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The Agnes Bentham Quilt

In my mind, the magic of a quilt is its ability to travel through space and time telling stories about the people who made it, loved it, and the places where they lived. In making a quilt by hand, we perpetuate a long chain of work that women have done for generations. Whilst every generation feels that they are discovering things anew, that their work is fresh and reimagined, but of course the reality is that we walk in a well trodden furrow already cut by the women who went before us and there is always much to learn. Whilst some people conceive the roots of history as a bind, I have always found it a balm, a source of power for new growth. By knowing and understanding our quilting history better, we learn more about what we do, and why it matters, today.

A project which asks us to reflect on needleworkers of the past is right up my street and so I jumped into this one with enthusiasm. In the spring of 2020 as the world shut down and our daily horizons shrunk, I distracted myself by taking a trip through space and time by starting work on a version of a quilt, in The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles Museum Collection, made in around 1880 by a woman called Agnes Bentham. Every two years the American Quilt Study Group run a challenge exhibition for their members where we are invited to reimagine an historic quilt of our choice to a bi-annual theme. The theme in 2020 was Frame Quilts and I had been researching Agnes and her framed quilt in my academic work, and so I knew that this was the perfect muse for me to take an expansive trip away from the daily dog walk around the same radius of home. The quilt should be 40 inches square so I chose the central medallion piece of her quilt to reimagine today.

Agnes Bentham Frame Quilt from The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles Museum Collection. York.

This quilt has always fascinated me for the perfect mash up of so many distinct binaries that we still tend to apply to quilt making. There is an understanding that more ‘elaborate’ quilts, those with complex appliqué, embroidery or other fancy work were made by wealthier women, and that ‘utility’ quilts were made by working women. The reality is much more nuanced. The logic is that more affluent women had more time, but most historians question this understanding. Few women had more than one servant amongst the Victorian middle class, and even those who did, in a world without time saving domestic technology, worked hard alongside the servant, keeping house in dirty coal heated homes and caring for large families. The same stereotypes lead us astray when we consider working women. Yes, most women worked when we factor in domestic work, and in families with less resources many women worked both for pay and at home, so of course their time was limited, but the extant evidence shows us that so many of these hard pressed women still carved out time, across their lifecycle or life situation to make textiles at home, often incredibly decorative ones. Whilst poverty of time or materials dampens the creative imagination, needleworkers often still find ways to make beautiful things. Agnes’s quilt is a great example of that. It spans fancy and plain needlework, it is influenced by traditional needlework styles at the start of the nineteenth century and presages the time saving changes to come in the twentieth, it reflects the folk styles of the provincial rural uplands and the more classical high art influences of her time, and it nods to the vibrant American quilt tradition whilst being true to English traditions. Agnes probably lacked financial resources and often lacked agency, but she clearly didn’t lack industriousness, imagination and skill. Her needlework skills gave her the freedom which the structural constraints of her life imposed. If quilts can tell stories, this one is packed full of content.

Agnes was born in 1840, to a farm labouring family who shared their surname, Bentham, with a local village in the rural Dales upland area where they lived. The family frequently moved, probably due to her father’s work as an agricultural labourer, building dry stone walls, in a small area in the high Yorkshire dales in the north of England in the middle of the rapidly industrialising nineteenth century.  

Agnes b. 1840 was the second child of seven. The young family moved frequently with 7 children born in 14 years across a range of parishes in a 20 mile radius of Kirkby in Lonsdale. Most men in this area worked as miners or farmers, often a combination of the two. Working building stone walls would have been poorly paid work in insecure circumstances. By the time Agnes was 21 she had tragically lost her mother, and five of the seven siblings were also dead of a range of childhood illnesses which could be fatal for the poor. After the death of her mother in 1855 of dropsy (or heart failure), the family unit had disintegrated by 1861 and Agnes was left with just her farm labourer father.

Agnes variously worked in Yorkshire and then in the vibrant port city Liverpool as a cook and servant, but by the age of 40 she had returned to the village of Burton in Lonsdale, close to where she was born, and was working as a seamstress and shopkeeper, likely for her neighbour who was a draper, providing a home, and probably income, for her elderly father. The village, locally known as Black Burton for the smoke from its pottery kilns, supported a vibrant community, many who were also nonconformists (as were the Benthams) and a large Methodist Hall was built across the road from the Bentham’s house in the 1870’s which would have been a community hub. 

The row of cottages where Agnes lived housed a potter, a basket maker, a shoemaker’s apprentice and a launderess. The quilt that Agnes made was most likely to have been made in this period of her life, with its mix of dress fabrics and furnishing cottons, perhaps available via Agnes’ work. Agnes’s life was tragically cut short, she died at the same age as her mother, just 46, perhaps after suffering a stroke ‘cerebral decay’ in another parallel to her mums heart condition. We know little else about Agnes’s life, or of the lives of the millions of women like Agnes who lived short, hard lives – but shouldn’t only be defined by that.

You see, history has often had a tendency in the past to tell the stories of men, the stories of economics, and of big sweeping changes. Quilts allow us to tell the stories of women, the economically unpowerful, the domestic, the family, the emotions. This is important, not least because what are the stories of men without those of the women and families they lived amongst, the history of economics is underpinned by women’s labour, the family was a shared endeavour. A nation or regions history is only the sum total of all these little domestic histories – all roads lead back to these otherwise often invisible women.

