<%@ LANGUAGE="VBSCRIPT" %> Quilting in England

THE PATCHWORK PLANET: Quilting in Great Britain

If quilting is considered a quintessential American craft, it is highly likely it came to the North American continent with its early settlers. The earliest of whom, of course, were the British.

All ensuing hostilities notwithstanding, a lively quilting tradition has continued in the British Isles, with lots of Trans-Atlantic cross-fertilization, to this day. In exploring the current state of quilting in Britain, TVQ was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of two British quilters from different parts of the island. Celia Eddy lives in the north of England, near the Scottish border, and Janet Hazelton in the South, where everything is more or less near London. They were kind enough to share their insights and observations from their different vantage points.

As to its origins, the two women agree that quilting began not in parlors but in battlements:

"Historically quilting seems to have come before patchwork," Janet says. "having been brought back to England by returning Crusaders - who found their Arab adversaries wearing padded (quilted) jackets to deflect arrows etc. in battle. They found it much lighter to wear in the heat under chain mail, and more effective than leather."

How long it took padded cloth to move from battle to bed isn't exactly clear, but patchwork quilting is extant in England dating from the 18th century:

"A set of bed furnishings, dated around 1708, at Levens Hall in Cumbria, is the earliest known example of quilted patchwork in Britain" Celia says. "It is made from scraps of imported Indian chintz which at the time the furnishings were made would have been very precious. As in most parts of the world, patchwork and quilting were originally two distinct techniques, serving both functional and decorative purposes. In poorer households, patchwork would have been an important way of prolonging the life of fabrics, which in pre-industrial days were labour-intensively produced in the home and would only have been discarded as a last resort. More affluent homes, as written records show, tended to own highly decorative quilts and quilted clothing which were partly designed to display the wealth and importance of their owners."

Regionally, several different styles developed in the UK. Celia says, "One outstanding tradition is that of the North of England. The quilts made here were called Whole Cloth Quilts, North Country Quilts or Durham Quilts. Their main feature was that they are made from one whole piece of cloth, the pattern being created entirely by fine quilting over the entire surface. A variation was the 'Strippy' quilt, in which the top was pieced from long strips in fairly wide bands and the quilting pattern was done within the bands.

"In Wales," she continues "quilt tops were often pieced in bold, simple patterns from large scraps of woolen fabric in strong, saturated colours, wool being an important part of the local economy. The visual similarity between those and Amish quilts is very striking and some research might be undertaken into the reasons behind this. (I'm not aware that any such research is in progress at present.) The Welsh quilts were usually also filled with wool, making them heavy, and they were quilted in elaborate and often beautifully worked, patterns drawn from a bank of traditional Celtic designs, such as spirals and interlinked bands."

Janet adds that traditional Welsh quilting patterns are "carried down through families (rather like Aran knitting patterns in Ireland)."

"During the Depression years of the twenties and thirties," Celia points out, "there were initiatives to enable the quiltmakers of Wales and the North of England, both very poverty-stricken regions, to set up workshops and to market their output at high prices in London and other cities. Changing economic conditions and the advent of the Second World War spelt the end of this trade but it was instrumental in bringing the skill and beauty of the craftsmanship involved to a much wider audience than might otherwise have been the case."

While these regional traditions have had a strong influence on the development of quilting in Britain, their importance has waned as the craft has gained a more cosmopolitan flavor. "Today," Celia says, "quilters are still conscious of their regional heritage and traditions, and there are some who consciously re-create traditional styles and patterns, but regional distinctions have largely died out in contemporary work. This, of course, is just one more effect of the vastly increased ease of communication, with speedy exchange of goods and ideas: the great cultural 'melting pot' which characterises life at the end of the second Millennium."


"Today,quilters are still conscious of their regional heritage and traditions, and there are some who consciously re-create traditional styles and patterns, but regional distinctions have largely died out in contemporary work."


What about English Paper Piecing? Janet says the practice has had some unexpected side benefits: "The 'English method' of piecing over papers has led to historic finds of diaries, letters and the like, when restoration work is done. The papers provided extra insulation for the coverlets, and was not always removed."

The English version of paper-piecing, though, according to Celia, has largely given way to its American counterpart, and is now done on the machine.

The contemporary quilting "scene" in Britain seems to have its origins in the same resurgence of the craft as was experienced in other parts of the world.

Celia says: "The well-documented 'boom' in patchwork quilting, which began in America in the seventies, was a little later arriving here but continues unabated today. There are quilting groups in almost any part of the country you care to visit but we don't use the word "Guild' to describe them because here it has legal connotations and can only strictly be applied to organisations registered as such. The groups vary in size from the small and informal -six friends who meet at home once a week - to large groups with a hundred or more members. The larger groups meet regularly throughout the year and organise Workshops with local and nationally-recognised teachers, arrange local quilt shows and make quilts to raffle for fund-raising. They usually have a programme of speakers and Workshops and sometimes quilters from America are invited for these: Georgia Bonesteel, Janet Elwin, Marta Amundsen and Michael James are just a few of the recent visitors who come to mind."

In the late '70s, a national organization was formed. Janet says, "The Quilters Guild was founded in 1979, and as from January 1st 1998 is known as The Quilters Guild of the British Isles. The country is divided into areas, and each area promotes patchwork and quilting by holding meetings, seminars and exhibitions. There is a general meeting annually, which forms the core of a conference weekend, held in different venues each year. The Head Office is in Halifax, West Yorkshire."

