Tagged: Quilting

Apr 13

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched!



The American Museum

The American Museum wakes up for another season


‘Hatches, matches and dispatches’ is old newspaper slang for the births, marriages and deaths columns. You’ll also hear it used to refer to baptisms, weddings and funerals, the corresponding services offered by the Church. Now the American Museum in Britain, located idyllically on the southern outskirts of Bath, has tweaked the term for its latest exhibition, Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! This exhibition, which runs through the year until 1st November 2015, brings together textile artefacts interwoven with life’s great rites of passage. And, as plenty of those textile items have been created using patchwork (and the museum has a fine permanent quilt collection), that’s where the ‘patched’ comes in.

Some artefacts have also been borrowed from exhibition partners the Beamish Museum, Jersey Museum and Art Gallery, the Quilters’ Guild, and Jen Jones’ collection in Wales, and so the sourcing reflects a mixed provenance from both the United States and the British Isles. But it’s the cross-cultural universality of the human condition which draws them all together, and there are plenty of poignant human-interest stories behind these objects, as curator Kate Hebert explains: ‘the personal and sentimental connections, the stories of the individuals that are linked with these objects, are what I have found so moving.’

I went along for the press launch early last month when spring was still struggling to assert itself and the banks of daffodils were only just beginning to open outside in the beautiful grounds. But there was plenty of stitched brightness and vitality to view within the exhibition. Here’s a taste of what I saw.


Hatched, Matched, Dispatched - & Patched!

Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! poster

Glad rags

Life’s big milestones are usually associated with looking your best,  so it makes sense that many of the textile objects featured in the exhibition are items of clothing (a subject I was possibly over-engaged with when I attended as I was in the middle of a ‘fashion fast’ – more of that in another post). Christening gowns, christening bonnets, baby slippers, bridal gowns and shoes, black clothes worn when an official period of mourning was enforced, even clothing worn by the dead to be buried in – modern day grave goods, you might call them – feature here.

The displays are subdivided into three grouped sections (‘Hatched’, ‘Matched’ and ‘Dispatched’), but I’ll dot back and forth between them for this post.

In the ‘Hatched’ section cascades of handmade broderie anglaise in a row of Christening gowns caught my eye. The christening gown took over when swaddling fell out of favour in the eighteenth century. Then gowns became longer and longer, an opportunity to display one’s wealth and status in the finest detail, all located at the front, of course, where it could be shown off. In a cabinet of baby bonnets, I spotted a cap with the tiniest imaginable white French knots – alas, my phone wasn’t up to capturing them. I was also drawn to a pair of 1930s silk baby slippers with padded soles worked very effectively in a hatched trapunto pattern of quilting, using coloured yarns which were just visible through the silk.


Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum

Christening robe, c. 1890 c/o Jersey Museum


One of the wedding dresses on display was worn in 1887 by Agnes Lucy Hughes, the first mother-in-law of Wallis Simpson.  But most eye-catching is the daffodil dress (see below) embroidered by Henriette Leonard for inclusion in her bridal trousseau around 1892. Tragically, Henriette died before she was able to wear it; her brother persuaded her to take a tour of Europe shortly before her wedding, and during the trip she took ill with the flu allied with ‘nervous exhaustion’ and died. The pristine condition of the dress suggests that it was never worn and got packed away as a family memento.

Daffodil dress. Image c/o The American Museum

Daffodil dress. Photo credit: the American Museum


Sad rags

In the ‘Dispatched’ section there’s quite a bit of mourning garb, much of it nineteenth century and frequently featuring jet. As a Victorian female mourner observing a strict code of mourning etiquette, your yards of black crepe would be held together in part by ‘jet pins’ (actually ‘japanned’ or enamelled metal) so as not to allow the unseemly glint of frivolous silver caused by a regular steel pin.

Jet pins

Jet pins


Strict observance of an official mourning regime in Britain appears to have been relaxed during the Great War. Then the massive death toll in the trenches would have required so many to wear mourning garb that civilian morale would have been too sorely tested.

There’s a tradition in Wales of knitting stockings to be worn after death. Similarly, some women quilted skirts to be buried in. The late nineteenth century Welsh skirt below is a rare survival, made by two sisters who somehow left it behind when they moved house.