By leaving a quilt, embroidered with her name, Agnes made a mark against this obscurity of gender and class. By exploring her life, we learn much more about the lives of other women like her. Whilst the census tells us about her kin and her economic status, her quilt tells us about what she saw and valued, what she learnt from her mother, the styles and fashions in which she lived, what she aspired to, the things that she did with her leisure, her creative influences, her handwriting – her selfhood.

The central medallion square of Agnes’s quilt is a mixture of appliqué forms and broderie perse. The chosen motifs reflect many of the favoured styles of appliqué in the decades before 1880, including hexagons as frames and floral chintz broderie perse flowers.  The central roundel design is again reminiscent of favoured classical renaissance motifs more commonly seen at the start of the 1800s including an applied print of a classical Greek pairing of figures, and a ‘bow and bird’ pairing more commonly in quilts as early as the late 18th century and often produced over paper rather than as appliqué. There are shared fabrics in the central medallion which are repeated in the frames, and thus the assumption must be made that both were made at the same time. Was her intention to make something of aesthetic aspiration in its reflection of classicism? Or perhaps these motifs emotionally reflect those seen on textiles that Agnes had seen or used in her youth in the 1840’s.

Yet despite the homage to quilt traditions of the generation before Agnes, her quilt is not ‘old fashioned’ in its time. The bold use of the Prince of Wales feather, tulips and folk art heart motifs all owe more to the emerging American appliqué tradition in this period, particularly in their rendering in a solid indigo fabric. It is well known that Liverpool was a significant port city for travel to and from America. Whilst the common perception is of a one-way emigration to the US, but in some years the records tell us that more than half of those who went to the new continent returned. Could Agnes have been exposed to new appliqué ideas in her time in Liverpool, or via returned quilts  in the upland communities where she lived? We certainly know that quilts, patterns and people travelled in correspondence between both sides of the Atlantic at this time. 

Whilst the front of the quilt is classical in its design, the back is intensely vernacular. The front is clearly for ‘show’ and the back is completely comfortable. In its use of a strippy layout it is reflective of the ‘utility’ quilts of this area, a style which perpetuated into the twentieth century in the northern counties of England. The strippy centre is made bigger through the pragmatic haphazard inclusion of the striped border fabric also visible on the front. Perhaps the strips which make up the centre were created as additional borders to the front of the quilt, or perhaps they indicate that this was not Agnes’s only quilt production?

The Back of the Agnes Bentham Frame Quilt. The Museum Collection of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles, York.

Whilst my version of this quilt was to hang in an exhibition where only the front would be seen, I enjoyed recreating the back too. I have a sentimental fondness for the backs of quilts when they are also pieced. I always feel like the back is the closest we get to a reflection of the real self of the woman who made the quilt. A quilt back is seldom made for the gaze of anyone but the woman who made and used the quilt. It gives a kind of creative freedom, a freedom from judgement. I like to imagine that Agnes was, at heart, a woman of the Dales in which she was born, and she reflects that in the back of her quilt, more vernacular and informal than the stylised classical front.

Agnes’s embrace of both the old and the new is also apparent in her treatment of the quilting of this piece. The quilt is all-over quilted lightly using the design subsequently named as ‘bellows’ an intersecting overlapping cable seen commonly on quilts from the northern counties in these decades. The appeal of this pattern was clear, it is easily drafted from a simple single elongated oval shaped template, allowing the pattern to be marked ‘in the frame’. The design sits lightly over pieced and applique quilts, adding texture and strength without interfering with the quilt top’s design. Lastly it is quick and simple to hand quilt in a frame, the pattern is always running towards the stitcher so the skills needed to complete it are less demanding and it can be worked up more quickly. I returned to this pattern for my Remember Me quilt recently.

Agnes Bentham left a quilt with her name inscribed, and in doing so she left a mark on history. By tracing her life and circumstances through this quilt, we uncover the role of needlework for women in working families, in provincial areas where gendered choices were limited, and agency was bounded by both patriarchy and poverty. It is important that these women’s lives and choices are explored, to better tell the story of gender, class and quilt making in the nineteenth century.

As I stitched this quilt, I was the same age as Agnes Bentham was when she died, although, of course, my modern life was lived in different circumstances to her with more freedoms that she might have even imagined. By marking our own names on the things that we make, we preserve our ordinary domestic histories for the future. By linking our stories to the stories of makers in the past, we also keep their histories alive and affirm our place alongside them in a long sisterhood.

Agnes Bentham’s final home where she lived with her father in the 1881 census, High Street, Burton in Lonsdale.

As the 2020 lockdowns lifted in the summer here in the UK, we took a family trip to Agnes’s last home and photographed my quilt at the home where she probably made hers. The magic of the history held in quilts is that they have this ability to loop backwards and forwards through time, linking women who shared a love of the needle through objects which persevere through generations.

Deb visiting Agnes, summer 2020.

As I stood outside of Agnes’s home and church, I pondered the circularity of the fact that this little quilt was about to travel back to America, where some of Agnes’s influences may have come from more than 150 years before. This little quilt has travelled across America telling the story of Agnes Bentham anew, I hope that Agnes would have approved, I’m sure we would have stitched together, by the warm range in this little cottage, in another life.

The Methodist Chapel across the road from Agnes’s home. Agnes was listed as a non conformist and so perhaps worshiped here.

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