The Traveling Quilter: Quilt Shops in Greater London (2002)

 

By Rob and Pamela Holland

 

 

As air fares have gotten cheaper and more quilters are traveling internationally, I increasingly see requests on the quilt lists for leads on quilt shops in exotic locales. Often the traveler has limited time and is circumscribed in her ground transportation options, so nearby shops accessible by public transport are preferred if not essential. Contemplating locations for one of our several quilt-shop reviewing trips each year, we found that fares to London were as cheap or cheaper than flights to many U.S. locations, so my 18-year-old daughter (and fellow Planet Patchwork staffer), Pamela, and I, decided to sample the offerings of the British capital. Unfortunately a work conflict kept our usual quilt shop reviewing stalwart, Lynn, from going with us, but she gave us her blessing without a hint of complaint. We decided to do the trip as we suspect most tourists do, dependent on public transportation, so we didn’t rent a car (who wants to drive in London anyway?) and as much as possible we fit quilt shops into a normal round of manic sight-seeing. We also sought out other textile experiences along the way, which were numerous, and often surprising.

 

Before leaving, we did some internet research of our own, turning up a couple of very helpful sites maintained by the London Quilters and the Quilter's Guild of the British Isles (http://members.lycos.co.uk/London_Quilters/lq1.htm and http://www.qgr1.freeserve.co.uk) that contain links to a large number of quilting resources in the U.K. We visited several of the store websites listed there, ran off instructions on how to get to them, and then promptly left all that research at home. However, we had a basic knowledge before we left of what was there and its proximity to central London, where we had found a reasonable price on a double room in King’s Cross. As in most large cities, the quilt shops tend to be in the suburbs – inner city rents are too high, and the target market is not for the most part hanging about among the barristers and the brokers. The blessing in London is that the city has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. The London Underground, known locally as “The Tube,” is an efficient, easy to navigate, and comprehensive subway system that will take you just about anywhere you want to go in the very large metropolitan area. We bought daily passes and never felt stymied getting around. The subway is supplemented by an excellent bus system, and also intersects at a number of key locations the heavy rail system that connects the city with the rest of England.

 

As of our visit in April, 2002, there were two shops in greater London that qualify as quilt stores in the traditional sense. They were not downtown, but they were not too far out, and they also happened to be near major other tourist destinations in the area. We’ll report on these two shops later, but first let’s talk about some other textile surprises we encountered as we wandered the streets in the heart of the city.

 

Probably the first place one thinks of in association with textiles in London is Liberty. Liberty is a big and posh department store on Regent Street, a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, which is full of wonderful things, with innovative displays and decorative panache. Liberty has long designed and printed its own line of fabrics – high quality and expensive cottons and other materials on large bolts that they have displayed on all four sides of a mezzanine overlooking the store’s central atrium. The Liberty fabrics we saw on display were decidedly of the conservative, floral variety, and appeared to be more intended for fashion or home decoration than for quilting. Many of the fabrics were 60” wide. We looked these over with the eye of a quilter and didn’t find ourselves tempted to purchase even a small amount, particularly at 15 pounds per meter. In a side room off the mezzanine, Liberty offers a fairly impressive collection of threads, DMC floss, buttons, ribbons, rickrack, boas, and a large selection of needlepoint kits for pillows. There are a great many items here that a quilter might find useful in one way or another, but the only real sign that Liberty recognizes the existence of quilting is a corner display of Kaffe Fassett fabric, offered both on the bolt and in fat quarters. The fat quarters were packaged more elaborately than they are usually found, with cardboard stiffeners and paper wrappers, as if they came out of a factory. Alas, as nice as Fassett’s fabric is, it didn’t provide a high degree of variety in the selection. We left Liberty without anything except a little plastic set of “training wheels” chopsticks, and despite the many pretty things there, found little of abiding interest to quilters.

