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Part 2. Averil Colby and Her Books

Part 2 - Averil Colby and Her Books

Averil Colby wrote Patchwork in 1958 : today it is as fascinating and informative as ever. For Averil Colby was a practical patchworker and needlewoman, coming to the craft when deprived of her garden; she was for some time associated with Muriel Rose and the Little Gallery in London. Her work is illustrated in Patchwork and other books of the times: floral rosettes, wreaths and swags in hexagons being typical. She contributed a chapter on patchwork to 30 Crafts, edited by Mavis FitzRandolph in 1950 for the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and a pink and white motif from one of her distinctive quilts is used on the dustwrapper. Even in Pincushions (Batsford 1975) many of the designs to are made in patchwork.

Published by Batsford, Patchwork is 200 pages long, erudite, well written and eminently readable. There are over 200 illustrations;fifty or so are of quilts, the rest are diagrams and drawings and of course all in black and white. Several quilts illustrated here do reappear in colour in her Patchwork Quilts (Batsford, 1965) a slim volume containing an illustrated essay on patchwork followed by thirty-two American and British patchwork coverlets and quilts, photographed and described in double page spreads, twelve of them in colour.

Patchwork begins with a brief overview followed by short chapters on fabric, tools and equipment, before describing the geometric shapes - hexagons, pentagons, diamonds, shells etc - which, with squares and triangles, essentially comprise English patchwork. Chapters cover design and layouts, including log-cabin and crazy work and ‘applied work’. Detailed instructions for making and cutting geometric templates and patches and sewing them together are in appendices at the end of the book. A brief chapter on finishing patchwork - relegating quilting to two pages - leads to chapters on the history of patchwork in Britain, one for each of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Illustrations are well positioned in the text and the full-page figures are in chronological order. There is a good index and right-hand pages have running chapter subtitles. No wonder Averil Colby’s book has been in print for so many years and is so highly regarded. All British patchwork is here - history and practice in one complete volume.

In 1970 Batsford published Averil Colby’s Quilting, a perhaps less well-known book, but an equally scholarly account of quilting in Britain. Though she often makes reference to Mavis FitzRandolph’s Traditional Quilting, Miss Colby’s book is far more wide ranging in scope: she discusses all types of quilting in her study, flat, cord and stuffed as well as wadded and every form of quilted article including clothes, hangings and quilts. Not till Dorothy Ostler’s Traditional British Quilts (Batsford 1987) would similar quilting scholarship appear again.

Quilting opens with a short chapter on historical origins, followed, as in Patchwork, by chapters on materials, tools and equipment, then chapters on patterns for quilting: wadded, flat, corded and stuffed, with many line drawings. Nearly half the book is devoted to a detailed historical survey of the development of quilted work, in chapters, each devoted to a century, the sixteenth to the twentieth. Three pages on gathered patchwork sit uneasily before six appendices: notes including instructions for each type of quilting, plus gathered patchwork. The book concludes with the references for each chapter and a bibliography. There is a two-page index in tiny print.

Averil Colby has been dead for nearly twenty years: but in the history of needlework her name will always be synonymous with English template patchwork.


FitzRandolph, M. (editor ) (1950 ) 30 Crafts. N.F.W.I., London

Colby, A. (1958) Patchwork. B.T.Batsford, London.

Colby, A. (1964) Samplers. B.T.Batsford, London

Colby, A. (1965) Patchwork Quilts. B.T.Batsford, London.

Colby, A. (1972) Quilting. B.T.Batsford, London.

Colby, A. (1975) Pincushions. B.T.Batsford, London.


Till Batsford’s recent bankruptcy, Patchwork and Quilting were in print so new copies could be bought. Now they must be purchased second-hand unless a flood of remaining stock .is coming onto the market. However both patchwork books are easy to find. The prices vary but not always with condition, so be wary. Expect to pay £25-30 for a 1st edition Patchwork,  £15-20 hardback and up to £10 paperback. And keep your eyes open, they often appear in charity shops. Quilting is less easy to find, but about the same order for price. Patchwork Quilts is also widely available- under £10.


Obituary, The Times, January 8th 1983

Rae, J. Why make a quilt? in Quilt Treasures, (1995)  Deirdre McDonald Books with The Quilters’ Guild, London

© Brigid J.Ockelton. March 2000

PLEASE NOTE - An indication is given of the availability and market price of the book at the time of writing and may not reflect today's availability and price.