I’m passionate about hand quilting (hear me discuss this topic in the Haptic and Hue podcast and on the Quiltfolk Show & Tell this autumn 2021). In a world where patchwork usually takes top billing, I always like to sing the creative and aesthetic praises of quilting. The idea of the antique quilt frame to carry out my hand quilting has always beguiled me. Old narratives of quilting invariably mention the frame as the centre point of the experience of hand quilting, yet my 20th century experience of being a quilter had never included a frame (I had always quilted in a hoop). I had seen pictures of quilters in the UK from the late 1970’s demonstrating items like small cot quilts or cushion covers on small frames, and I have a file of scarce images from our country like the one below from The Museum of Wales showing quilters in Solva, South Wales in 1928 but in the quilt shows and social media posts of our modern quilting world, the frame was almost always missing. In the US, quilt frames appeared more commonly, modern iterations with cogs to crank the quilt top and bottom tight, standing on sturdy frame legs, they were clearly an evolution, but they didn’t feel like quite the same beast as the elegant spindly frames resting on chair backs or carpenters trestles in pictures of the past in the UK which I had seen.
Museum quilt collections occasionally also include the tools of quilt making in their displays. Sometimes you see templates, thimbles and pincushions, but I’ve seldom seen an authentically old quilt frame on display, yet all quilted bedcovers would have been finished this way! The reason for this is rather prosaic I suspect. Whilst the statuesque quilt frame pictured above takes up a huge 8ft by 4ft space when it is made square, the constituent parts really just equate to four 2″ x 4″ lengths of wood. We know from old accounts that these frames were stacked in barns and outbuildings, threaded under beds or balanced in the roof beams to await the yearly quilting project. As quilting waned, presumably the frequency that these tools were taken down and the cobwebs dusted off lengthened. Eventually they just became stray pieces of wood, burnt, dispersed, otherwise repurposed. They were unremarkable once their primary purpose was less central in the homes in which they lodged. This left me, and the history of quilting, with a problem. How might I go about getting hold of an old frame?
As a quilt historian and material historian, I research and write about the place that quilts and quilt making had in the lives of people in the past. This is not an exercise in nostalgia, but an attempt to keep alive the thread of the history of this craft skill that I love that it might continue to evolve, drawing on its historic rootstock to blossom again with new ideas and influences. I unearth testimony which shines a light on the place of the quilt in the everyday, domestic lives of the people who owned and made them. Quilts and quilt making were part of the tapestry of peoples lives, both a pleasure and source of pride but also a necessary chore like lighting the fire each morning or making bread. Making a quilt was often not an exercise in leisure as we’d understand it as something separate from work, but just part of the character of different stages in life, or seasons of the year. This means that people left little specific description of quilt making, few books were written about the art until the twentieth century.
To learn about the space that quilt making took up in ordinary homes and lives I look for the scattered mentions of the quilt. I read the stories where the quilt is an accessory to a moment in time, the crimes, the moments of grief or loss, or birth and joy, the fire sales and bankruptcies, the wills and inventories, the shop adverts and shopping lists. In these stories I sometimes come across a quilt frame. Destitute mothers visited by the Poor Law Guardian, sisters bequeathed quilt frames on the death of their father as their brother inherits the farm, landlords holding a frame as a surety on unpaid rent. In all of these stories I imagine the room that held the frame. Often there are tantalising details, whitewashed cottage rooms, run down rented rooms, busy farm kitchens with the blackened polished range. But the details remain elusive, how was the frame supported? Were the layers basted? Was it fixed by clamps or pegs? Where did the quilt frame stand? How did it fit into the patchwork of ordinary life?
I’ve always been a quilter before I was a patchworker ( I talk about this in the podcast interview I recorded for the Great British Quilter series with Sarah Ashford), and as such I’ve always loved well quilted quilts more than interestingly pieced ones. It’s an unfashionable stance in a world of celebrity fabric lines and modernist quilt shows where the immediacy and commerciality of the surface design of colour and shape almost always trump the hard-won, thrifty, meticulous celebration of texture and form that once marked quilt making. When I look at complex hand quilted whole cloth quilts, or corded Georgian works of art I always wonder about the technical complexities of how they were made. Hand quilters, and whole cloth quilters are fascinated by the vagaries of pattern marking, of the direction of quilting, which side of the pattern drawn? Was the cord inserted from behind or laid as the work progressed? Was the quilt basted first or floated on the backing, was the wadding a single sheet or added as puffs of wool as the quilter worked? Were the leading edges joined before the quilt was placed in the frame or afterwards? These are peculiarly fascinating – yet they are foundational. Because the limitations and opportunities of the method of working are what shape the design of quilts as they evolved. The easier options usually won out, the opportunities that quilting in a frame gave were the creative fuel that helped quilting designs to shape and change. To properly understand why quilts looked as they did, we have to really understand the very physicality of how they were made.