Welsh quilted burial skirt, nineteenth century, courtesy of Jen Jones

Welsh quilted burial skirt, nineteenth century, courtesy of Jen Jones


Finely detailed items to adorn the home have often been made in response to a birth, stitched by a young woman in anticipation of her marriage, or by a mourning widow to mark the sorrowful departure of her life’s partner. The American Museum is justly famous for its quilt collection, and you get a chance to see a few of their gems showcased here in this exhibition.


Ellen Bryant's 1863 log cabin quilt

Ellen Bryant’s 1863 log cabin quilt


One of my favourites is the stunning log cabin top shown above, pieced around 1863 by Ellen Bryant in  preparation for her marriage in Londonderry, Vermont.  Over three hundred log cabin blocks (each 4 and a half inches square) have been arranged in a variation known as ‘barn raising’ or ‘sunshine and shadow’. This eye-popping quilt has an even more intricately pieced backing created by Ellen’s sister, not finished until 1886. Evidently the resulting quilt – a sororal labour of love – took over two decades to complete.

And another favourite from the permanent collection is the Christmas bride. The appliqued holly leaves have faded over the years, as greens tend to do, but the red berries and festoons remain surprisingly bright. Insider tip: you may still be able to find a tea towel bearing this design in the museum shop.


Christmas Bridge appliqued quilt

Christmas Bride appliqued quilt


With my interest in mending, I was glad to see Bertha Mitchell’s quilt, made from dress and furnishing fabrics to celebrate her sister’s wedding in 1899. Bertha worked as a seamstress, repairing clothes in Keswick Boarding School.  You’ll find a close-up picture of that quilt over on my Instagram feed.

A very special cot quilt is featured here, on loan from the Quilters’ Guild, but unfortunately I didn’t get a photo of it. It’s the earliest piece on display (1700-10) and is a white, whole-cloth quilt, densely quilted by hand.

There are also a few mourning or memorial quilts on display, a couple dating from the American Civil War era (see ‘Darts of Death’ on my Instagram feed).


Poignant needle

And then there was possibly the most moving item of all, a simple embroidered tablecloth – its very ordinariness adding to its poignancy. The signatures of female friends and American servicemen stationed at Cheltenham during the months leading up to D-Day are partly embroidered. But some remain in the pencil. Helen Slater, the embroiderer, was working them in a variety of bright colours, but she stopped part way through one signature, and her needle remains lodged in the fabric. She couldn’t bring herself to finish the project after she heard that her fiancé, Jack Carpenter (his name embroidered in red) had been killed in action. She put the cloth away with a book (The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) that he’d given her just before he left for the D-Day landings, and she cherished them both for 70 years until her own death.

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Embroidered tablecloth, World War II

Postpartum pincushions

I like a nice pin or several and so made a beeline for a couple of exhibits featuring pins. For the diehard haberdashery enthusiast, besides the jet pins mentioned above there’s the museum’s own 1821 baby-welcoming pincushion made of silk and steel pins. This pincushion, which has just been restored (the silk had shredded and the stuffing been lost), reminded me of a couple in the 2010 V&A exhibition of quilts, though those were dated a little earlier. Pincushions with elaborate patterns and phrases marked out with pinheads were popular gifts for new mothers. However, it was considered bad luck to gift such a pincushion before the birth, as that might sharpen the pains of labour. The museum notes explain that in colonial New York, births were announced by hanging pincushions on door knockers – a practice which apparently fell out of favour after the safety pin was invented in 1878.

Welcome little stranger pin cushion

‘Welcome little stranger’ pin cushion


Tonsorial textiles

Grim though they might sound to us today, mourning rings made from the deceased’s hair were popular on both sides of the Atlantic during the nineteenth century. The eagle-eyed visitor to this exhibition will spot fascinatingly intricate rings and brooches delicately woven from human hair. I didn’t get a good shot of them, sadly, as that part of the exhibition was dark, but do look out for the rings ingeniously formed to resemble tiny buckled belts.

There’s a lot more to see than I can show you here, but you can find a few more images over on my Instagram feed. And let’s not forget the person who put it all together: Kate Hebert, new in post as the American Museum’s curator. Congratulations, Kate!

