On Textiles:

The Art of Necessity

Kicking off our textile stories we're taking a closer look at the domestic origins of quilts

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Crazy Quilt. Maker unknown, ca. 1880, USA. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Zelanka Family, in honour of Bernard and Rhoda Zelanka, 2016

There is something undisputedly captivating about quilts. For some it is their hypnotic patterning, for others it is the embedded stories of their makers. Whatever the draw, they are objects of endless fascination, so much so, that we currently find ourselves in the eye of the storm of a frenzied quilt revival.


At its most basic, the time-honoured tradition of patchwork quilting is the process of piecing together fabric off-cuts to form a large-scale motif, which is then backed, internally padded and top-stitched. Although quilts have found their way into the present cultural consciousness as objects akin to art– notably through recent exhibitions at Alison Jacques, The Bowes Museum and Turner Contemporary – their genesis tells a far more humble story of global domesticity. Largely considered a women’s craft, these elaborately decorated bedspreads, or coverlets, fulfilled a vast array of purposes outside of the personal use of their makers. They were given as gifts for births and marriages, produced as records of family legacy and used for income opportunity and social commentary.


Yet, as Spike Gillespie writes in Quilts: Around the World, “No one knows with absolute certainty when and where the first quilts were made, and although thousands of historic quilts have been preserved, more often than not the names of their makers and the circumstances under which they toiled have been lost.” They are puzzles in both form and provenance and outside of a handful of famed quilters they remain objects of deep mystery, loosely attributed to regions and decades through the identification of commonalities in patterns, techniques and colours.Ranging from free-form abstract designs to repetitious motifs, each unique arrangement of fabric strips, stars, diamonds and squares formed codes that tell the stories of women – both individuals and collectives – throughout history and across borders.

Star of Lemoyne Quilt Rebecca Davis, ca. 1846 USA Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Andrew Galbraith Carey, 1980
"Housetop"— Four-Block Variation, Vera Pettway Major, ca. 1970. Cotton, corduroy. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Our edit of antique quilts originate from two of the most significant regions for the medium between the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries: northern England and America. Whilst they differ in their aesthetic characteristics, they share commonalities in the conditions under which they emerged.

The quilts from Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, known as North CountryQuilts, are celebrated for their distinctive use of intricate and elaborate top-stitching. This swirling needlework depicting running feathers, leaves and spirals, covered patchwork designs known as strippy and the Sanderson Star, as well as wholepiece cloth. The production of quilts across these regions emerged from the economic hardship faced by rural and industrial households of the north’s large mining communities. These coverlets were often produced in ‘quilt clubs’ as a means to provide widows and wives of injured miners the opportunity to increase their income potential.


Antique Mustard and Blue Quilt, ca. 1910, North Country, England.
Antique Star Quilt, ca. 1910, North Country, England.
Antique Wholecloth Quilt, ca. 1920, North Country, England.

For America, it was the complexity of the patchwork designs themselves that cemented their place in quilting history. American quilts became known for their use of set blocks and repetitious motifs comprised of patterns such as Jacob’sLadder, the LeMoyne Star, Log Cabin and Duck’s Foot. The pioneering exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts at the Whitney Museum of Art, NewYork in 1971 demonstrated the breath of styles that had been adopted across different factions of American society including “crazy quilts” and the utilitarian works of the Pennsylvanian Amish community. This marked a monumental shift in the status of the craft, elevating items that had lived in the quiet of domestic spaces to design objects revered for their aesthetic point of view and cultural significance.

"Housetop"—Sixteen-Block "Half-LogCabin" Variation, Rachel Carey George, ca. 1930. Cotton, denim, wool, rayon. Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation Photo: Stephen Pitkin/PitkinStudio

Standout amongst these works were the pieces from the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama – a multi-generational community of quilters that began as slaves on the Pettway Plantation. Like the mining communities of northern England, these coverlets were physical representations of community ­life: the social activity of collective sewing and their basic living needs – producing items that kept them warm at night from belongings no longer in use. Formulaic pattern structure was not the goal, instead they prioritised self-expression and inherited aesthetics. In a 1999 interview with Gee’s Bend quilter Mary Lee Bendolph she describes how they operated:


“Families down here, they like to do together. See, we farm together, and the ladies in the family get together for quilting […] Most of the families down here did the same thing — piece by theirselves and come together to quilt[…]We don’t try to style it or nothing. Folks call some of this kind of stuff “crazy quilts”—don’t know which-a-way it going. I never did go by a pattern. Didn’t none us.”

"Basket Weave" Polly Bennett, ca. 1943. Cotton. Collection of Souls Grown Deep Foundation. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/PitkinStudio
"Log Cabin"—Single-Block Variation, Tied With Yarn, Linda Pettway, ca. 1975. Corduroy. Collection of Virginia Museum ofFine Arts Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund and partial gift of the SoulsGrown Deep Foundation. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

The coverlets of Gee’s Bend tell the story of hardship, resilience and the social histories of marginalisation in the segregated south. Through the contemporary gaze they act as an archetype for how many quilting communities throughout centuries have functioned, that largely saw women learn through watching their elders assemble scraps of fabric in the aesthetic styles of the community-at-large.Whether representing radical acts of political resistance, economic depravity or revitalisation, objects of personal sentiment, historical record or community tradition, this vernacular medium performs as a lens into the humble stories of their makers – their domestic lives and personal connections.


Explore the collection.

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