As a collector of fragments of old fabrics, I am inspired by material values that enable narratives of the past to be visible in the present. Cloth holds aesthetic and functional values; however, it is preserved for many other reasons, not least the emotional values that are invested in it. Cloth connects us physically with both tangible and intangible histories, and patchwork quilts are significant objects of history, legacies of fashion, design, process; that tell of family connections and cultural values.
The illustrations below show a small collection of patchworks, all works in progress, pieces that remain unfinished. Sourced from Antique Fairs, they hold no personal history or connection. It is what the pieces were originally, that interests me, clothes, furnishings that are no longer useful or fashionable, as pieces of fabric, they are still worth recycling.
They form part of a research project, to analyse the fabrics, to understand the dates or period when they were produced, and how the designs were printed.
However, whilst a lot of information can be gleaned from the surface of the fabric about the design process, the patchwork pieces are rich in narrative – in this instance – there is much information held on the reverse of the patchwork.
The first image is taken from a patchwork that is in 2 parts – you can immediately see the quilt pattern, on the reverse, the template papers are still in tact. The papers are cut out of Journals, Catalogues, Hand written notes and letters, dating from 1864-74. There are references to agriculture (details of calving breed lines), investments, Church records, medical forms, and laundry lists – all quite commonplace. There is also a reference to Dyrham Park, Gloucester.
There are snippets of handwriting, such as: “…for…sending with….is to resume….it will come…my dear thing…..” Words crop up such as ‘fatigue’ ….
The scraps of information are frustrating, as you instinctively want to know more, but the information has been cut off. There is the dilemma – the papers should be left intact, as part of the history of the patchwork that should not be removed; however, there is also a strong temptation to take the papers out, and piece together the snippets in an attempt to discover more.
Questions arise – are the paper fragments of the same historical period as the fabric? Who made the quilt? What do all the agricultural references indicate?
The second quilt is also unfinished; it shows simple squares of cotton and cotton chintz.
The fabric is in good condition, there is a developing quilt pattern, and the paper used is largely thick brown paper. Interspersed between the brown papers are random squares of writing, beautiful copperplate. There is a postmark, Worthing 67, and an old red stamp, the letter is addressed to Linfield, ..ck Wescott, Dorking. There is a reference to ‘Georgie’. There are a number of clues to be resolved.
The final patchwork piece is in quite poor condition, the silk fabric is beginning to split. There is a clear quilt pattern.
The paper inserts are a mixture of handwritten notes, postcards, journals. There are references to Chorley Hough, Chorley, John ….of Preston, Birmingham. There are 2 postmarks, one barely legible but the word Leeds is quite clear. The second postmark is very clear, Kettering 9:45pm, Au 20 96. Another date is discovered – 1899.
This may help to date the fabrics and quilt; alternatively, this may be a store of discarded papers that have been used at a later date.
There are mixed values evident here, the backs of the quilt pieces, ostensibly of no aesthetic value, hold significant clues, key to deciphering the history and constructing the narratives. Fabrics are reworked to form new patterns, and the material has a prolonged and useful life. More so if the quilts had been completed.
Also evident is the skill and craftsmanship - each piece is carefully cut and pieced together with exquisite hand stitching. We become aware of another existence, another hand; we see evidence of decisions being made, choices in colour, fabric. We become aware of a specific point in time, an event.
These pieces have been kept, perhaps as reminders of the makers. They have been preserved in drawers, boxes, suitcases, waiting for the next stage. The next chapter will reveal more information, helping me detect and analyse the origins and authenticities, delve into the past to reconstruct the history and construct new narratives.
About the author: Debra Roberts is Senior Lecturer in Printed Textiles & Surface Pattern Design, and on the MA Creative Practice at Leeds College of Art. Her research interests lie in collections, archives, history and narrative of cloth. She collects fragments of cloth as inspiration for surface design, and to understand the various processes involved in the production of the design. As an 'archaeologist' of cloth, she uses the collected fragments to inform the design process, but also to enable a reconstruction of history and narrative, a connection to the past, and an insight into values of production. Her practice encompasses natural dyes, silk screen print and hand stitch, and these methods are used alongside digital technology, as a means to respond to, interpret, and analyse. Through these reconstructions she enables