In the summer of 2017, I recorded a contribution to a radio programme called Moving Pictures which appeared on BBC Radio Four. That programme was exploring a quilt called The Ann West Coverlet which is in the V&A Museum. At two places on this huge and complex coverlet were the small words, embroidered over a hand written script ‘Remember Me. Forget Me Not. Ann West’s Work’.
History records nothing of Ann West’s life and her name is obscured by its frequency in the records. Yet we know so much about Ann West and her life because she stitched it into her quilt. Then finally, as if to underline the painstaking work she had done, she reminded us, or rather commanded us, to remember her. Ann stitched those words in 1820, but two hundred years later they echoed like a command, sister to stitching-sister through the centuries and lodged in my imagination.
Listening to that command has led me on a voyage of discovery and this quilt is one landmark along the way. You see, after this event I began to wonder about the many women – and there were many more than just Ann – who stitched the words ‘Remember Me’ and I began to ask questions about why they would ask this? What it meant? Who were they talking to? What did they want, or expect, that their audience should remember about them? These questions led to a paper for the British Quilt Study Group (which I presented at their Conference in autumn 2021 and will be published in summer 2022 in the journal Quilt Studies) and then onward to university where I enrolled on a Masters by Research Programme in history to write a longer dissertation about the answers to these questions.
Returning to university more than 20 years after I left as an undergraduate was one of the best and most terrifying thing that I’ve done. Learning is a privilege at any age, but learning new things, whilst juggling all the aspects of my now much more complex life, was a joy and a challenge. It taught me so much, not least that when women asked us to remember their domestic work, that they deserved that someone should recognise that plea and re-contextualise it for a new audience. Over the course of the last 18 months I have travelled into archives and old newspapers, through court papers and obituaries. I have explored how women saw themselves, how others saw them and their stitched work, and I have highlighted under-explored groups of makers and shone a different light on old concerns about mortality, legacy, memory and family. I’ve written more than 80,000 words, finally submitting 30,000 in an edited dissertation at the start of this year.
Yet as I wrote about women who sewed, the absurdity of only recording their life stories in words became apparent. You see, many of the women who asked to be remembered through their stitched work were using this medium as their only means of memorial. To then take these carefully expressed stitched messages and only record them in written words was to further denigrate the importance of textiles as an equivalent medium for self expression and autobiography? I knew that I had to also make a quilt which captured and communicated some of these themes. If text and textile were equal modes of communication – I believe that they were- then I had to honour that by producing two ‘dissertations’ – one in words, and one in cloth.
The first audience for my written thesis will be an academic one. My work overlaps the fields of experts in the history of the family, of eighteenth and nineteenth century life, of materiality, biography, of femininity and masculinity, of religion and of death. Everyone I have presented to, and discussed my work with, has been encouraging and supportive of my thesis’ assertion that some quilts are sources of autobiography, but unsurprisingly, many of them have never really seen a handmade quilt, let alone considered what it takes to make one.
But you see, if you’ve never made a quilt you might not instinctively understand how much of the self the making of a large quilt can embody. Making a large complex quilt takes over and winds around usual life for the maker and the people they live with. Quilts are large, they take up practical space, they take many months to make, they become talked about and considered by a wider domestic audience than just the maker. Large projects work their way into memories and recollections of a particular time, they are not incidental objects. By making a quilt, and allowing new audiences to experience the small stitches, the embroidered care, the careful matching and picking and manipulation of fabric and stitched text, I also aimed to bring alive the assertion that textile was akin to text. The intimate story of ordinary women’s domestic lives has been long neglected because the people (mostly men) in the past who wrote histories didn’t understand the significance of, hadn’t experienced, and thus didn’t value their histories and the medium they used to preserve them.
Despite huge change, and many more women in academia, it remains the case that academic study and haptic practical work still often exist in different spheres. In this project I hoped to bring them a little closer together to better appreciate the lived experiences, and thus the emotional importance, of domestic stitched textiles in the lives of their makers and owners.
I decided to base the design of my quilt around a style prevalent in the period of my research, the English Frame Quilt. I planned to add a central piece of embroidered work as so many of the quilts I had studied also included this blurring of crafts often considered separately, that of embroidery and quilt making. I chose the extant quilt above as my ‘style inspiration’ to remind me of the level of complexity and the kind of techniques that makers in this period often used – hexagons and tiny stitches were the order of the day.
