Last Wednesday was the Bristol Quilters’ Annual General Meeting. It was a lovely occasion rather than a chore chiefly because my delightful friend Becky is currently the chair and is just brilliant. It was more of a celebration of a year of achievement and fun that something you had to sit through out of duty, and it was great to see just how much we had achieved in a year. And also to see how much we had donated to charity in a variety of ways. This is grist to my mill in my research on Laura Ashley. It is research on a section of society which is largely uninteresting to sociologists because we are relatively priviledged – winners, in a way, in the lottery of life – but which seem to me to be societal glue. In fact, we are what our current Prime Minister, David Cameron, would possibly call The Big Society. Sisters are very quietly and unobtrusively doing it for themselves and for everyone else. Anyway…
After the AGM we always get a member or someone who lives very local to give a talk and this week it was the phenomenon that is Sandie Lush. Sandie is an international prize-winning quilter, enthusiastic and committed teacher and all-round good thing. She is extraordinarily modest about her very great talent. She specialises in whole cloth quilting and more recently Baltimore applique. I was thrilled and delighted when she gave me a cushion which she said I had inspired (still not certain why or how!). Her work is really gorgeous:
Her talk was on Baltimore quilts, however. I love the fact that Sandie does so much historical research on the types of quilting she does, and this means she has a vast store of knowledge which she is always happy to share. So, I never knew that Baltimore Quilts originally were the result of a bit of a fad from about 1840 which lasted roughly twenty years, and that they were intended to have a therapeutic function which was to calm ladies of a nervous disposition. Given how frustrating it can be trying to needleturn those sharp points with modern equipment, I wonder if this wasn’t sometimes counter-productive in the ninenteenth century. I was also interested in the way that they grew out of Broderie Perse quilts and the need to eke out precious printed fabric by chopping it up and spreading it out. Plus, how quickly kits were produced for the less confident.
As an academic in the social sciences, though, I was really taken by what an interesting case study this was about how people react in groups. How a few women in 19C Baltimore created something out of necessity which has subsequentlydeveloped a global industry, and which accounts for its own market. For example, I wonder how many people go to the American Museum at Claverton Down to see the quilts, and in particular the spectacular Baltimore ‘Bride’ quilt. And then how much money they spend there, or in Bath, and in particular in Country Threads, the lovely quilt shop in Bath. Or go to one of Sandie’s workshops and then spend money on the supplies to make the blocks. Did Dr Dunton, for whom, I think, the first quilt was made, even glimpse the possibility of this? Probably not. Who takes women’s work, and in particular their ‘hobby’ work seriously? The other fascinating thing for a social scientist is to see how waves of migration and imigration have shaped the practice. So the imigrants to the United States took their fashions or their preferred folk art practices with them. As Sandie pointed out a lot of the characteristic ‘snowflake’ appliques came from Schnerenschnitte:
which went to America with German settlers. And these quilts give a strong sense of place and what makes place. For me, Baltimore is all about the tv series The Wire which showed the city in the worst possible light. My Baltimore is made up of received stories of urban crime and deprivation. But this Baltimore is made of origin stories about the city – who founded what and who has a monument, webs of relationships – women and their church ministers, for example, and faith groups. There is a whole record, a clothograph, of what Tim Ingold would call the emeshment that makes place in these quilts. They tell us about the existence of kinship groups, ceremonies and commemorations, and friendships. They tell us what was significant to people: the sea, nature, significant buildings, who was considered important. This seems to be appreciated more in the US than it is here. But here in the UK academics are really interested in identity and construction of place. We could do a lot worse than study a few quilts. If we are looking for Doreen Massey’s ‘throwntogetherness’ of place, this would be a great place to start looking. And it shows how as the stories change the place changes. Place isn’t fixed. It is constantly evolving out of the narratives we construct, the stories we tell about it.
One last point after that rant. Sandie introduced me to the concept of the ‘Death Watch’ quilt. These were stitched while the women of the household sat by the death bed of the dying. Never heard of them before, but what a fantastic discovery. Again, anthropology can be done on your own doorstep!
So, a wonderful night out on many levels – and one which I will continue to think about for a long time to come.