A Patchwork Planet

Sorry Anne Tyler, I stole your title (excellent book, by the way, if you fancy trying it out). Still no book review, I’m afraid, as No Name is very, very long; this fact is disguised by the excessively thin pages in my edition, and so I am still about 100 pages from the end. I am also frantically reading Being Dead, by Jim Crace, the V&A Book Club’s choice for tomorrow’s meeting…I need to get on the case with that tonight or I shall be embarrassingly lacking in things to say when the discussion starts.

I just want to make a quick reference to my previous post; what a wonderful discussion it started, and I’d like to thank everyone who contributed so intelligently and thoughtfully. I have had a good while to think about your comments, and especially those that mentioned I was actually a feminist, from what I had said, and that I shouldn’t be afraid of declaring myself so. I realised that the word feminist had become tainted for me with the stereotype of the manhating, militant, odious, extreme Germaine Greer type of feminist, whose doctrine I have never subscribed to, and think is actually rather reductive. Taken out of that context, I realised that feminism has actually moved on, and that feminism as a word now encompasses so much more than the limited 70’s inspired stereotype. It describes women who believe in choice, who are pro men, who enjoy feminine pursuits, and who embrace chivalry. Women who are proud of their sexuality, and don’t want it to be sullied or limited by others, be they men or women. I am one of those women, and so yes, I am a feminist. And proud of it!

Moving on from that, tonight my main topic is patchwork; a long overdue post. Alongside books, I am passionate about patchwork quilting. This has been a fairly new interest of mine. When I started at the V&A just over a year ago, I was assigned the Quilts exhibition as one of my projects; it is my responsibility to find external funding for certain exhibitions, items needing conservation, educational programmes, and so on. So, I read up about the exhibition, went off to meet the curator (who has a wonderful blog, do visit it) and was absolutely enchanted by the wonderful stories she had to tell about the quilts she had chosen from amongst the V&A’s stores to be exhibited in the Museum’s first ever dedicated exhibition of quilts. I went up into the stores, high up in the attics of the Museum, to view the beautiful quilts, some of which are hundreds of years old, and have been sitting in drawers, in same cases, for over one hundred years, as the Museum has simply never had anywhere suitable to display them. I was mesmerised by how intricate they are; how breathtakingly stunning and skilful the stitching is, and what fascinating insights into the lives of the women who made them they contain. Sue, the curator, and Claire, her wonderful and incredibly helpful research assistant, have uncovered the most amazing stories behind some of the quilts in the collection; stories of women’s personal lives, of the times they lived in, of what was culturally current to them, of what they believed, treasured, and dreamed, all sewn into the quilts that for many were the product of years of patient sewing, produced in poor candlelight, in cramped, dark rooms.

Needlework was ‘woman’s work’; it was both a hobby and a necessity. For some women, making quilts was a pleasure, an enjoyable way to pass their free time, practising and showing off their frequently excellent skills declared as an elegant and admirable pursuit for young ladies in girl’s accomplishment manuals. Fabrics would have been chosen and bought specifically for quilt making in these wealthy homes; by the mid 19th century, with machine printed fabrics based on the designs of expensive Indian chintzes flooding the market, it was not especially expensive to do this. For others, making quilts was completely out of necessity; any old scraps of material, old clothes or old sheets were utilised to create warm bedcoverings. These quilts are not necessarily aesthetically beautiful, but they are still a wonderful insight into the lives of those who made them, and also demonstrate just how inventive, resourceful and skilled women of all classes were in days long gone by. I wish I had been taught these same skills myself at a young age, and then I wouldn’t be muddling my way through the finer details of basic needlework now.

