I’ve always been fascinated by patchwork quilts. I’ve never made one, mainly because I’ve been unable to make friends with a sewing machine. Knitting, stitching, no problem, but put me in front of a machine and I’ll spend hours struggling with spools and tension and broken needles.
But that doesn’t stop me appreciating the patience and the love that goes into quilting, and what it says about a relationship when you offer your work up to someone else. The scraps of material tell stories, first about where they came from and secondly about how you arrange them and present them. Thirdly, a layer of meaning is added by the way the recipient values and uses the quilt.
Quilts are beautiful in their own right – humble scraps of material transformed by a thrifty alchemy into works of art. One of the most moving examples I ever encountered was in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year. It was made for an inspirational guide leader by her troop, from the scraps they could salvage in a Japanese internment camp in World War II. Quilts have been used in political activism, or offered as dowries in marriage. Different countries have developed strikingly different styles – some based on applique, others on tessellating pieces into intricate repeating patterns. In days gone by, sometimes yet another level of meaning was added by the paper templates used to cut the shapes. Love letters, for example, might find their way into the quilt that covered a marriage bed, or remain as a folorn reminder of a future wished for but unattainable.
I have read two very different books in the last week or two that develop this theme of quilting. The first, Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, “The Last Runaway” tells the story of a Quaker girl from mid 19th Century Dorset who decides to emigrate with her sister to America after a youthful love affair goes wrong and leaves her shamed and vulnerable at home. But things don’t go as planned, and when her sister dies she finds herself trapped in an unfamiliar country. Her position in the household of her planned brother-in-law, whose new partner sees her as a threat, becomes so untenable that she is forced into an unpromising marriage to a local man. Only her skill with a needle makes her feel valued in her new community.
Tracy Chevalier is very sensitive to the subtle but deep cultural differences between American and English social behaviour. Many of her observations ring true today. Honor, her quiet heroine, finds herself startled by the directness of American social interaction, slightly revolted by an excess of sugary and salty food and, most seriously of all, placed in a moral dilemma when she discovers runaway slaves sheltering on her husband’s property. I wasn’t aware that, in the years leading up to the American Civil War, there were severe penalties for people in the North who were caught harbouring slaves. The family that Honor has married into has already lost a home and a father under such circumstances, so despite their Quaker ideals they forbid Honor to get involved, an instruction she finds it impossible to obey.
Quilts feature throughout the book, as a symbol of what Honor feels she has lost, and the alienness of what she now has to adapt to. Twelve quilts are demanded of her as a dowry, and she is forced to write home and ask old friends to return the ones she has given them for this purpose, something she naturally finds deeply painful to do. Quilting parties are held, involving the entire community, for a couple about to marry. Honor finds the American custom of appliqued designs, rather than the painstaking English method, a symbol of all she finds alienating and superficial about her new neighbours until she gets to know them better. She struggles to relate to the black people she meets without causing offence on either side, and becomes involved with a tough but kind milliner and her “mean sonofabitch” slave-hunter brother, who is problematically attracted to Honor herself. The solution comes in a very American fashion that offers Honor and her new husband an opportunity to make a fresh beginning. That is, in itself, a solution that feels right in a country that seems to be in a state of perpetual flux. Ohio is both a staging post on the Underground Railroad and a temporary stopover to those heading out West; very few people seem to stay there permanently, and the quilt, whether in a farmhouse or in a wagon, becomes an emblem of the search for a place to belong.
My second quilt book was equally American, but set in the more recent years of the 1990s. It’s a graphic novel, but very different from your usual celebration of Spandex and superpowers. An autobiographical account, it introduces us to Craig Thompson, growing up in a fundamentalist Christian family from which he feels increasingly alienated. Blankets are a recurring theme in its pages – there’s the blanket he reluctantly shares with his younger brother, crammed into the bedroom of a poor, isolated rural home, the blanket of snow that covers the ground through the magical weeks of a stay with his first love, Raine, and the quilt that she makes for him as a token of that love. Word and image combine to create a rich tapestry of meaning, and many people will recognise Craig’s experiences of love and loss, his struggles with youthful obsessions and temptations, his conflicted feelings about sex and his sense of alienation. Raine becomes the focal point of many of these struggles and for a while she seems to offer him everything he could ever need, but she has problems with her own family to work out. This is a subtle, profound and very touching exploration of youth and first love, and there are no clear-cut winners and losers. The characters are so real that they leap of the page and it stays in the mind and the heart for a very long time. Ultimately, the quilt that Raine gives Craig comes to symbolise even more than their youthful infatuation; it resembles his own commitment to make his mark on the world, to leave something personal and authentic behind him: “How satisfying it is to make a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of my movement, no matter how temporary.”
Nobody has done more to popularise the beauty of quilting in recent times than the immensely talented Kaffe Fassett. While in London last week, I went with a friend to the new Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey to see an exhibition of his work. Bermondsey nestles at the southern end of Tower Bridge, a warren of characterful terraced houses and winding streets that somehow manages to accommodate the recent arrival of The Shard into its atmosphere of general eclecticism. The exhibition covered all the aspects of Fassett’s creativity, including knitting and needlepoint, but it was the quilts that stood out for me. It was wonderful to get up close and appreciate the subtlety of the interlocking patterns and his masterful use of colour. Some of them seemed to leap into three-dimensional life when viewed from a distance, and to see the great man himself directing a quilting workshop was icing on an already-wonderful cake. It’s lovely to see these very personal and historical handicrafts enjoying an renaissance and we’re blessed to have a genius like Kaffe Fassett to add colour to our modern world.