Curator Kate Hebert

Curator Kate Hebert


Finally, a quick update on last year’s immensely popular Kaffe Fassett exhibition. I’m reliably informed that there is now a permanent Kaffe boutique at the museum, so whenever you time your visit you can always get your fix.


Hatched, Matched, Dispatched – & Patched! runs till 1st November 2015 at the American Museum in Britain, Claverton Manor.  There will be a talk by Edwina Ehrman, Curator of Fashion & Textiles at  the Victoria & Albert Museum, this Thursday 16th April 2015. Check out the museum’s website for other associated events.

Running alongside this exhibition is Spirit Hawk Eye, a celebration of American native culture through the portraits of Heidi Laughton.


Feb 26


Woollyherb, Maggie Jarman

Woolyherb held by its creator, Maggie Jarman

I was really excited to see my friend Maggie’s quilt (above) featured in March’s edition of British Patchwork & Quilting. It’s in an article by Khurshid Bamboat about the Dulwich Quilters’ 2010 Exhibition. Here’s what Khurshid said:

‘Woollyherb’ by Maggie Jarman kept drawing me back. Maggie had cut small coloured felt squares, applied them on to black net and felt and sewed different coloured and shaped buttons on to the squares. It wasn’t a big piece – but it was beautifully proportioned and stunning.

Unfortunately, the images weren’t terribly clearly reproduced in the magazine, but I happened to have these shots in my camera, having met up with Maggie last month.

Woollyherb by Maggie Jarman

Woollyherb, flat

These weren’t exactly studio conditions: we were in a high-street pizza-chain restaurant and the garlic bread was on its way.

Woollyherb by Maggie - detail

Woollyherb close-up

I love Maggie’s delicate placement of colour, button and stitched detail. Maggie used all sorts of threads and yarns that she happened to have lying about. She also confessed to leaving in some of the tacking stitches (see above) which really adds to the charm.

Woollyherb by Maggie - detail

Woolyherb detail: felt, flowers & leaves

I also love that the felt used is ‘real’ felt – real to me being the home-fulled variety, rendered from old wool garments. And that many of the buttons are one-off vintage finds: a great way to empty that button jar. This would make the grooviest upcycled scrap project and is really quite achievable even for a beginner stitcher. There are no seams in it, for one thing. This qualifies as ‘a quilt’, incidentally, because it’s constructed of  three layers anchored together with stitching; to dyed-in-the-wool quilters these things matter. To make such a gorgeous piece it helps to have an impeccable artist’s eye, and Maggie has just that. As you may have guessed from the name, the colours of this piece were inspired by rosebay willowherb, a wild plant which you’ll probably recognise as a weed in your garden.

I’m astonished and delighted to calculate that Maggie and I have known each other for over 30 years. She was the first person I ever met who had a proper, vibrant sense of colour; she’s is also the only person I know who is utterly unafraid to wear orange. We always have exciting meet-ups: full of fabric talk, colourful observations, extraordinary recipes, and technical note-sharing. I came away last time with a small rotary cutter (thanks, Maggie!).

Maggie has also been known to teach screen-printing and other exciting artistic endeavours to both adults and children. If you’d like to contact her about that (she’s great fun!) or to a commission a piece, do drop me a line and I’ll be happy to put you in touch.


May 21


Kaffe Fassett‘s marketer once came up with this snappy little mnemonic for pronouncing his name: “Kaffe Fassett’s a safe asset”. They’d appear to be right. Even in these troubled economic times, Kaffe looks like a winner. He burst onto the craft scene in the ’80s with Glorious Knitting, his colourful approach blowing the cobwebs away. Then there was the needlepoint. Then the patchwork. How many books has he published? How many thousands of metres of cotton designed for devotees to hack into small pieces and reassemble in myriad ways? Don’t even bother to try to count.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear Kaffe speak on three occasions in recent years. Each has been a hoot. I caught up with him most recently last Friday night when he was plugging his latest book at my wonderful local bookshop , Topping’s. Kaffe seems to come to Bath a lot and has a long-standing association with the American Museum at Claverton, just outside the city. Now in his 70s, Kaffe is still an elfin, twinkling, slightly waspish presence. He gives great publicity, telling colourful, non-broadcastable anecdotes, and having a poke at the often repressed traditional craft establishment.

