look set to be lifted here in the UK.
In keeping with the national mood, I can hardly feel triumphant about this finish yet. Despite the reassurance of double-jabs, and the brittle defiant optimism of our political leaders, many of us are yet to feel that we have turned the final corner on the covid journey. It’s hard to rejoice when we’re all still so wrapped up in the numbers and graphs and stories of suffering around the world, and the rising cases again here in the UK. Yet we have at least persevered, we’ve hung on while they made a vaccine, and (sigh) I’ve finished a quilt, hardly comparable, but at least temporally they share something in common. Let’s hope that they both signal the start of something less mired in uncertainty.
Postscript; the sun came out for a precious minute and we quickly wafted the quilt top into its blessed rays to better show off that woolly definition. Needless to say its now raining cats and dogs and it’s been dark as night all July day! Hooray for warm quilts x