Here is my latest Design Detail Column for The Hub Magazine...
Design Detail - Quilts 1700-2010
This month’s Design Detail is ‘Quilts 1700-2010′ , currently showing at the V&A. I visited the exhibition knowing I had something to be excited about, as I am a lover of all things crafty, and love to use quilting, patchwork and embroidery in my work. However I couldn’t prepare myself for being quite so blown away. Yet again the V&As research team have failed to disappoint.
Through the ‘excavation’ of various quilts from as early as 1700 they have discovered little gems of information. One quilt, a ‘Coverlet with Aesop’s Fable’ (made in England between 1700-20 with additions and repairs from 1780-1830), recorded reading habits and used imagery from stories. When investigated, paper templates made from a newspaper from 1705 were found within the quilt’s layers.
The exhibit, curated by Sue Pritchard, was divided into sections through the themes of, ‘The Domestic Landscape’, ‘Private Thoughts and Political Debates’, ‘Virtue and Virtuosity’, ‘Making a Living’ and ‘Meeting the Past’. These themes effectively blended the old, with the new and linked them conceptually.
The ‘Alphabet of Love and Courtship’ from 1875-85, (by an unknown artist) was a humorous and quirky piece illustrating the stages of a relationship through the letters of the alphabet. Beginning with A for Admiration, B for Beauty and C for Cupid and later Q for Quakings and R for Refusal.
More contemporary areas of the exhibit included a film by Nicola Naismith ‘Between Counting’, 2009. The film shows the journey of the needle from mass production to the solitude of the stitchers hand. One thousand ‘between’ needles (designed for hand stitching) became one. The piece is part of a project called ‘en-mass’ which explores “globalisation, trade and cross cultural skills” and the “relationships between mass production and hand dexterities.”
Diana Harrison’s ‘Box 1 and 2’, 2010 takes quilt construction to an alternative place recreating a corrugated card effect.
“The final construction of this ‘quilt’ appears unstable, seams left open, flaps falling and curving suggesting fragility. The time taken to make a large textile piece inevitably becomes connected to personal life events at the time of making. The time-consuming and repetitive stitching of this work acted as a therapeutic distraction to otherwise destructive events.”
Caren Garfen’s ‘How Many Times Do I have to repeat myself’, 2009 is an illustrative and colourful piece exploring various women’s issues such as domestic roles. The quilt is a collection of screen-printed illustrations of domestic objects such as phones, irons and washing machines with overlaid embroidered commentary. The quilt is stuffed with ‘a bit of fluff’ from tumble dryers collected by a collection of women who are all named in a label sewn on to the quilt.
The ‘Fine Cell Work’, 2010, project included a quilt made by prisoners of Wandsworth Prison, and an accompanying film. This project was a highlight of the exhibition, and speaking to other visitors it was clear this piece was a popular one. Based on a hexagon shape, to match a tiled floor within the prison, the piece records contemporary prison life, exploring “stitching as an act of commemoration and remembrance.” The quilts charm is owed to the “work of many hands” and statements such as “I didn’t do it Guv!! Honest!” ‘Fine Cell Work’ operates in 26 prisons across the UK and interestingly 80% of participants are male. The organisation’s mission is “to rehabilitate prisoners by giving them the opportunity to earn and save money and the chance to reflect on and rebuild their lives through craft and achievement.”
Photograph Credit: Nils Jorgensen / Rex Features
Jennifer Vickers’ project, ‘The Presence of Absence’ 2010 is a patchwork quilt made up of 38,000 blank, white paper squares measuring 1cm x 1cm2. Each square represents Iraqi civilian deaths since the start of the war on Iraq in 2003. Among the blank paper squares are 100 which bear the faces of British casualties in the same period of time. This dramatic piece hammers home a powerful political statement, a statement that is made so effectively through the medium of patchwork.
Another piece that succeeds in making a political statement is Grayson Perry’s ‘Right to Life’, 1998, commenting on American abortion debates. Embroidered illustrations of fetuses in a repetitive print formation celebrate the quilt as traditionally decorative through politically and emotionally charged imagery.
Tracey Emin’s ‘To Meet My Past’, 2002 concludes the exhibition with a beautifully crafted installation of a bed draped with textiles telling a story. Emin’s traditional appliquéd and embroidered execution of illustrations drew a crowd of people all trying to read the text.
“Making quilts isn’t just a graphic process, wrapped up with the production of sewing. It involves a lot of thought and love. Just in the time involved in the process means many things are discussed and considered concerning life.”
The V&A succeeded in offering an exhibition exploring traditional craft practice within a contemporary realm, and commenting on contemporary issues.
Quilts is showing from March 20th until July 4th 2010.
Details of all events, seminars and courses can be found on the V&A website. The V&A are also boasting a Quilt of Quilts page, which allows members of the public to upload images of their own quilts. There is also an Amy Butler quilt pattern available to download.