When we consider modern quilt making with its overt recognition of the self in the object we make, we often include stitched text to better express a sense of us as the maker and to indicate how we feel about what we make. This was not how women in the past viewed their making, messages are much less overt to our modern eyes, often shrouded in religious and didactic verses. The words which talked of women’s emotional connection to their making in the past were often incidental, appearing in obituaries which talked of their fondness for stitch, in letters and diaries, in newspaper accounts of women’s behaviour, reminiscences of relatives, and in the last commands of the dying who instructed their quilts to be taken with them or left to a loved one. These words were seldom materially ‘connected’ to the objects that formed these women’s life works, so the meaning became separated from the textile. By stitching some of these phrases and reflections onto my quilt I returned them back to the objects they were associated with.
My thesis demonstrates the many ways that women used domestic textiles as repositories of meaning and as objects of personal and family legacy. Women repeatedly worked to make sure that objects were prized in the next generation, they redistributed family textiles between generations, making links in the matrilineal line to nieces and aunts as well as in their married family. Women return again and again to the power of a domestic textile to access memories of the past, their own or the memories of past generations. When women wrote their name on a textile it was for a layering of reasons, practicality, sentimentality, pride, lineage, memory, defiance. One thing is clear though, they wanted their name to be associated with this object, and the meanings that both conveyed.
Many studies of quilt making begin with the quilts. They look at the imperfect selection of quilts which survived into museum collections today and make assumptions about who made quilts and why. There are so many problems with using what is preserved in museums as the entirety of a source. I deliberately began with what was said about quilts, the tiny mentions in reports about other things. This approach allowed me to see a much wider and broader footprint of the quilt in ordinary lives. Because, when a report about poverty mentions a quilt, it is using the quilt as a metaphor to tell us something about the life that it exists alongside. When a newspaper reports that an abandoned baby is found wrapped in patchwork there are important social messages to confer about the mother and the writer. When a murderer is convicted or absolved in a murder where the use of a quilt was important we learn about the power of these objects to make suggestions about character, intent and morality.
In taking this approach, my work inevitably concentrates on quilts that were never seen in museums, the quilts of the poor, the criminal, the oppressed and the ordinary. Whilst there are beautifully made quilts from museums in my study, there are also reports of ragged ones. This is important because if we accept that some quilts had meaning beyond their practical use ( perhaps most quilts?) then we can no longer conflate the ‘best’ quilts with having the most meaning? The ragged quilt found next to the body of destitute widow may well be more significant than the silken masterpiece in the national museum.
Of course, as any quilter knows, the true secrets of the meaning of an object as multifaceted as the domestic quilt are only known in the heart of the maker or the owner. We can only hope to see but a glimpse of the significance of hand made objects to the people who made and used them. But, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. By placing quilts as objects of emotional communication between people, families, generations and across society, we gain a richer sense of their power beyond what they were made of. By looking at what quilts meant to their owners we can explore the lives of people less well known to history and often left out of the histories of the quilt; men, women living in poverty, sex workers, prisoners, travelling people, murderers, itinerant peddlers; they all owned quilts and evidence suggests that they both treasured them, and used them to communicate aspects of their identity.
Making the quilt top took me most of the year as I worked alongside my written research. It was, in fact, the perfect foil to a day spent at a computer screen agonising about sentence structure. As makers we’ve always known that physical activity works out the mental knots, and this was my experience. A quiet 30 mins of stitch after a gruelling day of mental gymnastics was a tonic.
I chose a quilting pattern which I first saw in a quilt by Agnes Bentham in 1880, and which was common in the north of England in the last decades of the nineteenth century. I intend a series of blog posts which explores the women I researched for my thesis, and the words I chose to add to the quilt, and I’ll talk more about Agnes then. This quilt pattern is a simple oval which joins into a sinuous, overlapping chain and creates a lovely texture which does not detract from the piecing. It is also really nice to quilt in a frame as the pattern travels towards the stitcher which makes for a quick completion.
In further posts over the next weeks I will return to this quilt to explore the women and men that my thesis explores and how they are represented in the making of this quilt. I hope that you will join me then.