When I was a 13year old school girl my class at school and I were given the project of making a small patchwork piece in our weekly textiles class. I remember cutting out the paper templates, wrapping them in my fabric pieces and tacking, then sewing them in place with tiny stitches. I remember the satisfaction I felt looking at those neat little hexagons all stitched together to make my own unique piece of fabric. However, I have absolutely no recollection of what my sample became or whether I actually finished it and have never even contemplated doing a patchwork piece again. I remember thinking what a strange past time – to cut up one fabric in order to make another – what a waste of time! In the years that have followed since my days at school the many examples of patchwork that I have come across have done little to dispel my view. Patchwork and quilted items have always reminded me of my 1970s childhood, they remind me of being hard up and of my mum recycling old hand me down clothes for me to wear, and they remind me of Holly Hobby notebooks, Kaftans, allotments and bright orange flared trousers.
So, this said, you can imagine how I felt when I was asked by Rowan to review the Patchwork and Quilt exhibition currently showing here @ the V&A in London. Excited probably is not the word! However, along I went notebook in hand. I hired an audio guide (always a good investment if you want to get the most out of any exhibition) and made my way into the softy lit galleries.
The very first example of patchwork in the exhibition is a small bed draped with patchwork hangings and cover. It is made from small repeated shapes stitched together. The colours are muted yellows, pinks, golds and blues and it’s over all effect is subtle and tasteful. The style of stitch work in this piece is traditional and did little to dispel my (narrow minded) opinion of patchwork. However it was the realization that at the time of their production (17th Century) these fabrics were seen as a powerful status symbol and were an important indication of a family’s wealth that really grabbed my attention. Far from being an indication of being short of money (as it seemed to be when I was a child) these patchwork fabrics were in fact a really important and integral part of family life. At this time the main bedroom of the house was where the whole family would congregate and relax, but it was also a public space; it was where guests were welcomed and entertained and as such it was the place where rich families would demonstrate their wealth and power by displaying their possessions; the bed of course was the central feature of this room and the fabrics used to adorn it were of upmost importance.
Walking through the first section of the exhibition which shows quilts all dating between 17 & 1800 I glean my second piece of exciting information: The quilts from this time period are made from small pieces of taffeta, and silk. Some are made from ribbon, others from small pieces of these expensive fabrics. In 1720, UK Parliament established a law banning the import or use of Indian cotton, in order to protect the domestic linen and silk industries, thus decorative fabrics became contraband and quilt makers had to search out their fabric pieces, often hunting down textile traders selling these illegal printed fabrics from the Far East. How exciting it must have been to stitch a piece of smuggled fabric into the quilt, what a sense of guilty pleasure this must have generated in the mind of the quilt maker! As somebody who has always been too scared of the consequences to do anything even slightly naughty and who – like my 17th century counterparts - would love to show off my worldly goods in the sumptuous surroundings of a textile strewn room I am suddenly hooked to this concept of patchwork and quilting and am eager to progress to the next part of the exhibition.
I find myself being drawn in. I find I am interested in the tales and secrets that these fabrics hold. I am eager to read about the lives of the women who stitched these quilts and to find out the reasons why they chose to include their chosen imagery or why they chose particular fabrics and colours. There are quilts that declare patriotism and loyalty, others that show biblical stories or portray instances of everyday life or declare undying love. Even the paper templates used behind the fabric pieces contain a clue about the history of the piece. The paper was cut from receipts, newspapers and ledger books; there is even one that is reported to have been made using templates cut from illicit love letters.
The quilts from a later period of time, when the trade ban on Indian fabrics was lifted and printed cotton fabrics were more common place, were made by people from the lower social classes. Recycling materials bore witness to a wife’s practicality and the emerging middle classes were eager to display the virtues of domesticity. Patchwork and quilting became more common place and by the turn of the 19th Century it had become big business, stitchers were able to commission a ‘stamper’ to mark out quilting designs onto a fabric and huge co operatives were formed in order to fulfill the demand for hand stitched quilts.
And so I reach the last room in this exhibition. Here, mixed among some older examples are a handful of modern day quilts. There is one stitched by inmates from Wandsworth prison with intricate embroidered panels and slogans, there is a paper quilt made from 38,000 1cm square pieces which charts the sequence of deaths in Iraq between 2003 and 2006 and another depicting modern day life in the style of traditional ‘toile de jouy’ fabric. Just as the exhibition started with a patchwork adorned bed, so it concludes with one. The final piece of the exhibition is an installation made by Tracey Emin in the form of an ‘unmade’ four poster bed with embroidered sheet and patchwork cushions. Emin’s patchwork pieces contain words and sentences that tell us of a troubled background and feelings of danger, betrayal and fear in her past. Whilst Emin’s contemporary choice of words and language are shocking I realize that she has totally upheld the tradition of patchwork and quilting. Her work offers us an insight into her own life and background; she is just like the women of the past stitching their thoughts, dreams and hopes into these wonderful fabrics.
And so I emerge from the exhibition and into the V&A gift shop. Here I am surrounded by fat quarters, sewing threads and pin cushions, sewing books and postcards, people around me are busy selecting fabrics from neatly stacked piles and choosing matching thread. Whilst I do not have a burning desire to rush home and stitch a piece myself, I do have a new found respect for the craft and an understanding of why people would want to cut up one fabric and create another. These stitched fabrics provide a legacy more profound than a knitted or crocheted piece; many contain words, images and slogans used not merely for decorative effect but as a way of communicating emotions, they provide historical reference points whilst also providing the stitcher with a chance to create a unique cherished item which is truly personal to themselves. Who knows, maybe one day I will have the time and space to create my own patchwork item, but for now I am content that I have had the opportunity to appreciate this craft that for so long I dismissed as frugal, old fashioned and futile. How very silly of me!