Saturday, January 23, 2010

Stitching Lives

Victorian artistry will be front and center in “Quilts 1700–2010,” an exhibition opening on 20 March at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

"Quilts evoke the past – they stimulate our earliest memories of security and comfort and resonate with historical and cultural references challenging the assumption that stitching is simply ‘women’s work,'" says Sue Prichard, the V&A's curator of contemporary textiles. The exhibition promises to be a visual feast, with thousands of minute pieces of fabric in 65 historical and contemporary quilts reflecting three centuries of pattern and print.

A patchwork bedcover commemorating Queen Victoria's coronation will be one of many highlights. The central panel of this piece features a coronation scene surrounded by a wreath of roses, thistle, oak, and shamrock in red, green, brown, mauve, and yellow on a white ground. The coverlet is quilted in white cotton in running stitch with interlacing circles, leaf-shapes, chevrons, and other geometric patterns. It was given to the museum by a woman in Burton-on-Trent who discovered it at the bottom of a box following the death of her aunt, its previous owner.

On loan from the National Gallery of Australia will be the Rajah quilt (shown at top), made in 1841 by women convicts aboard the HMS Rajah as they were being transported to Van Diemen's Land (present-day Tasmania). The women used sewing provisions donated by Elizabeth Fry's social reform initiative – including tape; 10 yards of fabric; four balls of white cotton sewing thread; a ball each of black, red and blue thread; black wool; 24 hanks of colored thread; a thimble; 100 needles; threads; pins; scissors; and two pounds of patchwork pieces – to create this extraordinary work, which is the only transportation quilt in a national collection, never before shown outside Australia.

Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845; DNB bio here; Wiki bio here) was a remarkable Victorian whose efforts on behalf of female prison inmates deserve to be more widely known.

You can get a behind-the-scenes peek at the making of "Quilts 1700-2010" on Prichard's blog.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the V&A has delved into its legendary archives to produce a limited-edition series of vintage fabrics that will be available online and in the museum shop. The 18 designs in the debut collaboration between Liberty Art Fabrics and the V&A Shop are inspired by several nineteenth-century patchwork coverlets.

Shown below is "Seaweed," adapted from a quilt commemorating the Duke of Wellington's victory at the Battle of Vittoria. Made in England in 1829 by Elizabeth Chapman, the patchwork incorporates several block-printed cottons dating from the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Other patterns, including "Lattice," "Palm Tree," and "Petals" were inspired by English and Welsh coverlets of printed cotton and linen that had been painstakingly adorned with appliqué and embroidery.


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