I’ve always been in love with the artisan nature of quilt making. You see, when I call myself a quilter, I’m thinking about an old creaky frame, months of stitched toil by hand, sewing as a devotion. It’s a mile away from the glossy marketing image of fast expensive sewing machines, jelly rolls and quilts in a day which quilting often enjoys today. I think this is probably because my initial interest in quilt making was rooted in learning about its domestic history, and that’s what has always held onto my heart through the years.
Yet really this picture I had of myself as a quilter was incomplete, because I had never quilted in a frame. In fact, I had never even seen anyone quilt in a frame outside of old photographs. Despite being a long-devoted hand quilter, this was a whole side of quilting history which I had never explored. Not only are quilters who still use a frame as rare as hens teeth in the UK, I, like many other quilters I suspect, viewed the frame as an object of obsolescence, a tool which had passed out of use because it had been superseded by new ways to make a quilt. Of course, as any historian should know, this condescension by the modern is always a terrible folly.
When I was offered my beloved antique welsh frame at the end of the spring this year ( read about it in this post) I knew that I needed it’s first project to be one worthy of this venerable old tool. I had this sense that it deserved something wonderful – to welcome it back to a productive life. I have long loved the book ‘Making Welsh Quilts’ by Mary Jenkins and Clare Claridge ( which I’m delighted is being re-released by David and Charles Books in 2022). I recommend very few quilt books, not because there aren’t lots of wonderful books out there, but that there are few which seem to share my sense that old quilts and fiercely modern ones can share the same roots – that using the past can inform the most exciting new work. Most books are either clearly a ‘history’ or a ‘how to’ – this book is both as it explores beautiful welsh quilts of the past, but does it in a practical way which draws new ideas from their bounty of inspiration. A quilt which had always beguiled me was this 1820’s chintz frame quilt from the book, in the collection of Jen Jones. Ostensibly a patterned frame quilt, the little seen back (pictured below), which Mary and Clare so perceptively highlight as the true treasure of this quilt, shows off the true artistry – the quilting – not the piecing – of this wonderful quilt.
My retired curator friend who gifted me the frame and Jen and Mary whom I asked to use the quilt as an inspiration to recreate the pattern, were so encouraging and so off I set. I love a challenge. I loved the fact that this would be the most complex quilting I had undertaken and it was in a new medium – stitching in a frame. I began this project at midsummer, the warm sunshine made the sheen of the cotton glow. I set myself the target of finishing by the hard cold dark of midwinter. I’ve a few more stitches to put into the borders, but it is to all intents finished today, the shortest day of the year.
I have a complicated relationship with midwinter. It is a time of year I always loved, something about the crisp cold, the darkness and the poised stillness before the new spring. Yet this is also a time of sorrowful memory for many, including me, and so it’s a date I have over several years been trying to rehabilitate in my emotions by associating it with new memories, of places of beauty and achievements which mark life moving forward. Hard times aren’t unique to any of us, a quote from the bereaved Melesina Trench (1768-1837) in 1806, described the death of her baby as, ‘the misfortune from which I date my second life, as different, certainly, from the former as two separate modes of being’. A tragedy requires a new second self to be built up from the wreckage of grief, and the tangibility of making has been an important tool of this reconstruction for me. I chose a quote from the philosopher and author Albert Camus as the label for this quilt. It says ‘In the depth of winter I finally learnt that within me lay an invincible summer’. The powerful optimism of stitch, it’s doggedness, the sense of calm achievement which it offers, the intrinsic hope that embarking on a new project brings, have been a balm. Marking the quiet, still, creeping approach of the solstice with this project felt perfect.
Epic projects undertaken as a kind of devotion, I suspect, often end up being tasks of uplifting transformation, of unexpected joy, offering an opening of new windows. This task was no different. I went into the project thinking that it would be a kind of cerebral historical study, a one-off experience to say that I had done it, a practical practice of an old skill. Of course, instead it has been a veritable enlightenment, an awakening, a new window of understanding. It has taught me why quilts were made on frames, and thus why they look as they do, but has also offered an unexpected glimpse into how quilting fitted into the lives of the women and men who undertook it in the past. I have literally loved every minute of this project. For the last 6 months, alongside making this quilt, I have been writing thousands of words about the emotional history of quilt making ( my thesis will be submitted at the start of 2022). Making this quilt on my frame taught me something just as valuable as my academic research. There is a kind of magical history in the act of doing. As I looked down on my be-thimbled hands, rocking the needle backwards and forward in a motion unchanged for hundreds of years, creating magical texture out of a flat sheet of cotton held taut on a frame of wood, patterns emerging through the rhythmic rocking of a needle, I could feel the thread of time and experience running backwards. Of course, our lives bear no resemblance to the makers of the past in so many ways, yet here was a point of connection, a haptic bodily repeat of time echoing through the decades and centuries.
Whilst one side of this quilt is all calmness, the other side is a reflection on the need for a recognition of the continuity of ideas in quilt making. As modern quilters we celebrate the creative freedom of improv quilting as something fresh and ‘new’, whilst overlooking the complexity of traditions of hand quilting as something ‘traditional’ and old. Yet makers of the past were, of course, making complex improv alongside complex quilted textiles. This side is inspired by a quilt from 1900 in the collection of St Fagans. Quilters of the past also paired complex quilting with piecing, yet we often separate ‘wholecloth’ quilts from pieced quilt making as if they are separate mediums with little in common when it comes to a toolbox of creativity? Yet in the past they often fed ideas to each other and worked creatively together. By crashing together this whole heap of old and new ideas I hope to help us to talk about these ideas and explore the huge potential for creativity in their fusion?
Finishing this quilt has been bittersweet, as midwinter ever will be for me. Yet it has given me so much; new perspectives, new passions and new insight. 2022 is another year of new challenges, yet the common denominator will be the rocking thimbles of my hands at my creaking old frame, connecting me to the makers of the past as I make new quilts for today.