 

Just a few blocks from Liberty and the other fancy stores of Regent Street, the neighborhood changes character relatively quickly, blending into the counter-culture and working-class area known as Soho. It was here that we discovered the textile wonders of Berwick Street. Someone on one of Planet Patchwork’s quilting lists suggested that interesting fabrics could be found at Borovick on Berwick Street, although they were mostly silks. Cutting through the heart of Soho, Berwick Street turned out to be a series of surprising discoveries as we came upon shop after shop (we counted six in all) crammed to the ceiling with bolts and bolts of exotic fabrics. The person on the list was right, there was a lot of silk, and almost no cotton. But the profusion of fabric in the small storefronts was truly amazing. There were silks, taffetas, novelty fabrics (many with decorative embellishments), wools, suitings, cashmere, -- you name it, in a cacophony of prints and colors. Although we didn’t see anything we might want to bring home to Lynn, who continues her quest for batiks, Pamela commented that she sure wished she’d had such a store at home when we were shopping for material for her last prom dress!

 

We later found out that Berwick Street is what is left of a once much larger and more vibrant garment district in London, one that has declined in recent years as a result of economic forces. With names like “Textile King,” “Silk Society,” and “Fine Textiles,” these hardy survivors seemed to be doing a brisk business with all ages and conditions of customers (locals mostly – we didn’t see too many tourists). Similar stores can be found in the city centers of places like Baltimore and Boston, businesses which persist in spite of the proliferation of Joann stores and the flight to the suburbs. The charm of Berwick Street was enhanced further by the presence of outdoor flower and vegetable markets on the lower end of the street.

 

On another day, we ventured a little bit north to the Camden Lock Market in Camdentown, which was recommended highly by our guidebook as a lively street market with lots of things to see and buy. Unfortunately, we chose a Wednesday for this excursion, and the booths at the market were mostly empty. We did find a few vendors eager for our business, and bought some funky Japanese wallets for friends back home, but really should have made that trip on Saturday or Sunday. Lesson learned for next time. There were in the booths that were open a number of funky textiles for sale – rough-sewn quilts with raw edges that looked like something you might find on the back of a camel. Since there was no one visible at this booth, we didn’t take the time to explore the origins of these creations, but they had a certain rustic appeal.

 

The last major textile experience we indulged in downtown was at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A, as it’s colloquially known, bills itself as “the greatest museum of applied and decorative arts in the world,” and it’s easy to believe it! Described in our guidebook as “rambling,” the huge museum contains an enormous variety of stuff, from plaster castings of famous sculptures to 2,000 years of Asian and European dress. The museum is more than a musty old attic of civilization, however. When Pamela and I walked in, the first thing we encountered was an exhibition entitled: “Men in Skirts,” which took as its premise that no garment (with the possible exception of the bra) is inherently male or female. Pointing out that while women may wear trousers with impunity, men who wear skirts or dresses risk ridicule (or worse), but the current gender conventions of dress are only a relatively recent development. The exhibit features the attempts by designers to revive the skirt, tunic, and sarong as male attire, and more than 60 garments, draped over male manikins, were displayed. Frankly, the whole thing seemed a bit bizarre to our American eyes, but it was certainly food for thought. The museum is clearly not afraid to think outside the pants!

 

Nearby was the museum’s dress gallery, where it was pleasant to walk through four centuries of women’s dress, attractively displayed in glass cases. We found ourselves most charmed by the display and humorous descriptions of various mini-skirts that were popular in the 1960s. There is apparently some controversy about which designer actually introduced that distinctive form of dress.

