A little while ago, I finally got around to reading Tracy Chevalier’s 2013 novel The Last Runaway, which tells the story of Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman who leaves England to start a new life in Ohio in 1850. Amid the loneliness, the hardships of homestead life, and the troubles resulting from her defiant involvement in the Underground Railroad, Honor seeks solace in the traditional quilting techniques she brought with her from England. Quilting is the running theme of the book, and Chevalier shows us what an important role it played in pioneer women’s lives. Beyond their obvious usefulness, quilts served many purposes: their number and quality contributed to a young woman’s status (and, of course, eligibility); they were a valuable source of entertainment and opportunity for socializing, at a time when neighbours were often few and far between; and they provided a creative outlet for women whose male-dominated worlds and tiring daily rounds of chores offered very little else in the way of self-expression.
While I enjoyed The Last Runaway very much, what it really did for me was reignite my love of traditional patchwork quilts. As a result, I have finally decided to bring to fruition a very old plan to sew my own quilt, and have had a lot of fun hunting for fabrics (there are some wonderful online shops out there!). I needed inspiration, however, so I also set about finding a good book on quilts. There is a plethora of books available on the subject, but I was less interested in step-by-step instructions than in the history of American quilt-making.
Classic Quilts from the American Museum in Britain supplied all that I wanted, besides providing the touch of British eccentricity of which I am so fond. For who would have thought of looking to the UK for information on American arts and crafts? No one, indeed, had it not been for the dedicated efforts of an Anglo-American couple in the fifties, who poured family money, personal expertise, and almost a decade’s worth of hard work, into creating a museum that would bring American decorative arts to the British public. The American Museum in Britain, situated in Bath (and now on the list of sites I must see next time I visit that lovely city), opened in 1961 and included a collection of patchwork quilts which has grown over the years and won international renown. Classic Quilts features fifty-five of the quilts in the collection, some of them dating as far back as the eighteenth century. Pieced together by pioneers, Quakers, Amish, slaves, men as well as women, they do more than demonstrate the skill and inventiveness of their creators, they bear all sorts of messages within their seams: good wishes to newlyweds, mementoes for friends heading west, or bold statements of political convictions. They are not always attractive (personally I find the Amish quilts downright ugly) but they are always interesting. Decades, sometimes centuries later, the book’s beautiful colour photographs once more tell their stories. I recommend Classic Quilts to anyone who wishes both to travel back into the past and to seek inspiration for the future.
© Florence Berlioz 2016
I love the history and the idea of quilting; oh for the houseroom, the budget and the hours and the day to try it for myself!