Saturday 1 October 2016

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800-1950

I wasn't expecting to see this exhibition on my recent trip to Melbourne, indeed I had never even heard of it. But I was meeting up with my friend Resident Judge and she was keen to see it, and I was glad to join her. 

I learnt so much about the history of quilts, clearly something I'd never even considered before. I learnt that there are quilt collectors! Which makes amassing books seem rather tame. The exhibition was in some way about much more than quilts and quilting it was social history of sorts, and also a fashion history clearly showing the evolution over the fabrics over time.

The story of the Australian quilt from 1800 to 1950 can be divided into two broad phases. The first, from the early to mid 1800s, saw Australian quilters reference and adapt well-established British quilting traditions. The second phase, from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s, saw Australian symbols used to affirm and commemorate a sense of home, demonstrating a growing pride and patriotism in the young nation. 

Quilt (Broderie Perse) - detail
Glazed cotton and linen
Jane Judd, early 19th century

Like their counterparts elsewhere, the overwhelming majority of Australian quilt makers have been women. With firm origins in the domestic spare, the story of the Australian quilt is one of women's technical accomplishment and resourcefulness and reflects the significance of their creativity within broader historical and social contexts.

Miniature Hexagons Quilt
Prudence Jeffrey, 1857
Made en route to Australia June-November 1857

I found this quilt rather fascinating- displayed to show the unfinished back. 

Many early quilts made in Australia or brought to Australia from Britain were constructed using the English paper piecing method. This involved the hand-sewing of fabric pieces around paper shapes that have been carefully cut to the exact size required, with the fabric pieces then handsewn together. Hexagons and diamonds are the most usual shapes used, although squares, triangles and octagons are also found. In the nineteenth century paper was a valued resource and shapes were often made from recycled sources, such as newspapers, letters and school children's copperplate handwriting drills. Sometimes the paper shapes were removed and the quilts lined, but other examples survive with the templates intact. 

It was astonishing to me how 19th century manchester could generally survive in such excellent condition, and look so modern. 

Rhomboid Quilt c 1860
Unknown, Australia

I loved this amazing dress, it's so incredible that objects like this have survived 150 years. Made from 31 pieces of custom printed silk satin using printing plates from 14 different Melbourne newspapers.

The Press Dress 1866
Made by Mrs William W. Hobbs
for Mrs Butters to wear to the
Mayor's Fancy Dress Ball in September 1866

I learnt that you can make quilts, or table cloths, out of anything, including cigar ribbons. (Annie Percival collected cigar ribbons from her father's four pubs in Broken Hill).

Patchwork Table Cover c 1903
Annie Percival
Or possum skins. (A method adapted from Aboriginal tradition)

Possum Skin Rug
Unknown, late 19th/early 20th century

And that you can turn quilts into anything. 

Bag c 1890
Unknown, Australia

Dressing Gown 1935
Annie Ellis

This quilt was one of the few made by men. Made by an Australian POW in a German camp during WWII, this extraordinary piece was made with "pieces of wool and cotton taken from discarded garments in the camp, and used needles fashioned from the frames of eyeglasses, ground-down toothbrushes and other items." It took him 2 1/2 years to complete. 

Embroidered blanket 1941-45
Corporal Clifford Gatenby

I also learnt that Wagga isn't just a town but a quilting style. 

This term was used from the 1890s onwards to refer to quilts, blankets and bed coverings constructed from found materials, such as grain bags and flour sacks. 

Wagga 1930s
Agnes Isabella Fraser
This uniquely Australian interpretation of the quilt is associated with rural workmen and households experiencing poverty and hardship, and reflects the adaptive nature of quilt making across socioeconomic boundaries. 

This WWII era quilt is one of my favourites I think. It is backed in blackout fabric. It looks modern I think. 

Hexagon Quilt c 1942-44
Elizabeth Mary Evans

NGV Australia, Level 3
22 July 2016 - 6 Nov 2016

Christopher Allen's review Stitches in Time at the Australian

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Brona said...

Great exhibition & I learnt a lot too!

Laurel-Rain Snow said...

I love quilts, and these are amazing pieces. Thanks for sharing the historical facts, and displaying these wonderful "art" pieces. Yes, quilting is art, IMO.

Thanks for sharing...and for visiting my blog.

Leslie (Under My Apple Tree) said...

Interesting! I took a traditional hand quilting class years ago I have an appreciation of the skill it took to create these quilts. My own attempt at a quilt still remains unfinished.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

My grandmother taught me to quilt when she lived with us when I was young. As a small farm wife, with three children, she once told me that quilting was the only pleasure she experienced in her life. These Australian quilts are quite different from the Southern quilts my grandma made. Hers were for warmth from the cold, mainly. Of course, like these, the quilts were made from scraps.