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Part 4. Quilts in British Museums

 Part 4 - Quilts in British Museums

The Victoria and Albert Museum is world famous for its collection of textiles which includes outstanding examples of quilting and patchwork, so it is interesting to look at its publications. Two are so often cited: Notes on Quilting, published in June 1932 and Notes on Applied Work and Patchwork following in March 1938, both produced because of “a growing interest by members of the Women’s Institute and others.”

Notes on Quilting and Notes on Applied Work and Patchwork , are both slim (32pp and 36pp respectively,) pamphlets comprising short introductory essays followed by black and white plates with descriptions including colour, date, size ( and size of part shown ) plus the photo and accession numbers. The plates were chosen to show details of some of the best examples in the V & A museum of these crafts, neither book was intended to explain the practical details.

Notes on Quilting gives a very brief historical overview of English (and American) quilting. Quilted patchwork is deemed to have gone out of favour in the nineteenth century and there is no mention of trapunto or corded work. The seventeen photographs illustrate a Portuguese and a Sicilian coverlet, the rest are all English: eight coverlets, two pillows, a dress, a petticoat and a chalice cover. The quilting is shown in detail; no item is seen as a whole. The bibliography is three books, two American.

For Notes on Applied Work and Patchwork, the Department of Textiles starts with firm definitions of patchwork and applied work and within seven pages moves from its origins, through the Middle Ages, (applied work) to patchwork quilts and coverlets from the last two centuries. American work is commended for its “true appreciationof colours and values of the component stuffs” while English patchwork of the late nineteenth century is dismissed as “made from scraps purchased at the dressmaker’s, and generally speaking is deplorable both in colour and design.” There is no appreciation of the block as a unit or the use of papers.

The plates start with early European examples of applied work hangings.The finaleight plates are patchwork: the American examples are a nineteenth century pineapple and a Star of Bethlehem and an appliqué coverlet. The five English examples are coverlets and quilts: two with hexagons, one using squares with triangles, the other several different shapes, with one clamshell bed-curtain.

There is a bibliography with seven books to which the reader is particularly directed for working information.

Though as I have indicated these pamphlets are short and in the light of present knowledge, sometimes off key, they do present the informed and historical view of quilting and patchwork in the 1930’s. Their bibliographies show there were few other English references: an article, two Dryad Press pamphlets and Elizabeth Hake’s English Quilting .No wonder the Notes are used as an authoritative reference in so many books.


Neither Notes is hard to find but they are physically too small ( 5 x7 inches ) to be put on the second-hand dealer’s usual bookshelves-try the pamphlet boxes instead. I certainly would not pay more than a fiver for each, even in excellent condition and if you are lucky you could find them under a £1.00.

Both Notes were reprinted and Notes on Applied Work and Patchwork gained a charming black and white drawing of the American appliqué on the beige cover.

Nothing more was published for fifty years: the museum admits this in its introduction to A Practical Guide to Patchwork From the Victoria and Albert Collection, ( London, Unwin Hyman, 1987, ed Linda Parry.) This book has a short introductory essay on the Museum’s quilts and lists them all, each with a very brief description, date and accession number. There are sixteen examples as colour plates, not all showing the whole quilt. Facing is a description and discussion of the patchwork and, for fourteen of them, instructions on making a similar one. Two black and white plates from the Notes on Applied Work and Patchwork are here in colour- the clamshell bed curtains and the Star of Bethlehem.

Surely there is enough interest in these quilts for a properly illustrated catalogue to be produced by the Museum before another fifty years go by, other museums have done.

Many other British museums have fine quilts but as Janet Rae in the preface to her The Quilts of the British Isles ( London, Constable, 1987 )says “a general lack of space and resources keep them from the public view”. Janet aims to overcome this, while “recording the rich diversity of the craft as it practised by women and men in Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales”.

She takes us through 128 pages in five loosely connected chapters: Quilters and quilting, Cotton and wool, Piecing and patterns, Appliqué and inlay and One of a kind.

This is not a historical progression, each chapter spans the timescale appropriate for the subject; the first for instance covers medieval days to the present time. There are sub sections within each chapter; for example, Cotton and wool has -Scraps of history, Utility wool and Turkey red. The book is beautifully and profusely illustrated with quilts shown in full colour with dimensions and location noted where appropriate, mostly museums. Nearly all the quilts shown are patchwork and all made before 1935. This does not restrict the author, the well-written text is informative and wide-ranging. It all makes for an extremely readable book, lively and intelligent.

There are numbered notes at the chapter ends, a two-page select bibliography of books, articles, periodicals and catalogues, plus a five-page index.


E.P.Dutton, published Janet Rae’s book (hardback and paperback) in New York. It was then reprinted in 1996 by Deidre McDonald in paperback. All versions are easy to find: paperback:£7-15  and hardback: around £20. Treat yourself to a good read!

© Brigid J.Ockelton. 2001

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.