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Sunday, 11 August 2013

Quilt exhibition at GOMA

Last weekend Mum and I flew to Queensland to see the Quilts 1700–1945 exhibition on at the GOMA. Maybe it’s because I make quilts myself, but as I walked around the exhibition I was imagining the women (and sometimes men) who had put so many hours into making these treasures.

There were three rooms in the exhibition – one for each century. It was like walking through time and seeing how styles and fashions had changed across the centuries. It was amazing to me though, how much some things stay the same. I swear I was looking at a couple of the quilts thinking “Oh, I have that fabric in my stash”. Most of the designs you can see reproduced in quilts today too, including the commemoration quilts, or those with appliquéd scenes, only they would be done with different subject matter now. I even noted that the fabric traders of the day sold pre-cut fabric especially for quilts and two of the quilts were made from fabric offcuts, one out of suits and the other out of pyjama offcuts from a nearby factory.

One thing that has changed is the way we do paper-piecing. One quilt in the exhibition showed the reverse (as well as the front) of the quilt top. You could see the ledger books, children's copy books and receipts that were used to make the paper pieces and left in the quilt. Many of the quilts also still had the tacking that keeps the paper in place visible on the front of the quilt.
Sanderson Star quilt, more information from the V&A here. © Victoria and Albert Museum.

The decorative quilting on some of the pieces was mind-boggling. Two of my favourites were the Sanderson Star (above) and Madingley Hall (below) quilts. The latter was just one of many that were made for a large estate. If there was one bedquilt and curtain piece for each of the 36 suites it would have taken many hands and many years to complete. Each room was named after the colour of the fabric used to decorate it.
Madingley Hall curtain, more information from the V&A here. © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Another that caught my eye was a hexie quilt done with bright scraps of dress fabric set on a dark colour. When you read the explanation, the dark pieces were made from blackout curtains that had been used during World War II. It was the one and only quilt made by Griselda Lewis. I could just imagine her getting to the end of a queen-sized hexie quilt and exclaiming “well that’s the first and last time I ever make one of those!”
Griselda Lewis' blackout curtain quilt, more information from the V&A here. © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Something I always think is quite sad is how much colours fade. A quilt that used to be vibrant and bright is now dull, dirty or washed out. And it’s always the yellows that fade first. That’s why it was so good to see this quilt below. Even though it was made in the 1700s, silk must keep its colour better than cotton as it was still lovely and vibrant even after all this time.
Mary Parker's silk satin bed cover, more information from the V&A here. © Victoria and Albert Museum.
The item opposite in the exhibition was a patchwork bed canopy, curtains and valance. You could see that the canopy was much lighter and clearer, but the curtains were filthy. All those years of pulling back the curtains each night to go to bed – let’s face it, they weren’t really big on washing in those days!

While every quilt in the exhibition was interesting, there were some that were obviously there to show a technique or style rather than due to lovely design or exquisite workmanship. There were even some that I thought were truly hideous – which I sometimes think about quilts I see today – everyone’s taste is different I guess. It did make me wonder though, whether I would have thought the same if I’d seen the quilt brand new in the 1800s.

Last, but not least, my absolute favourite quilt from the exhibition. This was a military quilt made from hundreds, possibly thousands of tiny hexagons, each only 1.5cm wide. They are unsure whether it was made by a soldier or purchased by him, but soldiers were often taught to sew or patch in an effort to keep them off the drink.
Francis Brayley's military quilt, more information from the V&A here. © Victoria and Albert Museum.
It really was a wonderful exhibition and well worth a visit if you can get there before it all heads back to the V&A. My one gripe was not being allowed to take photos. I understand no flash as it damages fragile textiles and art, but most large museums in the US allow non-flash photography these days, and it's such a shame not to be able to take a momento when the colour reproduction on the postcards, fridge magnets etc wasn't that great.

Anyone else been to see the exhibition?
What did you think?
What were your favourite quilts?

2 comments:

  1. I have not been to any exhibition's unfortunately. But of the quilts you posted above I would have to say I love the top one (the lemon and white one) - timeless!

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