Working on Laura Ashley

I’m sorry that there hasn’t been much activity on this blog in the last ten days.  That pesky day job has got in the way a bit.  But the marking is more or less done now, and it’s on with the research term.  This means that I will be able to do some interviews for my Laura Ashley project, which I am really looking forward to.  And I might be able to kick start the Laura Ashley wall piece.

The big piece has really caused me problems because the Laura Ashley prints seem to resist being used on a large scale that does not include making a bed quilt.  They don’t respond at all well to any of my bag of trick art quilt techniques: slashing, burning, painting, and so on.  They like the miniature and the small.

The breakthrough came for me when I realised that to make a Laura Ashley quilt you don’t have to use all Laura Ashley fabrics.  Durrrrr.  I didn’t just use Marks and Spencer’s fabric or plastic bags to make those pieces, or chopped up Nikes to make the Nike stuff.  Just because Laura Ashley is synonymous with fabric doesn’t mean the quilt must be made from Laura Ashley cloth.  With one bound I was free.  Then I realised that what I wanted to do was to make a piece about what cloth has meant to me over the years, and to think about a relationship which has meant a lot but which started with those Laura Ashley bit bags all those years ago.  And so this is what I think the quilt will be about: fabric and quilting itself and what it has meant to me in my life.

So this brings me to this very small piece.  It’s a piece based on the first thing I really remember making, a quilt for a doll’s bed.  As it was a long time ago before we had speed-piecing methods, and I was making it from the instructions in the book I blogged about earlier, and as I am English it is made in the English method over papers:

I really like making things over papers like this because although it takes a great deal longer, I find the actual stitching together of the pieces, or panes as I discover they used to be called, very therapeutic.  I get into a rhythm which I enjoy, and it is much easier to get things to fit together accurately than it would be doing this on a machine – even though it’s made up of squares.  So, I loved the construction part of this, done listening to In Our Time on BBC Radio Four – my guilty pleasure.  I also love the way that you get little flashes of the printing on the papers – in this case a catalogue from Gudrun Sjoden which is the absolute perfect weight for making the papers.

The fabric is interesting, though.  It isn’t Laura Ashley fabric.  I am pretty sure that it was given to me by my Grate Frend Ceri after her trip to the quilt museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.  This fact is very thought-provoking in the context of my research project, and is a reason why I don’t think that I need to use just Laura Ashley fabric.  The fabrics are reproduction nineteenth-century prints. A big part of what is coming out about Laura Ashley and the attendant interviews is about preservation, and commemoration and tradition and heritage and commemoration.  A lot is about memory and the past, often happier times.  These fabrics are designed to evoke the quilting of a bygone age, and, I think sometimes the roseate glow age of the Little House on the Prairie books.  There is a tremendous romance about those nineteenth-century American quilts even for the English (I hesitate to speak for the English, but certainly couldn’t represent all the British).  Quilters in the group I am studying were brought up with John Wayne era Westerns, or maybe Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, ideologically dodgy about abducting women but full of glorious quilts.  The block constructions in the covered wagon, the Baltimore beauties, the quilts made for ministers, the Underground Railroad connection, all this adds up to a storehouse of great stories that construct what patchwork and quilting is about.  And I want to explore that romance in the Laura Ashley piece.  Plus, I love the old patchwork quilts and consider myself lucky that I live so close to the American Museum in Bath ( has such a good collection of wonderful vintage quilts, and the Museum of Welsh Life just outside Cardiff (, which has such stunning old Welsh quilts.  They are lovely things.  They are beautiful.  And, because I could never really afford to buy one – and possibly wouldn’t want the responsibility of conserving one, I like the idea of making one out of reproduction fabrics.

Also, it seems that Laura Ashley loved the tiny florals on Victorian fabrics and when she came to make her own quilts couldn’t find anything similar and so eventually went into manufacturing her own – which gave rise to the characteristic Laura Ashley print.

Here’s a close-up of some of them:

So, the fabric is important,  and the nostalgia of making a second quilt for the long-gone doll’s bed, but the fact that this fabric was a gift is also very important.

One of the things that fascinates me about this project is the role of the gift in it.  People are giving me their time to be interviewed, but they are also giving me gifts of Laura Ashley items.  So, I have a dress that one of my interviewees wore, and a table cloth, and so on, as well as bags of the cloth.  The last time I went to Bristol Quilters, the wonderful Sue W. came up to me and gave me a bag containing a very carefully catalogued and beautifully documented and presented set of plastic wallets with Laura Ashley fabric inside, all bound together into a kind of album.  I am very interested in what is being given and what is being received.  Conventional gift theory in anthropology is all about exchange and obligation.  I give you a gift so that you will reciprocate in some way – possibly with another gift or with your favour.  If I receive a gift I am in some way obligated.  I don’t think this is what’s going on here.  I know that some people are glad to get rid of the fabric which has been hanging about the house for years, but not everyone.  I want to get into this and try and understand what is happening.  There is something about relationship – the giver’s relationship with me.  There is something about entrusting me to look after the fabric.  There is something about the pleasure in reliving old times that touching this stuff in the act of giving the gift.  I am still not sure, but I don’t think it’s about putting me under some obligation to return the gift.

Finally, there is something in the random-ish placing of the panes/pieces/patches.  One of my favourite theorists, Doreen Massey, who is a geographer, writes about the construction of place as being where stories come together.  This process is pretty random and contributes to what Massey calls the ‘throwntogetherness’ of place.  I like the way that this tiny weeny piece represents this.  Ceri went to Lowell with her daughter.  Her daughter was on her gap year.  Her daughter worked for a particular family.  They met interesting people in Lowell.  They brought the fabric back.  Ceri and I have quilted together for years.  I have known Ceri’s daughter since before she was born.  And so on.  The stories pile up, and are thrown together, in a way analogous to the production of the quilt.  There is some order, but there could easily be another one.  We make sense of our lives and ourselves in retrospect.

So, this very small piece, contains a wealth of meaning, considerably more than just twelve squares of printed cotton fabric.  Which is exactly what I love about patchwork and quilting.

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