I was so inspired by the quilts Sue showed me, as well as the ideals of celebrating women, the domestic interior, and traditional skills that used to be handed down from generation to generation, until modern conveniences eradicated the need for knowledge of handicrafts such as quilting, knitting and dressmaking, that I decided to make a quilt of my own.This has been helped by the fact that Sue set up a Patchwork Group at work so likeminded quilters can get together at lunchtime to do some sewing and chatting, and motivate each other! One of the main reasons I wanted to make a quilt was because I wanted a piece of me to hand down to my daughters, my granddaughters, and so on. I wanted to sew a little bit of my experience of life, as a 21st century woman, into a quilt. I also wanted to see whether I could slow down and embrace the patience, attention to detail and skill required in making something entirely by hand.

It’s been ten months in the making so far, and I am still nowhere near finished, but that isn’t the point; it’s the process of making, it’s the enjoyment of creating something, of sewing my story into something that has a life beyond me, and of being part of a tradition that links me with the many women who came before me, and whose lives have, indirectly, affected my own, that really matters. I love getting out my quilt, adding a patch or two when I can, watching it grow, and picking out material to put in it. Only a 21st century quilt could have a piece of original 1930’s curtain fabric found in my mum’s house sewn next to an old summer dress from Topshop, or a retro style Cath Kidston floral print next to a piece of scarf bought in a tacky Greek seaside resort. I hope that, in future, once I am no longer here, it will be treasured by another generation, fascinated by the clues in the fabric of the life I might have led a hundred years before. Above is a photo of how it is shaping up; I hope you like it!



  1. verity says:

    That sounds absolutely fantastic Rachel. Both the research for the fundraising for that exhibition and the quilting itself that you are doing. I love the idea of being able to combine so many pieces of materials, particularly with significance, but I know I wouldn't be able to slow down enough to do it.

  2. Darlene says:

    Such a wonderful image of a room under the rafters so to speak, at the V&A with hidden treasures. Hopefully, they're brought out for an exhibit one day. I like to think that my needlework will be hanging on someone's wall in a hundred years time or even in a local museum! You're making terrific progress on your quilt, Rachel and it will tell a wonderful tale about the fabrics of today. The pieces of material from the 30's should throw anyone studying your work decades from now! Well done.

  3. Danielle says:

    It's so cool that you work at the V&A–that would nearly be my dream job! šŸ™‚ I love your quilt–isn't it nice being able to look at it and remember some story or person attached to one of the scarps of fabric you've chosen? And just think of all those other older quilts that are the same and the stories that must have been attached to them at one time. It gives me goosebumps as weird as that sounds. I really love textiles and needlework so can totally appreciate the time you are putting into this–it's much nicer to take your time and have something you're really proud of later than to rush through. I take it you're doing it entirely by hand? And have you seen the quilts of Gee's Bend–really amazing quilts made by average women for mostly utilitarian purposes.

  4. heather says:

    I love making something from nothing that then turns to a family heirloom to be passed down through the ages. I have many quilts I treasure that my grandmother and mother made, and my very first quilt is now complete (www.flickr.com/photos/johncelliot/3929815420)!I loved the picture of your quilt so much, I found the pattern for grandmother's flower garden and have started piecing one together myself. Since I used mostly clothing and items from family members for the crazy quilt, I am out of that sort of material. With this one I've decided to try and keep to 20s, 30s, and 40s fabric. Thankfully there are great places (especially ebay!) to pick up vintage scraps that are just perfect.

  5. savidgereads says:

    Another brilliant post Rachel, its quite sick making hahaha. Am so jealous of where you work. You must, must, must report back on the book group and the book and of course No Name. Am looking forward to all of those posts as ever!

  6. Jodie says:

    Hurray you're a feminist! I'm trying to work out which squares are made from the old Topshop dress but I can't quite guess…

  7. novelinsights says:

    Oh how funny, I've recently been reading Grandmothers Ways for Modern Days (yes, I'm 27 going on 72) and it inspired me to think about patchworking. I used to love making things and sewing when I was a kid and I started thinking about all the old clothes I could make into something lovely. Then I got them all out and got grumpy because the colours didn't seem to go, but i will have to keep it in mind and retreive my sewing machine. Lovely quilting pictures you've put up.