After speaking compellingly about the new book, Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts,and its inspiration (more of that in a moment), he elaborated on some of the confusion caused by his unusual name: a customer at Hatchards, the famous Piccadilly bookshop, reportedly once asked : “Do you have Glorious Knitting by Yasser Arafat?” – Kaffe mincingly re-enacts the imagined lady’s voice before swishing some gems from his fabric range at us like a mesmerising toreador. No wonder the Topping’s cash registers kerching as I wait  to pay for the book – the book I’d already promised myself I wouldn’t be buying; I have several Kaffe quilt titles at home already, and can I really say that this one is so unlike the others?

Kaffe Fassett's latest book

Quilting eye-candy

Well, yes, I’d say it is. Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts attempts to teach the reader how to see and compose quilts, to open up Kaffe’s own extraordinary creative vision. Kaffe dedicates it to ‘all the quilters worldwide who ask “Where do you get your ideas?”‘ – that infuriating old chestnut asked of all creatives.  And inspiration is at the heart of this book. It’s arranged in chapters dedicated to various simple geometrical shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles, diamonds, quarter-circles and full circles) and shows, via lush photos of source material, how you too can find such patterns in your own environment and translate them into stunning quilt patterns. As we’ve come to expect from Kaffe’s books, the pictures of completed quilts are rich and complex, the instructions simple and clear.

I’m not sure if I imagined it, but there’s just the faintest hint of the broader recessionary climate in the book’s production story. Unusually, Kaffe didn’t travel to exotic locations to drape his quilts (I say “his” though they’re made in collaboration with his quilt expert Liza Prior Lucy and an enthusiastic team of stitchers) over bucolic barn doors for these shoots. Instead, photographer Debbie Patterson‘s approach was rather more make-do-and-mend, with all pictures taken within a few miles’ walk of  Kaffe’s home. Debbie is first and foremost a food photographer and takes a mighty appetising photo. However, the geographical restraint – using industrial sites and architectural locations – gives a pared-down quality, a back-to-basics approach, which I really like.  A pile of car tyres and a heap of oil barrels are used to illustrate circles; industrial mesh gates and ordinary paving tiles to suggest diamonds. You don’t have to live somewhere exotically beautiful to find creative inspiration, it implies.

Circles inspiration page including tyres, oil drums and buttons

Why the stress on geometry? As Kaffe explained to us, he’s not interested in today’s art quilts with their looseness of form, their conscious rejection of traditional patchwork. Taking the old quilt patterns and doing them in a new way is what fires him up. Kaffe contends that the old-fashioned geometry of quilting is endless in its variety:

“Geometry is like Shakespearian language: you can never wear it out,”  he says.

He’s fascinated by the effect of cutting up patterned fabric and placing it within another pattern (the patchwork pattern). As one might anticipate, therefore, he doesn’t “get” the modern quilts on show in the current V&A exhibition: if you’re just going to paint on fabric, he says, why not do a painting instead? He’s equally dismissive of what he calls the “Thimbleberry” style of traditional quilting fabrics: small-scale, dull prints in hundreds of shades of oatmeal.

In spite of his swatch-swishing, Kaffe claims that the book is less prescriptive than many of his others, and is not tied to a particular line of fabrics, but there’s an awful lot of his familiar perennial Rowan/Westminster Fibres range detectable in the quilts featured. It is slightly less hard-sell than it might be, though, and I really don’t begrudge the guy a few fat quarters in his bank account. Kaffe told us what a kind critic has said of this publication: “Your other books were recipe books. This is the art of cooking.”  He must have a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of books ahead of him yet, the next one being, he tells us, his autobiography. He’s still looking for a title. Get in touch with him if you happen to have any suggestions. My best shots are Multi-Fassetted or possibly Fully Kaffeinated, though A Life in Colour looks like a safer bet.

Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts: 23 Original Quilt Designs by Kaffe Fassett with Liza Prior Lucy, photographed by Debbie Patterson, is published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang (an imprint of Abrams) price $35.00 (US) $45.50 (Canada) or £22.50 (UK)

Have you read Simple Shapes Spectacular Quilts? What did you think of it? I’d love to hear your take on it, or anything you have to say about Kaffe. Has he inspired you?

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