All this talk of vintage quilts with the papers intact had me ordering a new book I have just heard about ( An American Quilt - Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery by Rachel May, more of which soon) and sent me rummaging in the basement to revisit this post written three years ago. I’ve trimmed it down and updated it a bit....
The 1718 coverlet was bought at auction by The Quilter's Guild in 2000 having been 'in the possession of the Brown family of Aldbourne in Wiltshire until the time of its sale.' The Guild immediately embarked on a two year research and conservation project, the detailed results of which are recounted in a series of papers in the Quilt Studies Journal Issue 4/5 2002/3.
I didn't realise I had all that background available until the book arrived so it has been good marrying up and reading the two.
Susan Briscoe's book is a British 'Dear Jane' equivalent which is why I bought it, with patterns for the blocks arranged in a similar mosaic formation.
The coverlet is the earliest known British pieced quilt with a date worked into the piece, and as well as detailed analysis of provenance, design, construction, fabrics, silks, cottons, dyes, stitching and the papers, there has been the intricate conservation project too. At 66 x 73 inches (169 cm x 185 cms) the coverlet is smaller than you might think given the intricacy of the 182 blocks from 69 designs (click on the picture to enlarge)
The quilt was surface-cleaned with a low-powered vacuum, creased areas were re-shaped and relaxed and the entire surface was covered with a very fine mesh stitched into place around existing stitch lines.. imagine following in the stitches of the original maker. The 1718 Coverlet is now stored on a roll with a layer of acid-free tissue paper and kept in carefully monitored conditions.
Apparently conservationists estimate the amount of light an object like this can be exposed to annually at 150,000 lux hours (amount of light x time of exposure) and then carefully calibrate the time that is used up in photography and exhibiting. Clever stuff of which I knew nothing.
Quilts can be notoriously hard to date because we aren't the only people who have stashed fabrics for years before using them, or have cut up some old paper to use for the piecing, so there can be no assumptions. This 1718 quilt comes signed with the initials E H and is dated, along with papers still in place though sadly the name of the maker also remains elusive despite much combing of available local records.
More recent research dates the papers as a published speech on the subject of the Union of Scotland with England delivered to Parliament in 1707 ( Quilt Studies Journal Issue 9 - 2008) The social context of that alone is fascinating given recent referendums on Scottish Independence, but also that England, with a population of six million most of whom lived in rural areas, was recovering from the aftermath of the Civil War, the beheading of a king and the abolition of the Divine Right of Kings to rule.
By the time this quilt was dated George I was on the throne, Robert Walpole was the first Prime Minister, Parliament and democracy were finding their first feet, and an era of prosperity and stability was beckoning. The Industrial Revolution was sixty years away and life still centred on the village with its cluster of surrounding farms, and where travel was restricted by poor roads. Interestingly 1718 also the year that Britain decided on the transportation of criminals as an alternative to the death penalty.
It's not hard to look out of the window here in the Tamar Valley and begin to imagine the life.
How often must the researchers have wished the 1718 coverlet could talk...imagine the stories and the history stitched into this, but how well they have done to extract and piece together historically accurate details and possibilities. It all gives credence to the growth of quilt scholarship worldwide and in particular the history surrounding both the making and the textile production at a time of impending change.
The conclusions are that the coverlet was competently made by someone with the time and the ability to draft, cut and stitch, and with the inclination and the moderate wealth to do so, using silks, damasks and brocades as well as papers, all valuable and expensive commodities. Research reveals design marks, folding of paper to create shapes, numbering of the pieces and with the inclusion of some larger blocks there must have been careful pre-planning of the lay-out (been there, done it, found it doesn't fit) . Fabrics have been deciphered and analysed in the minutest detail, the dyes too. It is thought the blue could from locally grown woad given the lightness of shade, and remembering my indigo ramblings a while back that it is blue which will hold its colour best with age
Given the limited amount of time that this quilt can be handled and exhibited it was a canny move by the Quilter's Guild to create a replica that would reflect the original colours, and it is the results of that project that are available in this book.
Patterns for sixty-nine blocks numbered, drafted and ready to use, with helpful hints about fabric choices and construction methods whilst a modern technique sits alongside instructions for the original method.
It is all a huge achievement and this book an incredibly informative and useful addition to my shelves,
If you were lucky enough to see the 1718 coverlet at the recent Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, or have ever seen it, and before it heads into deep storage for ten years, I would love to know your impressions...