 

For the more serious student of textiles, museum rooms 95 – 101 contain displays of more than 5,000 historic textiles from Europe and the East. Rugs and tapestries are also given much attention and space. There weren’t a lot of quilts featured at the V&A (though we certainly didn’t see all of the museum), but there were a lot of quilted items such as kimonos. You could literally spend days in the V&A looking at textiles and other decorative arts, and it certainly can’t be taken in in one visit. To get a good taste of the V&A, go to their excellent website at http://www.vam.ac.uk

Pamela and I worked very hard to get everything we wanted to see in during the five days we had “on the ground” in London. It took some planning, and occasional hard choices, because we wanted to see nothing less than everything. Visiting the quilt stores that were our primary focus meant sojourning out of the city center, so we tried to make the relatively longer tube ride do double duty. As some of you may know, another family passion besides quilting is gardening, and botanical gardens are a must-see wherever we travel. There are a lot of beautiful gardens in London, with a great deal of greenspace in the heart of the city. One of the largest, just to the west of town, is the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, or Kew Gardens (http://www.rbgkew.org.uk/). As it happens, our first quilt shop, Stitch in Time, is also located in Kew only a short distance from the train station. We decided to do this on the day of the royal funeral of the Queen Mother, hoping to avoid the crowds and congestion we knew would take over London.

The train to Kew delivers you to a station that is just a couple of minutes’ walk from a charming little collection of shops and restaurants, and only about 5 more minutes to the gardens. It being early April, and rather chilly and windy, the gardens were not drawing huge crowds, but there were a number of families wandering down the narrow residential streets toward it. In honor of the Queen Mum, admission was free that day (it’s normally £7.00), and we wandered across the great meadows among the giant trees to several of the fascinating greenhouses they maintain there.  After a couple of hours of leafy wonderment, including a wonderful greenhouse that demonstrates how plants evolved from algal forms to more advanced species, we called Stitch in Time (293 Sandycombe Road, Kew, Surrey TW9 3LU Tel. 020 8948 8462) to find out how to get to the shop. The very pleasant owner, Krys Evans, gave us instructions, and we soon found ourselves at the door of her attractive shop in a brick storefront along the thoroughfare.

 

Inside, Krys was standing at a cutting board with a rotary cutter, making up kits. She was by herself in the cozy shop, surrounded by several hundred bolts of fabric, books, and notions. We introduced ourselves, and Krys told us the story of the shop, which she opened about six years ago after returning from a three-year sojourn in the United States. “I had been a teacher here, but when I returned I found it difficult to be re-employed at acceptable pay,” she said. “So I decided to open the shop to have something to do until my husband retired.”  She’s still at it today, struggling as do so many small businesses, with the myriad of tasks, from window-dressing to accounting, that keep the business afloat. She doesn’t have any employees, but does have volunteer help from a local quilter who just likes to hang around the store.

 

One of the complaints Pamela and I had about an earlier trip we made to England in 1999 was the homogenization of commerce. The things we found for sale in shops there were the same things we could find at home, only more expensive. There was a dearth of authentic local art and craft. To a certain extent, the same is true of quilt stores. Virtually all of the fabric that Stitch in Time stocks is American, from the big, familiar manufacturers like Hoffman, P&B, Benartex and Moda. America is apparently “where it’s at” for good and plentiful cottons. We did find one or two British fabrics among the bolts, and picked out an interesting batik made in Scotland to bring a meter home to Lynn. But the piece we picked out for daughter-in-law Christina, a purple fish fabric, was a Debbie Mumm! Fabric at Stitch in Time runs about £8.00 per meter, which translates to about US$12.00. This is a little pricey for U.S. tourists unless the fabric is one you can’t obtain in the States. Nevertheless, the shop has a comfortable, friendly feel to it, and what it lacks in size it makes up in charm. It turned out the shop was actually bigger than it looked, as it has a classroom downstairs which comfortably accommodates about eight students. “I thought when I began offering classes here that students would be bothered by the lack of windows, but they are so absorbed in their work they don’t seem to mind,” Krys says.

 

Stitch in Time also has an attractive website (http://www.stitchintimeuk.com) for mail orders, and with detailed instructions on how to find the shop. At the time of our visit, Krys had just changed her web host provider and was also struggling with all that that entailed. Being a quilt shop owner is not for sissies!

