When I moved to Wales a decade ago I brought a quilt with me. Not a real quilt, but a print by the artist Tom Philips, see left, from a piece called “Women’s Work”, (which is in fact made from the prostitutes’ cards that used to fill London phone boxes). Anyway, bringing a quilt to Wales turned out to be like taking coals to Newcastle, as I discovered that Wales is a land of quilts, with a vernacular tradition of quilt-making by itinerant and village quilters, usually women, which continued into the 20th century. They produced a style of quilt based on blocks of rich colour, some of which wouldn’t look out of place alongside Minimalist art. (I first saw some of these quilts in Jen Jones shop and collection near Lampeter.) Beautiful in their simplicity and bold colour combinations, these quilts challenge the association of the feminine with a particularly decorative craft tradition, as well as countering an image of a drab black and white Welsh past. The quilts below are from Jen Jones collection – which she now shows in a centre in Lampeter.
So I’m interested in quilts, though not in a chintzy way. And I highly recommend Quilts 1700-2010, an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is running now until early July. Its popularity has taken the organisers by surprise, with more advance ticket sales than any V & A show before. Quilters are apparently flying in from around the globe and block-booking local hotels – testimony to the vibrancy of the craft scene, a self-organised world which until recently seemed to be fairly invisible to the art establishment.
Subtitled, “Hidden Histories, Untold Stories” the exhibition draws on textile work from over three hundred years – made by women and men, for leisure, for sale, as art, and perhaps most surprisingly, as a vehicle for commentary on politics and public affairs. The exhibition opens up a wealth of stories. It’s a special show and an unusual experience. Because many of the visitors to the show are quilt makers, there’s a buzz of informed conversation rather than the solemn silence that tends to pervade an art gallery.
Some of the most striking pieces are collaborative works. The “Rajah Quilt” was made by women convicts en route to Tasmania in 1841 with materials donated by the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Women Prisoners which had been set up by Elisabeth Fry. It’s an impressive work, made up of nearly 3,000 pieces of material, intricate floral embroidery, and a central inscription, “To the ladies of the convict ship committee, this quilt worked by the convicts of the ship Rajah during their voyage to van Deiman’s Land is presented as a testimony of the gratitude with which they remember their exertions for their welfare while in England and during their passage and also as a proof that they have not neglected the ladies kind admonitions of being industrious. June 1841.” (You can see the quilt here.) Given the likely conditions on board ship, and the context of their exile to the other side of the world, the fact that the 180 convict women co-operated in making something so delicate, lovely, and somehow so hopeful, is very moving.
Another fascinating story around craft, class and philanthropy surrounds an exquisitely worked beige bedcover by the “Porth Quilters” (seen at work in the photo below from the V & A collection.) As Dorothy Osler describes in her catalogue essay, it was produced within an initiative by the Rural Industries Bureau (RIB), which was established in the 1920s to encourage craft industries in economically deprived areas. Porth was one of six places in South Wales where training courses were run, with the most accomplished local practitioners teaching younger women. Mavis FitzRandolph, who ran the RIB initiative, had a keen eye for the value and quality of vernacular quilting, and was also very well connected, brokering exhibitions of the work in the homes of the aristocracy, and developing new designs and patterns which would chime with contemporary taste. In 1932 the RIB got a prestigious commission from Claridges, and the Porth Group’s work, which was of particularly high quality, was among the quilts and pillow slips supplied for a wing of the hotel that was being renovated and decorated in Art Deco style. (Their work doesn’t always reproduce clearly, but you can see a nice example here.)
A final piece to mention, the HMP Wandsworth Quilt, was commissioned by Sue Prichard, who curated the Quilts exhibition and oversees contemporary textiles at the V & A. It was made by an all-male quilting group in K Wing of Wandsworth prison in collaboration with Fine Cell Work, a charity that teaches needlework to prison inmates. Its overall design represents the layout of Wandsworth, with a border of bricks and two prison blocks made up of hexagonal and triangle pieces with designs and slogans that reflect prisoners’ thoughts and feelings about prison life, the justice system, incarceration, scattered through with some more traditional decorative needlework. Together their diverse creative approaches and points of view produce a satisfying and thought-provoking whole. (You can read the story behind this piece in this Economist article.)
Though quilting is a form that lends itself to multiple creators, quilting isn’t essentially a collaborative art, and the majority of the pieces at the V & A are credited to a single maker. But these collaborative pieces are among the most arresting in the exhibition. As well as the pleasures that come from design, pattern, colour and texture, and the impression the sewing conveys of the time, care, thought and effort the maker/s have put in, these collective pieces have an additional impact in telling stories of community, too.
Going to the Quilts exhibition has made me curious to look more at vernacular art, and find out about collaborative creativity within these traditions. Maybe there’ll be some lessons for digital media practice. Meanwhile here’s a fun nod to folk art made by four Googlers working simultaneously on a spreadsheet.