About nineteen years ago there was an exhibition of Amish quilts at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. My friend B and I took our toddlers along. The children were just walking and about the same size; I remember my son was wearing shocking pink overalls with a big bright polka dots, a hand-me-down from a slightly older friend. The exhibition was busy but spacious. The kids loved the polished wooden floor and reverted to crawling and sliding to get around. Several gallery visitors admired our sweet little girls and asked if they were twins. B, who is a long-time quilter, showed me how to look at a quilt, what kinds of workmanship are involved, the tensions between the immaculate, repetitive craft and the drive for colour and form.
It was a memorable day – that is, at the time it was probably just another good little excursion with small children, punctuated by accidents with drinks and the search for a child-friendly toilet, but it has stayed in my memory ever since. There is another memory, which must come from two or three years earlier, when my friend and I sat on a couch at some social gathering, sharing our grief at losing a pregnancy early on. And here we were at the gallery with our beautiful children.
Now those children are pretty much grown up: currently studying midwifery and music respectively. And there is another exhibition of quilts at the gallery – this time at the Australian wing in Federation Square. ‘Making the Australian quilt: 1800-1950’ is open until 6 November. How could we not go?
B still makes quilts. There’s one for each baby in her circle – not too precious, because baby quilts are often used to destruction. Then there are larger, more elaborate quilts for older friends or to hang on the wall. I still don’t make quilts; I’m struggling even to complete a knitted sweater, so how on earth would I cope with hundreds of little pieces of fabric, all needing to be sewn together with tiny, perfect seams? Repetitive crafts are not my thing.
I was expecting to see roughly made quilts using scraps from dressmaking or coarser materials, as part of the Australian pioneer tradition. On the contrary: most of the surviving early quilts use materials that would have been bought on purpose: flowery chintz, bright silks. There were some surprises.
This is a tumbling block quilt, made out of tiny pieces of silk. The quiltmaker was a sailor, whose name is not known. He gave it to a young woman in Somerset, who sent it to her brother and his wife in Sydney. Why did I assume that all quiltmakers would be women? Sailors had to have sewing skills, in order to make and repair sails – but moving from sailcloth to silk would have been a considerable jump. This piece of work is immaculate. I am trying to imagine the maker sitting on deck in good weather on a long voyage, piecing his tiny diamond-shaped scraps of fabric together – but one little gust of wind and they’d all be overboard. He would have had to work below decks, in good light – or keep his materials in his pockets, and a firm grip on the piece of work in hand. The silks for his quilt would probably have been bought, or maybe acquired as scraps from a dressmaker? I imagine a sister making dresses for wealthy women, hoarding the leftovers for the next time her brother comes home.
Annie Tait (later Annie Percival), who was born in a tent in Silverton, NSW, in 1887, was the daughter of a man who became a successful publican in Broken Hill. When she was about 16, she collected enough silk ribbons from cigars to make a fabulous quilt of her own:
She has cut up ribbons for the central square to bring together the manufacturers’ logos, and matched the outer ribbons ingeniously to form the broader pattern. Looking at it – the collage of found materials, the brilliant gold – I thought of Rosalie Gascoigne’s traffic sign assemblages, many years later. Annie lived to the astonishing age of 103, dying in 1990.
I found the pioneer quilts of my imagination later on in the exhibition. They are blankets pieced together out of a wild range of scraps – sacking, old sheets, anything that came to hand – in the hard times of the 1930s, and they were known as waggas.
‘This is more my kind of thing,’ I said to B, approaching this striking object from a distance. Close up, it’s very rough, and the little floral border at the bottom is surreal – you could choose to read it as an ironic comment on the delicacy of the quilting tradition. But I think the thing was thrown together, because somebody was cold and the materials could be found. Maybe that floral edge would be softer under somebody’s chin than the other materials used, which are mostly wool. The maker’s name is Emily Forward.
I have to mention one other quilt.
This one is also made out of materials that came to hand. Corporal Clifford Gatenby started sewing images onto his army blanket when he was a prisoner of war in Germany, 1941-5. He used wool and cloth from discarded garments, and made needles out of broken spectacles and old toothbrushes. He had clearly been fighting in Egypt; one of the images is of a pyramid. He is recorded as escaping from the camp in 1945 – quite possibly as the Allies advanced and the guards left their posts. He took the quilt with him, and is on record as having said, maybe in some exasperation, that it had been too much work to leave behind!
Waste materials. I have a sackful of fabric scraps from all sorts of projects over the last few years, and it’s hard to throw them away. B tells me it’s really difficult to use a mix of fabrics in a quilt, because they behave differently and won’t lie flat. As we saw in this exhibition, even in the early nineteenth century most high quality quilts used bought materials, and the rougher quilts probably haven’t survived. I love the cigar-ribbon quilt and the Depression-era waggas partly because they used what was available.
Last night we removed a ripped sheet from our bed – it’s a fitted sheet, and the fabric has worn thin over the years. I haven’t thrown it away, because my frugal self thinks there might be a use for it – as lining for some project, or in the garden in some way. My frugal self, however, is pretty close to my hoarder self, and together they are capable of creating and sustaining domestic chaos. My rational self, on the other hand, doesn’t want to have the house cluttered up with possibly useful things more than absolutely necessary. I’ve put the sheet in to wash, and will think about this later. I know that if I do throw it away, I will be needing a few strips of plain white cotton some time soon, and I’ll have to go out and buy them, and then I’ll be sorry.
Perhaps one answer is to sort and classify the scraps, so that a particular piece will come to hand when it’s needed, instead of just shoving everything into a big bag?
Meanwhile I am engaged in my most ambitious sewing project to date: a Chanel-style jacket. I’m proud to be able to say that my stash contained both a length of wool mix and a length of silk, and that they go nicely together. All I’ve bought are the trimmings: interfacing, organza, buttons… Watch this space.