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Seminar 2009

Celia Eddy reviews the West Dean Seminar Autumn 2009

The 2009 BQSG Seminar covered an eclectic range of subjects, all of which were of direct interest to quilt scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. The papers opened up possibilities for further investigations and gave inspiration to us all. A very good weekend!

West Dean is certainly the most magnificent and architecturally extravagant venue that BQSG has yet visited. We met in the baronial splendours of the Old Library, which was generally agreed to be most appropriate for the study and consideration of textiles. Sadly it rained and there were few chances to see the world famous gardens. Some of us did at least get to see the Mediterranean garden and the amazing yew hedges, as well as the spectacular autumn colour of the surrounding downland.

At the first session, on Friday evening, we heard a talk, by its Director, about the work of the National Needlework Register, a purely voluntary organisation primarily dedicated to preserving records of community-based projects involving needlework.

On Saturday morning the first presentation, entitled ‘From the United Kingdom to the United States: the Evolution of Chintz Appliqué Quilts’, was given by Carolyn Ducey, Curator of Collections at the International Quilt Study Center in Nebraska, USA. It was a great privilege for BQSG to receive a paper from such a prestigious American quilt scholar. A study of the chronological development of this style of quilt inevitably led to an examination of the history of chintz fabric, from its genesis in the East, through to production first in Europe, then in America. This paper gives a valuable contribution to the debate and to on-going research and furthers Anglo-American cooperation.

The second paper, ‘Print with Print: The role of Liberty fabric in the post 1960s UK Quilt Revival’ was given by Elizabeth Betts. Elizabeth looked in detail at Liberty’s long-standing association with patchwork and quilting and at its influence on such 20th century quilt makers as Deirdre Amsden. Her research was thorough and had involved collecting data and personal stories from many sources. This paper raised questions about the part that choice and availability of different types of fabrics may have on the development of styles in patchwork and quilting. An area for further study?

In a change to the programme, Carolyn Ferguson read a paper written by Dr Susan Marks which examined: how and why the quilt achieved its iconic status in America. Dr Marks suggested several contributory factors to this phenomenon, ranging over social and geographical conditions prevailing during and after the settlement of America. This is an interesting and important subject that is certainly worthy of research and I look forward to reading the paper when it appears in Quilt Studies.

The final talk, by Barbara Burman, was ‘Pockets of History: Quilted and Pieced Pockets in UK Collections’. This provided a fascinating, and amusing, account of the historical significance of what may seem, since the advent of the handbag, a rather insignificant item. In the past, pockets, sometimes quilted or patchworked and hidden within voluminous skirts, were the customary way for women to carry their belonging with them. A pair of pockets, filled with a typical assortment of useful items, was passed round for us to handle. I’m sure they weighed even more than my well-filled handbag!

The programme finished on Sunday morning, when Tina Fenwick Smith held a Workshop dedicated to methods of dating quilts from a study of their fabrics. This highly specialised subject involves knowledge and understanding of the techniques of dyeing and printing textiles and the history of textile manufacture. Tina’s introductory talk was followed by a chance to look closely at a range of quilts and fabrics, some of which had belonged to Averil Colby. Colby was an exponent of what the Americans call ‘fussy cutting’ to create many of her patchwork masterpieces, for example ‘High Summer’ and it was fascinating to see the way that she worked. Tina has been able to identify some of Colby’s fabrics in books which gave their dates of manufacture and provenance. Bridget Long explained various key factors in identification and dating of fabrics using quilts from her own collection.