Thursday, 7 June 2018

The Brontë Quilt: A Reconstruction by Sarah Williamson, Wendy Latham and Giselle Sutcliffe

At Elizabeth Gaskell’s House in Manchester I took part in the ‘Women and Textiles’ study day on 5th May 2018 organised by the Gaskell Society. One of the speakers was Sarah Williamson, who gave a fascinating and witty talk about a project she led to reconstruct the ‘Brontë Quilt’. The original quilt, first discovered at an auction of Brontë memorabilia in 1898 and described as Lot 47: Unfinished patchwork counterpane, made by the Brontë sisters, is now in the Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth. Unfortunately its fragile state makes it impossible to display on a permanent basis. Sarah initiated the project to reconstruct this quilt following an email to the Quilters’ Guild in 2015 from the novelist Tracy Chevalier, who hoped to introduce a quilting theme into the 2016 bicentenary celebrations of Charlotte Brontë’s life, which she was helping to organise.


The original Brontë Quilt

Sarah described the original quilt as about 6 ft square and made up of scraps many different fabrics. She offered an interesting account of the history of quilting in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and explained that the original quilt combined different techniques, both pieced and appliquéd.

She showed us that the Brontë Quilt is quite eccentric in its design and is not in places expertly sewn. As a contrast, Sarah showed us a picture of a quilt made by Jane Austen, which is both expertly designed and sewn. However, while Austen was a keen seamstress, it is well-known that the Brontë sisters were less enthusiastic about sewing, although Emily was likely to have been more interested than her sister Charlotte, who often complained in her letters about having to sew. Nevertheless, the Brontë Quilt is an interesting design and helps to evoke the idea of the sisters collaborating on a sewing project while, perhaps, discussing their various literary projects.

Sarah was enthusiastic about the idea of reconstructing the Brontë Quilt for Charlotte Brontë’s bicentenary in 2016, although she explained that she did not at first understand the enormity of the task ahead of her! Fortunately, her quilting friends Wendy Latham and Giselle Sutcliffe agreed to join her in reconstructing the quilt. They collected scraps of fabric and set about the mammoth task of cutting out the many fabric shapes needed to match the original and then sewing them all together.

Sarah, Wendy and Giselle visited the Brontë Parsonage Museum to study the original quilt for themselves, which Sarah described as an ‘amazing experience’. Ann Dinsdale, the Collections Manager of the Brontë Society and Brontë Parsonage Museum, kindly took the quilt out of storage. Sarah said, ‘I had prepared a list of things I wanted to measure or make notes of; even so there were lots of details I forgot to check. We were able to take loads of measurements and photographs, and I was relieved to find that my preliminary calculations were pretty close’.


A detail of the centre of the reconstruction

After considerable hard work, with a few set-backs over finding the right measurements and the correct angles for the diamond shapes, the team produced a wonderful replica of the original:

The Reconstructed Brontë Quilt

The reconstruction was on display at the Bankfield Museum in Halifax in 2016. We were fortunate to be able to study it during the day in the Elizabeth Gaskell House, and there was admiration for the incredible skill which had gone into the making of this beautiful quilt. It has certainly captured the essence of the original, but unlike the fragile quilt in storage, the reconstruction has the advantage of being sturdy and capable of being displayed. Indeed, it was presented to the Brontë Parsonage Museum on 16th May 2018 and will be on display on Patrick Brontë’s bed for the rest of the year.

I would like to thank Sarah and her fellow quilters, Wendy and Giselle, for allowing me to share their story here, along with the photographs of the original and the 2016 Brontë Quilt. 
Professor Deborah Wynne





































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