Material memory – Women and Quilting

For me the passage into womanhood was marked by a summer I chose to take off, between University and beyond, to teach myself to bake bread and make a quilt.

I love quilts: the patterns, the details of the fabrics, the interplay of light and dark, the art, the maths and the craft of them. 
Patchwork- scraps of loved fabric, out-grown baby’s dresses, wedding dresses, the soul of precious and mundane items which could be mended no longer – quilts make me feel like I am vicariously taking part in Little House on the Prairie, but without all the hardships. Though now with the wonders of the internet you can buy the most spectacular selection of fabrics with diggers, cupcakes, cats or ladybirds or whatever takes your fancy.
Quilts are many things: blankets to keep a family warm, or decorate guest bed, cushion or wall; a traditional form of recycling but perhaps most of all, they were a way in which women could express their creativity in a world which did not allow this, to fill dark evenings, and to spend time with other women, working together and sharing their lives.

Watching a programme on Georgian England last night brought this home to me. Quilts and embroidery were were how Georgian women expressed creativity, passed on memories, skills and valuable pieces of work. One mother spent eight long years saving enough to be able to reclaim her son from an orphanage, and identified him by the scrap of fabric from the embroidered clothing which was in the orphanage register.

For the past few year, Ina May Gaskin, midwife extraordinaire, and author of Spiritual Midwifery has been creating a Quilt of Safe Motherhood to draw attention to the high rates of maternal deaths in the US which the authorities keep quiet. The facts are horrific, the quilted panels in memory of each woman are heart breaking.

Patchwork is making a comeback. Like many other domestic skills: vegetable growing, baking, knitting, making your own clothes. We seem to be hungering for both the practical skills and the need to be creating, making and connected to the objects that fill our homes rather than being mere consumers, buying disposable fripperies.

Do you stitch? How many projects do you have lying started? I have a flower fairy quilt, laid out but waiting to be pinned, that is supposed to be a Christmas present for my dear Merrily. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen. I also have a star patchwork of Japanese fabrics that I started when living in Kyoto, full of carp, dragons, tigers, kanji writing and indigo fabrics. I am STUCK with that! I get it out every six months and shift the pieces around. I have also made paper patchworks. And I hoard fabrics for future projects…a habit I learnt from my mother!

Here’s to stitching…without the bitching. To women’s circles, creativity and crafting together!