Quilts – Counterpane’s of Comfort and Cultural Significance

AQuilt 9

The bed is, more than often, the place where life begins. Painted exquisitely on a small porcelain plaque is recorded the birth in France c1764 of the grandchild of Monsieur de Courteille, Director of Sevres, the renowned porcelain manufactory.

It is a delightful scene and the bed itself is beautifully hung with heavy striped silk. Two huge soft white pillows accompany a traditional French bolster and the young woman is being kept warm and snug by the superb lace trimmed counterpane or quilted bedspread; the word counterpane deriving from the quilting stitch contre pointe.

From linen mummy wrappings to the elaborate woven, embroidered and embellished fabrics of the Renaissance period in Italy onward, textiles have been a powerful transmitter of wealth and status, as well as a measure of the development of human society.

‘Every stitch tells a story’ and a triumph for the decorative arts historical quilts today are a tribute to those who worked the historical threads of our society.

That rare, fragile and wonderful ‘Australian textile’ known as The Rajah Quilt is traditionally a sewn blanket made up pieced together from scraps of fabric in a patchwork pattern that is then joined either by needle and thread or ties to make a useful basis for a new beginning.

The main design rich and colourful top layer covers a middle insulating layer, these days made of a combination of fibres that form a central padding, with finally a backing layer made of a woven material that is strong and serviceable.

This trio of textiles is then finally brought together using various different applique techniques, which when completed give the finished object great strength as it provides lightly the warmth and ‘cosiness’ aspect for which quilts have become renowned.

The Rajah quilt 1841 British makers on board the Rajah en-route to Hobart pieced medallion style unlined coverlet: cotton sheeting and chintz appliqué, silk thread embroidery Collection of the National Gallery of Australia. Gift of Les Hollings and the Australian Textiles Fund 1989

The Rajah Quilt is very special and a major focus of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection of textiles. Because of its fragility, it is now put on show usually for one small period each year in Canberra.

In 1841 working this amazing textile provided a vital link back to their homeland for the women being transported on board the ship Rajah as she set sail for Van Diemen’s Land, where their new life of incarceration would begin.

On board they became a community of women working together as one and for a common purpose. They stitched and sewed what is now known as The Rajah Quilt according to traditions they had inherited. As such it has for our nation become a piece of art of great historical significance and an important part of the fabric that reflects our social and cultural development.

The women involved were totally dedicated to its completion and a cross-stitch inscription sewn on one of its patches acknowledges ‘The British Ladies Society’, who kindly provided them with materials and the motivation to make the quilt while they were endeavouring to survive the hardships and lack of privileges during their journey at sea.

Completing the quilt would have bought them comfort, bonded them together and provided a forum wherein they could enjoy being part of circle of conversation that buoyed up their spirits and kept them going and sewing.

In this context it can be considered a lifeline of society.

Australia’s leading quilting historian Dr. Annette Gero, FRSA book for which she has become renowned, is “The Fabric of Society’, which not only reflects the heritage quilts found in Australia but also the social history of countless people from our past.

The Tristan Quilt is Linen quilted and padded with cotton wadding with outlines in brown and white linen thread and dates from 1360 – 1400 made Sicily, Italy courtesy V & A London

The skills that have evolved from the refinement of needlework over the centuries today attracts millions of people around the world to either view historic textiles in museums and galleries, or to take up the challenge of producing their own.

The historical aspects of decorative needlework is both diverse and rich and there is still a lot we can discover from various fragments found in China, South America as well as in Egypt, where it is estimated they were enjoying the craft some 5,000 years ago.

Modern textile historians deduce a great deal about a society, its traditions and folklore from such fragments.

Some scholars also believe that the love of colour produced in enamels, metals and glass was also an inspiration for various types of embroidered textiles in Ancient Egypt, which then flowed through the societies of ancient Greece and Rome mostly from this tradition.

Fragments in museums all around the world reveal that good strong cloth has always provided for humankind from its early beginnings and in both life and death.

The Tristan Quilt is the oldest of its type in the collection of the V & A Museum at London, made c1360 and 1400 in Sicily. It’s a linen coverlet covered in 14 scenes of the legend of Tristan and Isolde a favourite fable in the Middle Ages with lively scenes of battles, ships and castles.

Castles were much under siege by crusaders at this time and they wore a type of quilted garment under their armour, the Gambeson, which later developed as a ‘doublet’.

Quilted and embroidered linen 1703 – Mythical figures such as the mermaids shown here were popular subjects. Another motif hints at the presence of quilted fashion garments at this time. The woman at the top edge of the border is weating a quilted petticoat: a popular item for informal dress courtesy V & A Museum, London

They were sleeveless, made from linen or wool, the stuffing either being scrap cloth or horse hair. They had laces to fasten them until buttons arrived in quantity during the 14th century.

Life is like that, one stitch at a time taken patiently. In the end if you take your needle and work at your pattern it will come out all right and endure, they are after all the threads of destiny.

