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The Patchwork Planet: Quilting in New Zealand

by Marge Hurst

New Zealand and Australia are often lumped together or confused by people elsewhere. Although there are some similarities, since both countries have a population of predominantly British Isles stock, there are many environmental differences along with differences in "native" peoples. There is also a strong tradition of rivalry between the countries, especially in sport! Most important, 1200 miles of the Tasman sea separate New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand is definitely NOT an outer island of "Oz"!

Quilting in New Zealand was not a craft widely practised until the recent worldwide "explosion" in the 1970s. The same would probably hold in Australia. Some early quilts are known in both countries, having been brought from Great Britain, and some early "waggas" (haps, rough quilts) and other quilts were made here. As New Zealand has mostly a temperate climate, quilts were not as necessary for warmth as in parts of the United States. Also, sheep have been a mainstay here for both wool and meat from very early on so wool was being spun for clothing and covering from early days.

Since the quilt revolution of recent years, the number of quilters has multiplied. The October 1996 issue of "New Zealand Quilter" listed membership in the 110 or so groups and guilds throughout the country at 4100+. Although there is no doubt some duplication in listed membership, there are probably at least another 2-3000 quilters who do not belong to listed groups. For a population of about 3.3 million, approximately the size of Colorado, USA, I think 6-7000 is probably quite a large number of quilters.

Guilds in New Zealand are similar to those all over the world. There are large ones and small ones. The large ones tend to have more formal programmes and structure. The small groups usually have a less formal structure and perhaps fewer outside speakers or programmes, as everywhere because of monetary constraints. Small groups often form within a large guild and offer more intimate settings for friendship. Most of the groups of any size hold displays or exhibitions, some yearly, some biennially, some on a less regular basis. The larger groups tend to have more classes and hold "open days" and retreats. The smaller groups meet more frequently, usually in members' homes.

New Zealand quilters have had biennial symposia since late 1984. The first one was held in Auckland, in the North Island, in December 1984, the second in Christchurch, in the South Island, in February 1987 and they have alternated between the north and south Islands every odd-numbered year since.

Until 1994 there was no National Organisation in New Zealand and symposia were, and still are, run by either one or a group of guilds in an area. The locality decision seems to be arranged by "gentleman's agreement" and this works very well.

Symposia have traditionally had 4-6 days of classes. At the first one, there was one teacher from the United States, Helen Kelly, the remaining 24 being New Zealanders. At the upcoming Symposium in Hamilton, in January, 1997, there will be 7 teachers from the United States, one from England, one from Japan, 4 from Australia and 24 from New Zealand. There will be five days of classes with about 30 classes each day. Enrollments reached 750 by-mid December and by the opening day, the 5th of January, will no doubt surpass 800.

Symposia also have lectures by overseas and local quilters, various exhibitions, including a "suitcase" exhibition which tours for up to a year after the event, a merchants' mall, and other attractions which tend to be different with each one. They are high points in the lives of New Zealand quilters and often the saving for the next begins with the arrival home from the most recent!

Although symposia are being run successfully by local groups, a National organisation, the National Association of New Zealand Quilters (NANZQ) has recently been formed. The National organisation has a membership of over 450 quilters from all over New Zealand but this represents less than 10% of all the quilters in the country. Membership is on an individual basis (not like the Association of New Zealand Embroiderer's Guilds which automatically includes members of local groups in the National organisation) and there is probably a higher membership proportionately from smaller towns and outlying areas than from the larger cities. The National Association has a quarterly newsletter, the last issue of which consisted of 20 pages. It also produces quarterly Workshops by mail which are available only to members. It has published a Directory of New Zealand Patchwork and Quilting Tutors which has been distributed to guilds and other interested parties and produces a yearly Shop Directory for members. This year it sponsored a National Challenge for the first time and has also sponsored Quilter's Newsletter Features Editor Jeannie Spears' tour of New Zealand to meet quilters.

It is not the intention to have the NANZQ take over the running of symposia. Its committee structure is too small for this and local groups have a much better knowledge of local venues and amenities. However, the National organisation will probably eventually help in collating a booklet of hints for guidance in running symposia so that each group doesn't have to start from scratch.

The exhibition is always a high point of a symposium. Each symposium so far has had the usual traditional categories with fine tuning of selection and awards. In 1993 selection by slides was initiated. This was resisted a bit at the time, but has been accepted now, with groups holding "photography" days where quilts are photographed by a professional at group rates.

At the last symposium a new category was included, A Feel of New Zealand. An award for the best in this category was sponsored by our own quilting magazine, New Zealand Quilter. This is being continued at the upcoming Hamilton Symposium. Even before there was such a category, each symposium had quilts in the exhibition which were influenced by New Zealand countryside, by New Zealand sport, by New Zealand politics, or some other "homegrown" topic.

