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!