 

After a pleasant stay, we finally let Krys get back to her kits and walked back toward the station. It was lunchtime, so we stopped in at the Kew Gardens Café and had a great meal. Before we had left her shop, Krys had helped us figure out how to get to our next stop, Creative Quilting (32 Bridge Road, East Molesey,  Surrey, KT8 9EU Tel: 0208 941 7075), which is a little bit further west of London, in East Molesley. We took the train to the end of the Richmond line (only one stop further) and caught the R-68 bus to the end of its line at Hampton Court. While waiting for the bus, we had one of several extended and spontaneous conversations with local people. A woman who lives in Hampton Court clued us in to all the local news, including the infuriatingly meandering route of the R-68 bus, and the correct stop to get off. [Editor's note: Since our initial visit, Creative Quilting has moved a few doors down from their original store at 3 Bridge Road to a bigger and better location at 32 Bridge Road.]

 

Hampton Court is the site of one of the major royal castles in England. Cardinal Wolsey gave it as a gift to Henry VIII when the King, upon seeing it, got a disturbing gleam in his eye. Situated along the Thames, it is an enormous complex of buildings surrounded by vast grounds, which include a yew maze. Unfortunately, the castle was closed that day in honor of the Queen Mum’s funeral, and as it was too cold to linger long outside, we headed across the bridge to the quilt shop. It was easily visible as we reached the other side, and we soon found ourselves again in familiar territory.

 

Like Stitch in Time, Creative Quilting is located in a charming storefront, and is relatively small. The owner was away on vacation, but the woman on duty, who has previously lived in Houston and been to the Houston Quilt Market, was excited about quilting and the shop. They stock about 1,000 bolts of fabric, and have shop samples hanging everywhere. Baskets of fat quarters are strewn artfully about, and there is a generous selection of patterns and books. Pamela, an artist of many media, was especially impressed by a back room in which they displayed rubber stamps, fancy papers, and other non-quilting art paraphernalia.

 

We found another meter of fabric here to bring home to Lynn, a batik that was compatible with that we’d found at Stitch in Time, and I also picked up a couple of British quilting magazines that I had never seen previously. They offer classes during the week in the shop, and on Saturdays at a local hall. Sewing machines are available on loan on a first-come, first-served basis.

 

One of the things on our list for London was to have afternoon tea, with scones. We asked our host at the shop where the best local place for tea was, and she directed us around the corner to an antique store which has a café upstairs. There, at about 3:30 p.m., we had a most pleasant interlude of tea and clotted cream, with a raisin-rich scone for each of us.

 

We took the leisurely route out to Hampton Court, but it was now getting late and we were looking for the fast route back to London and our hotel. At the train station right across from the quilt shop, we bought two tickets direct to the Waterloo station, from whence we took the tube back to King’s Cross.

 

Beyond the immediate London environs, there are a number of quilt shops within easy driving or train-riding distance. Though we didn’t visit these on our trip because of limited time, for someone with a car or a yen to wander, Sunflower Fabrics (http://www.sunflowerfabrics.com) in Bedford, about an hour north of London, is a good bet.  Another shop we missed somehow is Maple Textiles (http://www.mapletextiles-london.com), about 10 miles outside of downtown at 188 Maple Road. This is a general fabric store that caters to the quilter, carrying large amounts of cotton fabric, including an impressive selection of plain colors.

 

London is an almost endless source of new discoveries, with layer upon layer of history and tradition, and its textile heritage is rich and varied. In our brief stay, Pamela and I just barely scratched the surface, and hope we get the opportunity to return and perhaps venture farther afield. Before we do, though, we need to get Lynn a passport as well!

 

 [Editor's note: Because quilt stores close and move quite frequently, please do not depend solely on these reviews for information. Where web addresses or phone numbers are provided, please use them to check on the current status of any particular store you plan to visit. ]

 

 

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