A quilt is a bed covering, typically made of padding enclosed between layers of fabric stitched into place. It is usually decorative, but its primary purpose is for warmth. Not all quilts, however, are created equal. At the Whanganui Regional Museum there are several quilts in the textile collection, from the utilitarian to the richly embellished, and some in-between. A quilt reflects its creator: her financial circumstances, design and needlework talents and the availability of resources.
One of the simplest in the collection, showing the maker’s thrifty use of what she had on-hand, is a modest, rustic, single quilt made from cotton salt bags filled with wisps of sheep fleece, materials readily available at no cost. The names of the salt companies are still readable on some of the bags. This was made around the 1930s, during the Depression era. Although it is simple, it would have been very warm.
A patchwork quilt is made of small pieces of cloth in different designs, colours and textures, sewn together. One example in the collection is a double quilt comprising rectangles of woven woollen fabrics sewn in a random pattern. The squares are whip-stitched by hand, and each seam is then embroidered in feather stitch in wools of various colours. This quilt has no backing, obviously intentional, as all edges have been finished; binding is usually the last step in completing a quilt.
A third quilt is made entirely of plain and flowered cotton scraps pieced in a traditional “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” hexagonal pattern, backed with cotton printed with small blue flowers. It was made by Ann Jackson of Market Harborough, Leicester, England. This quilt was later lined and brought to New Zealand by Ann Jackson’s great granddaughter. “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” was one of the most popular patterns of the 1830s-1840s, as it not only displayed design talent, but also because the large number of pieces demonstrated the skill of the needle worker. This quilt has over 300 individual pieces, all whip-stitched together by hand and would have taken months to create.
A more opulent 19th century quilt used pieces of silk, velvet, taffeta and corduroy in an elongated hexagon pattern called the “Cathedral Window”. It was made using the English paper method, where fabrics are tacked onto paper shapes to stabilise them, before being sewn together. Once the piece has been finished the paper is removed.
This quilt is unfinished and has no backing, which enables us to see the piecing method and how it was assembled. The tacking and backing papers are still in place. Examination of the papers reveals that the sewer used old handwritten letters, a leaflet from a piano and organ tuner and a paper label from a shop in Liverpool, England, called Bon Marché. Founded in 1878, Bon Marché was modelled on its famous namesake in Paris and featured French fashions, perfumes and accessories, so it is possible this quilt had its beginnings in Liverpool.
One of the outcomes from researching the quilts in this article is that there is little or no specific information about their owners, when they were made or who they were made for. In the museums of today, when items are assessed for inclusion in the collection, staff collect as much information about them as possible, and keep this data on permanent record. Imagine the stories these quilts could tell if they could only speak!
Kathy Greensides is Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.