The speaker at Bristol Quilters last week was the lovely and very talented Jan Hassard. She has been a member of Bristol Quilters for years, and so it was nice to see her body of work as it developed; it was something of a retrospective, as they call it in the fine art world.
Jan’s work couldn’t be more different from mine. Her work is totally precise, planned, ordered, structured and disciplined. Mine is slapdash and improvised. But even so, it is glorious because it has so much beautiful colour and vivacity.
I am not posting many photos, because a. I didn’t take a camera – even my phone, and b. she was talking about the increasing phenomena of work on the net being stolen and copied, or just used without permission.
The riot of colour which was a tonic for the soul aside, I enjoyed Jan’s talk for its insistence on craft, standards, high levels of finish and presentation, many concerns which I would like Craftivists to take into account. I loved it even more because it seemed to me to be the perfect riposte to the anti-nostalgia rally that I seem to keep running into recently. It is like there is something deficient in people who want to hold the past with affection. They should be letting go and moving on. They should be facing up to the realities of the present and not seeking solace in the imaginary golden past of tea and crumpets and church picnics. Nostalgia is the new opium of the people, according to this analysis, and women are particularly susceptible. At the same time we hear lots of stuff about identity (see, for example, Grayson Perry’s wonderful recent series on British television). Most of the identity theory at the moment is about our fugitive, unstable, protean identities, constructed only in relation to others (I am different as a daughter, wife, friend, university academic, driver, customer, quilter and so on). Jan’s talk, however, included her experience of being a very small child in the war and being bombed out of her home. Her parents knew how to count between hearing the bomb and its exploding. So they managed to get her to safety but the house was destroyed: everything gone in an instant. Later on, as dispossessed person she got a Canadian Red Cross quilt. These were utility quilts made by Canadian women to aid British allies who had lost everything.
Jan talked about sleeping under hers until she was about eleven. One day her mother just threw the quilts away. To a collector like Jan in later years, this was devastating, but to her mother it made perfect sense. She did not want to be reminded of the horrible period in her life when she lost everything. Jan now acquires these Red Cross quilts. I don’t think that this is fuzzy nostalgia of the sort that fuels our delight in Downtown Abbey. I think this is a serious identity project. Our identities might be shifting and relational and contextual and contingent, but they are built on experience that matters to us. We cannot just throw off that quilt and become post-modern, or worse yet post-human. And, once again, cloth plays a major part on our view of ourselves as people in the world.