The big problem here, however, is that unless you can experience quilt making in the same way that the maker and designers of the past did, it is much more difficult to follow this thread of history backwards. To learn and understand the problems that old quilt makers solved you need to encounter the same problems, to work out the same solutions. It was clear that I needed a frame.
For many years this seemed like an impossible problem to solve. I haunted eBay, asked quilters I knew, enquired at museums and collections. Everyone agreed that occasional antique quilt frames might still be out there, but did their owners know that they had them in the back of the attic or in their barn? I considered buying a new American frame, or adapting a large embroidery slate frame, but in my heart I wanted to work on the same old frame that another maker would have used before me. The romantic historian in me wanted to walk in the needle-working-shoes of another woman before me to explore how quilt making shaped her home and her creative making.
The great pause that was the covid lockdowns crystallised this hunt for me. I have been hand quilting my quilts for 20 years using a hoop, but over the last few years my hand quilting has been getting more complex as I delved deeper into the history of whole cloth in this country. In summer 2020 I embarked on an exciting project to hand quilt a Georgian silk petticoat using only methods and techniques of the time, and this project really made me think about how much I could learn by making a quilt using the same methods as the makers of the past. Such is the weird workings of the universe that once I decided to try and put out a plea for anyone who might have an antique frame to let me use it, I saw an advertisement offering one to a good home. I was quaking with excitement as I dashed off the e mail, hoping desperately that I was the first enquiry. I needn’t have worried, it turns out that this was a niche arena! haha.
I was put in contact with a wonderful, now retired, textile curator who has become a kind friend. She had started her working life in this area at the start of the quilting revival in the 1970s and had been gifted the frame directly from the, then elderly, Welsh grandmother of a friend at the time (her grandmother had been born in the Victorian era in a family with generations of quilting history). My curator friend had used it in her curation and teaching over the 40+ years of her working life in textile education, but she was now downsizing her lifetime of textile collection and was delighted that this old tool should find a working home where it could be used again. I was just so completely delighted to give it a home! We have stayed in touch over the months that have passed since I rehomed the frame, meeting up, sharing textile stories and the progress of this project. It’s been a thoroughly enriching experience in all ways. I have made a dear friend and learnt so much.
There have been all sorts of creative ‘problems’ that this frame has given me to solve and learn from. It started with setting up the frame. It came without any method to attach the parts of the frame together which necessitated whittling oak pegs to hold it square. I needed to learn how to load the frame. Old books (written from the 1950s to 1970s) tended to be shaped by the idea that people would only be making small items like cot quilts and thus they skipped over some of the complexities of dealing with a kingsize double quilt – I found advice from a pre 1930 book and some generous practical help from supportive British hand quilters, and Americans raised in families where the tradition had prevailed in ways that we don’t have here. Pattern marking, basting, the process of quilting, how to wind on, where to begin quilting – these were all issues that I will return to in another ‘Practicalities’ post, but needless to say that this project has been everything I hoped and so much more.
There are so few pictures of quilt frames being used in the past, occasional photographs from the decades around 1900 show frames set up outside ( for the camera exposure of the time this was easier to picture, I suspect). This is a source of great regret to historians today, and reflects a great many aspects of women’s work in the past. Yet we risk perpetuating this imbalance today unless we picture ourselves at work! I wanted to immortalise this latest iteration of the long life of my frame in pictures that might show it at work today. There also exist black and white grainy photograph images of women knitting or lacemaking which follow this visual composition of outdoor crafting outside a building, my curator friend showed me a beautiful print of her grandmother working in our lacemaking county just like this and it sparked an idea. I generally hate posing for a picture, but my dear friend is an artist and creative maker in her own right and she was my original partner in quilt making right back at the start in the early 2000s and she loved my idea of immortalising women at work in this way. She sketched the beautiful line drawn picture at the opening of this post one day this summer when the sun shone in the meadow by our beloved barn with the painted quilt block that we also made for it some years ago, to mark out my little corner of the world. The quilt I’m working on is christened The Midsummer Harvest Quilt because the golden cream sateen and floral motifs just reminded me of the gold of shimmering summer fields, and I began it on the day of midsummer. I’m so pleased to be able to enjoy the next era of this precious tool’s life with it. I’ll write a post about this specific whole cloth and improv project which I am quilting on the frame, my #themidsummerharvestquilt when it is finally finished. I’m hoping its golden rays sustain me until midwinter.