There is not a particular New Zealand style but there may be a particular use of colour. The air is so clear here that colours seem particularly bright and clean. I think this is reflected in the "original" quilts which are being made, and to a lesser extent in the more traditional ones as well. New Zealanders who have lived in Australia tell me that the Australians seem to be much quieter in their colour choices but I can't report evidence of this myself. New Zealanders have always had a strong tradition in embroidery and I think that some of those influences are beginning to appear, especially in the machine quilted/embroidered quilts. I have seen some quilts in recent years which would more easily be classified as textile art rather than quilting, mainly because of the extensive incorporation of machine embroidery in their construction. Scenic quilts especially seem to make extensive use of free stitching and textural work.

New Zealand quilters seem to "do their own thing" more readily than American quilters. It may be because this is a nation of do-it-yourselfers. For many years, cotton fabrics were not easily available and quilters made do with scraps from garment sewing. Many of these scraps were not pure cotton, or if they were, they were not the little "calico" prints which were traditional in the US. (BTW calico in New Zealand is the same fabric that is called muslin in the US. Muslin in New Zealand is what you might call cheese cloth in the US!) The "furnishing fabric" shops were and still are a great source for unusual fabrics, especially large prints. They carry fabrics from all over the world and sell off their "samples" at low cost. Many of the "curtaining" fabrics are excellent quality, similar weight to "patchwork" fabrics, and best of all, are far more resistant to fading than the usual patchwork cottons. New Zealand sun is notorious for fading fabrics so this is certainly a plus. Furnishing fabrics seem to be dyed with dyes which are more fadeproof than fabrics produced for patchwork and clothing. "Op" shops also continue to be a source of interesting fabrics for many.

Although New Zealand produces no commercial cotton fabrics, over the past two or three years a number of New Zealand quilters have begun to make their own hand-dyed, printed, painted or marbled fabrics. Many quilters buy these and some produce their own.

Over the past 15 years or so quilt shops have proliferated throughout the country. American patchwork cottons seem to be everywhere, along with cottons from England, Japan and Indonesia. Patchwork shops tend to stock similar things to what shops in the US stock but at much greater expense. There is the cost of shipping such long distances and probably a few more middle men! However, fabrics from countries other than the US tend to be cheaper than the same fabrics are in the US (allowing for the exchange rate), due probably to lower import duties. Olfa cutters and blades, for example, have always been cheaper here.

New Zealand Quilter MagazinePossibly because of the feeling that New Zealand is so far away from everything, there has been strong communication amongst New Zealand quilters and with quilters elsewhere. In the very early 80s, Anne Patrick put out one or two newsletters for quilters. In October 1984 Julia O'Connell and Val Cuthbert began "Quilttalk." After the first three or four issues Val carried this on herself. It started as a cyclostyled bi-monthly newsletter and before she gave it up because of family commitments, it had grown to a glossy, colour quarterly magazine called "Pacific Quilts." The last issue of this appeared in August 1991. There wasn't much of a gap before a new magazine, "New Zealand Quilter," a quarterly edited and published by Anne Scott, appeared in October 1992. This magazine has grown from 24 to 48 pages and about six months ago doubled its output and is now being marketed in North America as well through Stonehouse Publications.

Over the past two or three years New Zealand quilters have begun to use computers to a greater and greater extent, both for designing quilts and for communicating with other quilters. At the symposium in Wellington, in 1993, we tried to incorporate a computer class or demonstration but couldn't interest any computer firms in offering anything. At the upcoming symposium in Hamilton the computer design class being offered proved so popular that a second class has been added. More and more quilters are buying and using the commercial quilting design programmes available and not just a few are also using Corel Draw for the flexibility it offers.

There is an online quilting group, Southern Cross Quilters, otherwise known as scquilters which consists of mainly Australian and New Zealand members. Many New Zealand Quilters also belong to various American online groups -- Quiltart, Quiltnet, Interquilt, Notrad and others. The National Association newsletter and New Zealand Quilter are beginning to feature articles and information directed especially toward those quilters with an interest in computers and online communication. The Internet in general is growing by leaps and bounds in New Zealand and quilters are taking advantage of the opportunities this growth offers.

New Zealand quilters are quick to take on new things. They are not afraid to experiment. In recent years they have entered and been successful in more and more overseas competitions and exhibitions. Articles and books written by New Zealand quilters are appearing more frequently. There have been a number of entries accepted and several award winners in  contests run by Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, "Celebrating the Tradition" and "Artistic Expressions." New Zealand quilts appeared in Paducah and there was a New Zealand quilt in the 1995 Quilt National and another  juried into the 1997 show. Both of these quilters (Marge Hurst and Clare Smith), strangely enough, belong to the same local group, Coastal Quilters, near Wellington!

This is only the beginning; New Zealand quilts will be seen more and more in international shows. Watch for them!

Marge Hurst is a transplanted American who has been living in New Zealand for more than 20 years. She has quilted and taught quilting classes for the last 13 years and has exhibited her work widely in New Zealand, the U.S., and Germany. She founded her local quild, Coastal Quilters, and is currently the convenor and newsletter editor of the National Association of New Zealand Quilters. You can find a profile of Marge at New Zealand Quilters Online.  She can be reached by e-mail at: mhurst@wn.planet.gen.nz


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