  8. Rachel (Book Snob) says:

    Verity – Glad you liked it! I didn't think I could do it either but I proved myself wrong – maybe one day you'll decide to give it a go. That's what's so great about patchwork – you can pick it up and put it down for years and the best quilts I've seen were worked by generations of families – you could just do a bit and hand it down to your daughter to finish!Darlene – there are many rooms just like that! Filled with treasures that there just isn't room to display. Such a shame. Maybe your needlework will be in a museum one day – you never know! And thank you for the compliment – it's been a slow process but I'm starting to feel like the end is in sight now. I like the idea of baffling people by mu mishmash of fabrics!Danielle – The V&A is a lovely place to work. šŸ™‚ But don't be jealous, the job isn't that much fun! Yes taking time is key – it's nice to have a project to work on. I am doing it entirely by hand, yes, as the sewing machine couldn't handle the fiddliness of the small pieces. Plus I wanted to go through the process of hand stitching it. I looked up the Gee's bend quilts – thanks for mentioning it. What a fascinating story those ladies have! Hopefully their exhibition will arrive in England one day soon.Heather – Oh my goodness! Your quilt is INCREDIBLE! Puts mine to shame! What a wonderful design, and terrific fabrics. I am jealous. I'm so pleased you like my quilt – I hope your grandmother's garden turns out beautifully, which I'm sure it will. I'm going to try a log cabin next I think.Simon – hehehe! Thank you for the compliment! I will do – just finished No Name today so will do a post all about it over the weekend! I loved it!Jodie – Yes I am! It's the yellow stripe – a bad choice as I have olive skin and the yellow made me look sallow. So into the quilt it went!Novelinsights – That book sounds amazing! There is a copy winging its way to me now thanks to your mention! šŸ™‚ Oh the colours don't have to go – my quilt has no colour matching involved. I just went for it. Give it a go!

  9. ravenousreader says:

    I've just stumbled across your lovely blog (reading your review of Her Fearful Symmetry, which I've just finished myself) and was so pleased to read this post about quilting. I was lucky enough to grow up within a family of quilters, and now have several quilts of the type you're making. I so cherish them, recalling the time spent with my great grandmother and aunt as we quilted, looking at all the different patterns and remembering where they came from. Quilting is a true art form. I'm glad it's still being practiced.

  10. Rachel (Book Snob) says:

    RavenousReader – thanks so much for reading and commenting! I love to meet new people! How wonderful that you have so mnay family quilts, I am jealous. They're such wonderful heirlooms, aren't they?

  11. makedoandread says:

    I am, as always, late to the game, but I've really been enjoying reading your last post on feminism and the comments that emerged from it. I am also bowled over by where you work. I can't even begin to imagine working at the V&A, surrounded by that wealth of history and artistry. I started a quilt a few months ago, but is nothing like as lovely as yours! But I started it for much the same reasons, and because I treasure the hand-sewn quilt I've inherited from my grandmother and would like to pass one down someday. It's a beautiful craft, and I hope this isn't your last post on it!

  12. Rachel (Book Snob) says:

    Makedo – The V&A is a wonderful place indeed to work. I'm sure your quilt is beautiful – up close mine is very shoddy I promise! I will post again on the topic no doubt – this quilt will be in the making for a long time yet! Thank you so much for your lovely comments.

  13. novelinsights says:

    Oh I will have to, I shall have a think over Christmas about a quilt project. I came across this today and thought you might find it interesting:http://www.vam.ac.uk/things-to-do/blogs/quilts-hidden-histories-untold-stories/homeWould you believe the V&A has a whole blog devoted to quilts!?

  14. Rachel (Book Snob) says:

    Novelinsights – Can't wait to hear whether you've started! A crazy quilt is apparently a good place to start.Yes I know! The curator of the quilts exhibition started the blog – she's an amazing and lovely lady called Sue. Keep a watch on it because there are so many interesting quilts stories she has to tell!

  15. Novel Insights says:

    I certainly will. Hmm… looks like I'm going to have to schedule a trip soon too šŸ™‚

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