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Articles: North Country Quilts

The winter 2000-2001 exhibition at the Bowes Museum
By Dolly Potter
First published in the Durham VCH Trust Newsletter, Winter 2001

The bed quilts of our childhood are known familiarly as "Durham quilts" but, as this exhibition showed, quiltmaking spread widely across the northern counties and spanned over two centuries of time.

Such an exhibition cannot be a complete historical survey; rather it is an arbitrary gathering of lucky survivors, preserved by families or far-seeing collectors of folk art. Most quilts were utility objects, made of cheap materials, given hard use around the house (often ending their days under the mattress to protect it from rusty bedsprings) and discarded when worn out. And yet…the eye, the skill and flair of their makers could raise these humble artefacts into works of art, rightly treasured by their owners. A distinction was made between "everyday" and "special occasion" quilts and clearly more of the latter survive; but the exhibition managed to include some mundane examples especially the ubiquitous "strippy" quilts.

There were two distinct traditions: "pieced" and "wholecloth". In the first type patchwork and applique decoration, using many varied printed fabrics, produced an overall richness of colour through which the stitching could scarcely be seen. Indeed one or two covers shown here were never quilted at all. At the other extreme plain fabrics were stitched, in elaborate patterns of traditional motifs but fanciful composition, relying for their effect entirely on fluency of line and sculptural relief. In between were combinations of the two styles which produced the most delicious decorative results, well shown in pieces from the museum's own collection, by Rebecca Temperley, the Roddam family and the workers at Snows Field Farm.

Cotton was generally used for the top and backing of the quilt and cotton wadding for the filler which gave insulation and a relief effect when stitched through. Sometimes the filling might be a wool blanket and occasionally the outer layers were also of wool. This is true of the two pieces attributed to Joseph Hedley, a skilful man quilter of Warden in Northumberland whose fame was reinforced by his cruel murder in 1817. As wholecloth quilts became more popular cotton sateen was often used to heighten with its sheen the three-dimensional effect.

The catalogue comments on the Pennine dales, especially the old lead-mining areas, as the most prolific source of quilts, made by groups of women in each other's houses. The diary of Thomas Dixon, a lead smelter, tells that the women of his family attended "twilting parties" at six different houses, including their own, in the 1830s. Pleasures for women were few in these remote areas and the fellowship of the group may have meant as much to these women as the task itself. Over time particular people, families and places came to be seen as especially skilful in design and workmanship; and they might be asked to lay out or draw out on the cloth designs for their friends.

A more professional approach to the craft was begun by George Gardiner, a draper of Allenheads, in the 1850s. His designs for quilt tops sold so successfully that he could take on several apprentices, the most famous of whom, Elizabeth Sanderson, took on apprentices in her turn. Designs were made to order or speculatively and were carried by packhorses hither and yon for many years through World War I. A distinct "Sanderson style" was recognised and influenced quilting design far and wide.

This period was the heyday of quiltmaking in both quantity and quality, particularly of wholecloth pieces. These usually had a large central motif, of sinuous wavy and feathery shapes and florals, echoed and extended in the corners, somewhat in the manner of a Persian rug; and the background would be filled with simple diaper patterns. Strongly three-dimensional effects were achieved with the stitching; and the colour range was reduced to golds, pinks, creams and white so that nothing should distract from the design.

World War I saw a sharp drop in quilt production, as women took up war work and family chains of skill were broken; but quilts went on being made in the traditional way into the 1930s. A different approach in the inter-war period saw quilting clubs and the Northern Industries workshops set up to provide employment for war widows and their dependants. Much work was done to order; smaller pieces and more varied and luxurious fabrics were introduced. Some handsome pieces were made but the folk tradition was diluted.

World War II closed down these schemes but a few quilters carried on in their own homes. The craft itself received a self-conscious revival in other parts of the country, no longer a folk art but something much more sophisticated and experimental, of which some lively examples were in the exhibition. These represent a separate strand of quiltmaking, much as the "art pottery" of the late C19 and early C20 differs from the unselfconscious deltware of earlier periods.

Leaving aside the question of what forms future "art quilting" may assume, we thank the Bowes Museum for giving us a fascinating view of things made for use as well as beauty, a North Country folk tradition as valid in its way as Inuit carving or Navajo weaving; and perhaps we may hope that, like these two crafts once nearly defunct, our local quilting may have a careful, humble and lasting revival.

Dolly Potter 1 Leazes Crescent, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 4LN