Throughout the medieval period European courts and high ranking church officials impressed each other and their subjects by wearing costumes, bearing banners and making hangings for the wall all made from fabulous fabrics that re-in-forced an image of high status and great power.

As the known borders of their world expanded Europeans were able to draw on many different cultural sources for inspiration to embellish their garments with fine embroidery for personal, state and ceremonial use.

They used the same basic techniques of stitches which are a feature of the earliest work from five centuries before Christ and include what we know as chain stitch, blanket stitch, running stitch, satin stitch and cross stitch.

Because textiles were so expensive during the medieval and Renaissance periods and an ability to ‘dry’ clean them was very limited, after a while dresses with rotted hems and underarms destroyed by perspiration meant they had to be discarded.

Queen Elizabeth 1 greeting Dutch Ambassadors courtesy Kasell National Museum, Germany

In England Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) was renowned for ensuring that the very best bits of her outrageously expensive garments were cut from dresses being discarded and re-used, often for cushions for her women who would sit on the floor in her presence, as well as for other useful purposes including quilting.

Another fabulous quilt in the V & A Museum at London bears the Royal Coat of Arms in the centre and figures symbolizing the four continents and they are disposed in each corner.

Embroidered wool intarsia in silks, wool and silk appliqué 1856-1859 Great Britain, UK, courtesy V & A London

The subjects of the other panels include scenes from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, images of the four evangelists, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, celebrated French and British military and naval heroes, well-known performers and actors, and episodes and characters from popular plays.

The subject of each panel is identified with an embroidered title.

It is skillfully made of appliquéd wool and silk with some intarsia work. The figures are carefully depicted, their facial and bodily features, drapery, details of their clothes and accessories embroidered in polychrome silks in chain, satin, back and other flat stitches.

In the story of Elijah, the nap of the wool fabric has been raised to suggest the shaggy coats of the bears. It brings home the point that while the identity of the maker or makers is not known similar quilts of known authorship made by men, several of whom were tailors.

This is not unusual in the world of textiles, men were just as gainfully employed as were women to perform the task, and in some cultures they predominated in the textile field especially weaving these valuable threads of our society.

Wool appliqué and patchwork with embroidery Coverlet, Wiltshire England, Ann West Designer and Maker 1820 – A ‘Garden of Eden’ theme courtesy V & A, London

The tradition of saving ‘scraps’ of fabric in bags from Queen Elizabeth 1 to Queen Victoria allowed them to be used in the manufacture of quilted garments, bedding for adults and babies and useful objects such as jackets, caps and tea cosies.

Don’t know about you, but my mother always kept a ‘scrap bag’ a family tradition passed down from her great grandmother.

She was transported to Australia aged 14 with her young brother. The charge was stealing a blanket to keep them warm on the streets after they had lost their mother and were left with no family to care for them.

A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm.

American author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) penned this powerful image in her novel ‘Little Women’ first published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. It was all about the values of hearth and home and about helping those who had a greater need than self.

Rare example of a figurative coverlet c1805 England, Patchwork of printed and plain cottons, partly block printed, partly embroidered courtesy V & A, London. The central scene shows King George III reviewing the volunteer troops, and is based on a painting by John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) ‘His Majesty reviewing the volunteer corps’ (1799).

Many of the working poor at the time were societal ‘victims’ of the progress being made in manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

It’s the scene Jo March, together with her sister’s Meg, Beth and Amy and their mother Mrs March looked upon as they arrived to help a very poor local family on Christmas morning, bringing their breakfast to share with them.

Today Australia just like America has a sensational and very active quilting tradition.

As an art form it really reached a pinnacle of achievement in both design and hand manufacture during the arts and crafts period in the English Victorian age. In our own age many quilters are challenging traditional patterns by producing exciting and innovative contemporary design and competition is indeed fierce.

Woman’s informal bodice c1700 – 1729, Linen, cord quilted and embroidered with silk thread courtesy V & A London

In Australia our states abound with local Quilter’s group and state associations. There is also a national group, the Australian Quilters Association and like most of these organizations, they seems to have got under way in Australia in the aftermath of World War II.

This doesn’t mean that quilts have not been made here since the first fleet they have. However they were mainly sewn for a long time in the bosom of large extended families, where they were practically used until they needed to be discarded.

Some families have held onto fragments because of the emotional bonds they represented.

As the size of Aussie families have reduced since the 1960’s so has the need arisen for Australian women to join into an activity they can share with other women outside the home, as did those women who sailed on the Rajah once did so long ago.

Quilting in community is all about companionship and the comfort provided when making a quilt either alone, within the circle of a quilting bee or, alternatively in a joint project with others.

From the coverlet of a bed, today Quilts are also displayed on walls as an object that has family value, one handed down through the generations.

Sleeping soundly under the stars with just a quilt for cover and comfort in the backyard is something that many Aussie kids have shared in common and it’s good to see quilts coming back into contention, favour and fashion.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013 -2016


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