They told stories, killed time, commemorated births and marriages, served as decorations and artistic expressions, or simply kept you warm.
Museum London’s new exhibition, Under Cover: Quilts from the Collection, celebrates quilts, comforters and spreads, the women who made them and the techniques they used to create them and the purposes they served. It features 15 quilts dating from the 1860s to the 1950s.
“I really wanted to connect with the people who made them,” said Amber Lloydlangston, curator for regional history.
“I find them to be absolutely beautiful. There’s no doubt creating something beautiful was in the minds of the quilters, even those quilts made for a utilitarian purpose. We don’t want to lose sight of the pride they took in their work, even though they weren’t intended for wall hangings.”
Quilted fabrics can be traced back thousands of years, but quilting has been popular in North America since the 18th century, especially as industrialization made more fabrics (silk, satin and velvet) available and affordable in terms of time and money. Mass production of the sewing machine also helped fuel quilting’s popularity that has ebbed and flowed over the centuries.
“Today, it’s a huge hobby for people — it’s monster,” Lloydlangston said. “Just go online and check it out. There are quilting shows and festivals (such as in Ailsa Craig) all over with people of all ages, men and women, doing it.
“In the middle and late 19th century, quilting was a statement on your social position, as well as good taste. It was about modelling proper behaviour for women of the middle and upper classes, an expression of their Christian work ethic and an acceptable use of their time.”
Quilts were often made to record family history, such as the crazy quilt — a popular quilting fad of the late 19th century — made by Katherine (Katie) McDougall Westman in 1896 and donated to the museum in 1962 by her daughter, Harriet Westman, Lloydlangston said.
Westman’s quilt was made from fabrics used to make family garments and included the names of her children and nephews. One name missing is that of her eldest son, William, who drowned in the Victoria disaster of May 24, 1881, when the passenger steamer SS Victoria capsized and sank in the Thames River, near what is now the Greenway Off-Leash Dog Park, killing nearly 200 people.
Quilts were made for decoration to throw over a couch or cover a piano, but also simply to keep warm.
The exhibition includes various artifacts with a focus on technique, such as styles, stitching, needlework, hand painting, patterns, scrapbooks and quilt construction.
“Quilting has never disappeared,” Lloydlangston said. “There are always people who want to express themselves this way.”