The Guild, registered as a charitable organization, has a variety of interests, including historical. "There is an active Heritage Committee," according to Celia, "which maintains a collection of heritage quilts, adding to it when rare or special quilts become available, either through auction sales or donations by well-wishers. This year, the Heritage Committee have undertaken to establish a British Quilt Study Group, along the lines of the American Quilt Study Group, and an Inaugural Quilt Study Day will be held on 31st October at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester. (Details: celia@eddy.u-net.com)."

"There are many local guilds," Janet says, "and patchwork and quilting groups which are not necessarily affiliated with the national guild. Patchwork and quilting classes are offered by some towns as evening classes, and the City & Guilds course in Patchwork and Quilting, Parts I & II, gives a recognised standard of skill on completion of the two/three year course."

"One of the most obvious differences in the respective quilting scenes of Britain and America," Celia says, "is in the showing of quilts. Here, there are only four major exhibitions held annually in established venues, none of which is 'juried,' being open to anyone who wishes to enter. There are no cash prizes for winners, the top prizes usually being sewing machines and other useful equipment. Winning, however, has plenty of spin-off in terms of recognition and publishing opportunities. An annual series of Quilt Fairs, run by The Patchwork Association, also takes place in venues around the country and in Europe and for these the exhibits are selected from submitted slides.

"The most frequently commented upon difference between quilts shown here and in America is the quantity of quilting: we tend to be a bit sparing with it whereas American quilts tend to be heavily quilted."

"Regular shows in the UK," Janet says, "include Quilts UK - which takes place in Malvern, Worcestershire, every May (this year was its tenth exhibition with associated competitions); The National Patchwork Championships took place this July at Olympia, in London - although they have had varied venues in their history; and there is a big annual show in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, at the end of August every year. The National Patchwork Association runs quilt fairs round the country throughout the year, and also in Europe. Cabot Quilting Conferences runs weekend courses at least twice a year in Bristol, with well-known American teachers (for example, Judy Mathieson, Harriet Hargrave, Judy Dales, Joen Wolfrom, Mary Mashuta, Virginia Avery, Cathie Hoover, Carole Liebzeit, Marlene Peterson, Margaret Miller, Darra Duffy Williamson, Zena Thorpe, Laura Nownes)."


"The most frequently commented upon difference between quilts shown here and in America is the quantity of quilting: we tend to be a bit sparing with it whereas American quilts tend to be heavily quilted."


British quilting, like its counterpart in the U.S., is supported by a well-developed quilt shop network. "There are shops all round the country to provide the necessary equipment and fabrics" Janet says. "Although Britain has a traditional cotton industry, most of the fabric is imported from either the US or other parts of the world; or it is designed here, and printed and woven elsewhere - i.e. Makower reproduction fabrics are designed, often based on historic quilts, printed in Japan and reimported for sale."

The addition of import duties onto American and other fabrics of course has an impact on price, but Celia says this "doesn't stop any of us enthusiasts spending large sums of money on them!"

There is also a British publishing industry supporting quilting. "More and more books are being published over here," Celia says, "although American books are probably still the biggest sellers."

With regard to magazines, "The Quilters' Guild of the British Isles publishes a glossy magazine, The Quilter, six times a year for Members only, which gives details of Guild events, news, diary dates, personalities and so on. It also contains articles on techniques, 'How-To', profiles of quilters and quilt artists and reports on the various shows.

"The Patchwork Association publishes, for its Members, Quilting Times four times a year, containing reports on the National Patchwork Championships and on the Quilt Fairs, as well as book reviews and profiles of quilters.

"There are only two commercially produced magazines available to buy 'over the counter': Patchwork and Quilting and Popular Patchwork, both appealing to the popular market and with emphasis on 'How To' articles and new equipment and books available, but both also containing news, views and profiles. American magazines are very popular and some of them are imported and distributed through British retailers. Many people simply subscribe and have them sent direct from America."

"Regular British authors include Katherine Guerrier, Deidre Amsden, Barbara Chainey, Barbara Barber, Lynne Edwards," Janet adds. "Some well-known quilters both here and in the U.S. are among those names, and Zena Thorpe, Margaret Docherty, Christine Porter, Sandie Lush, Angela Madden and Mary Hewson should also be added - all of whom have regularly exhibited, taught and won awards at both Paducah and Houston. (Zena Thorpe is British, but lives in California)."

The presence of British quilters on the internet is increasing, though as in much of the rest of the world, it is still in its infancy. The National Patchwork Association has had a website up for several years announcing its events ( http://www.paston.uk/natpat/natpat ), and recently Celia began a site called "Northern Lights," which contained many interesting pieces on quilting. Northern Lights is currently undergoing a revamp, and is temporarily removed from the World Wide Web.

"Some of the shows are now including a category for computer-designed quilts and this attracts a small but growing number of entries," Celia says.

"Although the UK in general is beginning to get the Internet message, with more and more people coming on line, quilters seem to be rather dragging their feet," she further observes. "I don't need to tell you that the quilting Chat Lines and specialist Lists (like QHL, for example) are dominated by the American in-put and British quilters who do get online tend to be rather put off by this, feeling that there's nothing of direct relevance to them. One problem is that there are very few UK quilting Websites (but I'm working on that!) and although The Patchwork Association runs a site ( http://www.paston.uk/natpat/natpat ), The Quilters' Guild doesn't yet do so - they're thinking about it, though."

Overall the British quilting culture is as vibrant and varied as any in the world. The quilters are passionate about their craft and obsessive about their stashes, and they are supported in their madness by a strong network of organizations and businesses.


TVQ * Planet Patchwork