It had been torture ticking off the days until our trip to London and my visit to the V&A because everyone else has been coming back with glowing reports of what must surely be the most lauded exhibition in recent years and certainly the best quilt event that I think I've ever been to.
Quilt exhibitions are heavenly places if you love quilting, and sometimes even if you don't it's hard not to admire the work and infinite patience and technical expertise involved in the making of a massive Baltimore Album quilt or similar.
At this point I have to take gentle issue with Norma Clarke's otherwise thorough review of the exhibition in the Times Literary Supplement (my new subscription comic for this year) and her assertion, whilst giving credence to the labour-intensity involved, that
'In truth there is not much to be said about the technical side of quilt-making and patchwork...'
Sharp intake of breath, I wonder if Norma's made a Baltimore Album quilt?
So I pitched up for my 12.30pm entry slot and had to make the instant decision about whether to hire the audio guide or just wing it and hope for inspiration.
Actually it was a no brainer because I've never hired an audio guide around an exhibition in my entire life, each to his own but I can't think of anything worse for someone like me to have someone else telling me what I'm seeing when I want to figure that out for myself.
Heaven knows what I've missed down the years for being so stubborn.
But not everyone feels like that and so the flock of audio-guide wearers held silent sway, many women of a certain age (mine) trying to figure out how to work the iTouch. This is an incredibly popular exhibition and I had been warned about the impenetrable hordes of people clustered silently around each exhibit, rooted to the spot.
I had to indulge in a bit of un-quilter-like shoving to get a glimpse, but I was born with elbows I managed.
I actually wanted to discover what this exhibition might say to me, how might it inspire me, and despite the crowds I wasn't disappointed because this is an intelligent quilt exhibition with depth and meaning, and curated to ensure that if you want to find that meaning it's there for the taking.
Confinement in the context of childbirth firstly and the quilts made for new babies. Some exquisite pieces that you'd perhaps show to a baby and then put away safely for eternity, far too precious to be sicked on.
But confinement also in the context of women's lives in history.
Those quilts made by women confined by wealth to a life of boredom and much whiling away of the hours required. Money no object so access to the finest fabrics, the silks and the chintz, no problem.
All contrasting powerfully with the women confined by poverty and quilting for pragmatic reasons, both to earn a living but also to keep a family warm and scraping together whatever materials came to hand.
I had no idea that the reason for the mining town base for the British quilting tradition was down to the lack of any other work for women trapped in those pit towns, thus giving us the Durham and Welsh quilts so familiar to anyone who has followed the history of the craft here in the UK.
Confinement also exemplified by the Fine Cell project, cleverly filmed and exhibiting the work of the inmates of Wandsworth Prison, the men who have found a creativity they may never have discovered but for their crime, what a strange juxtaposition of life events, a sort of cause and effect and the untold benefits self-evident.
There was so much breath-taking beauty here it could all have been too much to take in, and that is often the case at national quilt festivals, the eye quickly feels sated with cleverness, and a sense of inadequacy in the face of so much expertise quickly filters through. But, as if to rest the gaze, interspersed here were paintings featuring quilts alongside modern exhibits that spoke about so much more than their face value.
The antique quilts often cleverly displayed to show the reverse with the papers still in place.
This is the reverse of ours...
...and we have spent hours not only marveling at the front and the intricacy of the cutting and piecing but poring over the papers still in place.
On this visit (because I think I plan a return) three exhibits that really captured my imagination.
Firstly the Changi coverlet.
No crowds around this one, it was a bit tatty, dirty and very simple, no nine stitches to the inch quilting technique to admire, or colours to step back and praise. It was made by a group of young girls aged 8-16 incarcerated as prisoners-of-war in Changi , Singapore in 1941 and who had set themselves up as covert Girl Guide unit. The quilt was a simple Grandmother's Flower Garden arrangement of hexagons cut from bits of their dresses and any other fabrics they could find.
I had this corner to myself for ages and just gazed.
In the end I read the story it was telling me without the aid of the audio guide or any labels, what an anchor of reassurance the making of this patchwork must have been and I could have wept when I looked at the rough stitches and the grubby marks and the embroidered names and just wondered... Nellie Symons, Olga Morris, Bessy Sanger, Evelyn Harris, what happened to them, did they live through that hell,
It somehow exemplified the potent, concealed and often timeless message of any quilt and also that what is happening in the life of the maker is simultaneously being stitched into the quilt and sometimes those stories shine out from the most unassuming objects. This one will never lose its power.
Then there was a simple quilt made from strips of pyjama fabric from a local factory by Annie O'Hara of County Tyrone in the 1940s.
It was so basic that again people passed it by, but somehow it resonated with me...how many times have I created something similar with odds and ends. I know I have an immoral fabric stash to compete with the rest of them now but twas not ever thus, and not what quilting has been about for me... buying a whole lot of expensive fabrics and backing the quilt with yards of even more expensive stuff and using the finest wadding that all costs an arm and a leg, it's often been about utility and I've been as proud of those as any of the others I have made.
Finally the Rajah Quilt made between 5th April and 19th July 1841 by the 180 women convicts on board HMS Rajah during their transportation to Van Dieman's Land, and with provisions supplied by Elizabeth Fry's prison reformers. So how do you make a quilt over 3ms square on a wave-beaten convict ship...
So I reached the end of the exhibition and wished I could retrace my steps because I'd missed a few, and I tried but you can't; the hordes are bearing down on you relentlessly, there's only one way out and it delivers you fairly and squarely into a very dangerous place for the unwary. The V&A have created a quilt shop, with books, fabric and all manner of things quilty and as if surviving that labyrinth of excess wasn't sufficient unto the day, you then have to walk through the perils of the V&A bookshop.
Alright, so I didn't really need the catalogue, as in life would have gone on the same without it, but I did emerge with one which I've since read and can highly recommend. It's scholarly, investing meaning and shedding fascinating light on a craft often misguidedly deemed simplistic and I also now know all the things I doubtless missed on the audio
... oh alright then, just a few little bits of fabric too and it could have been a whole lot worse but I have a few special gifts to make for people this year..
...and the pencil?
Well it was a nice one, just right for scribbling on books as I read
...and the book of quilt block designs?
Surely I have hundreds of those on the shelves already?
Well, yes, but...