Saturday, March 26, 2016

Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Patchwork is an age old household craft that has survived over centuries. Needlewomen would exchange or collect small bits of colorful cloth, plain and patterned using them to form a final piece of patchwork. This was certainly what occurred in America from the 18th Century onwards, when “friendship” quilts were put together by communities to honor special occasions. The “freedom” quilts were made as mementos for young men on their 21st birthdays and traditionally a marriage quilt was made for a bride by her girl friends as a wedding gift. Indeed it was considered a bad omen if a bride made her own wedding quilt, although prior to her engagement she would probably have worked on the traditional 13 quilts for her bottom drawer.

18th Century patchwork quilt.

Basically all patchwork items consist of numerous pieces of material joined together with stitching to form a decorative mosaic effect or alternatively various pieces of cloth applied to some sort of backing material in such a way to form a picture or design.

Modern patchwork quilt pattern.

The ancient craft undoubtedly arose from the practical need as a means of repair. However, in the 1960s patchwork appeared on all wearables and it became a fashion statement of sorts on such items such as jeans etc.

Late 1960s summer “loving” jeans with an amazing array of patchwork and embroidery. These jeans tell such a great story through the multi-patterned fabric squares, needlework flowers, scraps of velvet, France rooster crest, a leather pinwheel on the right knee and a Carole King concert patch on the bum.

Excavations of Egyptian and other Eastern countries sites revealed a few ancient examples of primitive patchwork items. In Boulak Museum in Cairo, for instance, there was a patchwork canopy of gazelle hide dating from ca. 908 BC, which was probably used for grand ceremonies. Medieval European paintings and manuscripts also provide banners, hangings and costumes that exhibit patchwork.

Section of funeral tent of an Egyptian Queen made in a patchwork of colored goatskins.

After the 16th Century, cottons from India became available and gradually with a wider range of fabrics and greater prosperity, patchwork played an important role in the social life of female society. Generally the finished work was used for coverlets or quilts but it was also used at times for other furnishings.

Detail from 1718 silk coverlet.

Photograph by Tony Jewers of bed hangings displayed in Stangers' Hall in 2004.

There is, for example, a magnificent four-poster bed with patchwork coverlet, valances and curtains at Stranger’s Hall, Norwich, England.

The craft was first introduced in America by Dutch and English settlers and soon spread across the USA from the Eastern states. By the 19th Century a virtual craze had developed for patchwork both in the USA and UK. Many patchwork items were made as heirlooms. Jane Austen is known to have worked on a large patchwork piece with her mother and sister in 1811 and the resulting coverlet is today at the Austin family home in Hampshire, England.

Jane Austen’s, mother’s and sister’s coverlet.

The great prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, is said to have taught the craft to female prisoners in London’s Newgate Prison; even those deported to Australia were presented with sufficient fabrics to patchwork during the journey to the great Southern Land so that the resulting work could be sold for charity on their arrival.

The Rajah Quilt (1841).

Between 1818 and 1841 Elizabeth Fry visited 106 ships transporting prisoners to Australia to ensure the well-being of the passengers on board. She provided every woman prisoner with a bag containing all that was required to make a patchwork quilt to combat the hours of boredom they faced on their lengthy journey and items they could sell or use as proof of their skills. Only one of these transportation quilts has survived. ‘The Rajah Quilt’ named after the ship on which it was sewn is in the National Gallery of Australia.

The art of patchwork was also taught to children in Victorian times, since it exercised their stitching technique.

Patchwork Today[2]
There are many excellent books giving examples of patchwork in a more modern context. Jenny Bullen's [2] - Patchwork: From beginner to expert - is among the more notable. Examples of some of the patchwork she discusses are listed below.

Sue de Barro. The design for this block was taken from a collage of torn papers, a section of which was chosen as a repeat pattern. Hand-quilted.

Jenny Bullen. Plain and print silk fabrics show the use of primary and secondary colors in a design for a small cushion and striped patchwork. Hand quilted with silk thread.

Rosie Moore. Cushion in dyed velvets, overprinted in gold. The centre has been further embellished using stitchery.

Valerie McCallum. A small quilt in various fabrics, including synthetics based on a windmill block. After it was made up the whole top was placed in a pink dye bath. Hand quilted.

Jenny Bullen. Folded star patches laid in overlapping rows. Silk and lurex fabrics. Decorated with hand embroidery, using metallic machine embroidery threads and small tassels in fine silk threads.

Sue de Barro. Small sample of cathedral window patchwork. Plain and printed cottons decorated with beads.

Ann Oblenschlager using Sue's sampler. A bed quilt, machine pieced and hand and machine quilted, using cotton fabrics and polyester cotton wadding. The quilt has piped edging. The design evolved from Katie Pasquini's book - The Contemporary Sampler.

Jenny Bullen. Silk fabrics were used in this crazy patchwork sample, with hand embroidery, beads and tiny sequins.

Jenny Bullen. Log cabin quilt in assorted cotton fabrics with plain red enters, arranged in the traditional sunshine and shadow design. Machine pieced and hand quilted.

Sue de Barro. Irregular log cabin block. Random fabric around a centre square of machine embroidered fabric.

[1] Editors A. Jeffs and W. Martensson and P. North, Creative Crafts Encdyclopedia, London (1984).
[2] J. Bullen, Patchwork, B.T. Batsford Ltd, London (1992).

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