Quilts Through Time - Quilt Museum Opens In Guildhall In York

By Caroline Lewis | 06 June 2008
Photo of a patchwork quilt with flower and animal shapes

1718 Quilt (detail). Silk patchwork coverlet. Earliest known signed and dated patchwork. © Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles

Review: Caroline Lewis travels north for Quilts Through Time – Journey From Bed To Wall at the Quilt Museum and Gallery, York, from June 7 until October 5 2008.

There's a new addition to the signage in the historic city of York. Among the pointers to the Viking Centre, the Yorkshire Museum, the City Art Gallery and all the other attractions is now quite a specialised museum – the Quilt Museum and Gallery.

Opening on Saturday June 7, it's an enjoyable addition, set in a light and airy medieval guildhall that has seen varied uses down the years, its latest employment adding to a quirky history. St Anthony's Guildhall has been a Blue Coat School, a prison, a workhouse and most recently home to the archives of the Borthwick Institute.

Now the hall has been taken on by the Quilters' Guild of the British Isles under the guidance of owners the York Conservation Trust, and amid its thick beams and curious decorative bosses are works of textile art that follow an age-old tradition.

Photo of a piece of textile art featuring a pattern of concentric diamonds

‘Reincarnation’ detail, by Joanne Tinker (2001) made from recycled drinks cans, buttons, paint. ©

However, while quilt-making may conjure up images of ladies of a certain age, curator of the inaugural exhibition, Helen Joseph, has chosen a mixture of old and modern works to demonstrate that patchwork and quilting are crafts that have moved on and are very much alive.

Indeed, the membership of the Quilters' Guild (currently 6,000) is on the up, and plenty of young people are involved (female, admittedly, though one of the Guild's patrons is respected male textile designer Kaffe Fassett).

In addition, an enthusiastic young museum director, Fiona Diaper, is confident the museum's programme of events and education will create a wider appreciation of the needlewoman's skill. The Heritage Lottery Fund has backed the museum's development of education and volunteer programmes with a grant of £193,500.

Photo of a wooden painted and carved decoration on a medieval building beam depicting a centaur

A curious centaur boss from the interior of the hall. © J Turner

Historic highlights of the exhibition include a silk coverlet dated 1718 – one of the earliest known patchwork pieces and the Guild's star item. Its delicate squares and shapes include heraldic type motifs, geese and four-legged friends. Incredibly, this delicate coverlet is on display without any glass protection, so you can appreciate it fully.

Another centuries-old piece you cannot fail to miss is the large kaleidoscopic patchwork by Elizabeth Watson from the late 1800s. Its spectacularly bright reds, purples, blues and yellows derive from the fact it was 'made for her bottom drawer', but she never married, and it has stayed in drawers and trunks ever since.

This contrasts with more demure and faded quilts from the last two centuries, which are hung cheek by jowl with experimental contemporary works such as one made from recycled bin bags by Michelle Walker.

Other contemporary works take unexpected figurative subjects such as motorbike racers (Ruth Parker, 2007) and even an aerial view of Spaghetti Junction (Pauline Barnes, 2003)!

Photo of a building made of stone on the ground floor

St Anthony’s Hall exterior. © York Conservation Trust

A separate room shows a group of thoughtful contemporary works with a more conceptual basis. Just be careful you don't step back into the three-dimensional artwork of tumbling organza blocks while you're looking at Bethan Ash's collage-style work, 'Cutting the carbs – applying the lbs'.

Many of the modern pieces use precisely the same techniques that were used in the past, meaning they can take up to 500 hours to complete by hand. In the case of patchwork, each individual shape must be created and sewn together by hand.

'Wholecloth' quilts require often intricate designs to be traced onto the material, which is placed on top of wadding and then sewn over in tiny stitches by hand. The results are often given as gifts, and should be rightly prized.

Machine-sewn quilts, which could take as little as a day to make, are just as decorative and certainly look more fitting for the wall than the bed.

Photo of part of a quilt featuring graduated blocks of colour

Detail from 'Lightstrike' by Janet Twinn who loves the challenge of working with colour. © Quilters Guild

Future exhibitions at the new museum will take a look at more historic and contemporary works from the Guild's collection of about 600 items. The next planned show, however, will be taken from the collection of the International Quilt Study Centre in Nebraska, USA – the first time it has sent an exhibition abroad and a coup for York's Quilt Museum.

Another development currently happening in the grounds of the hall is the landscaping of a new public garden that will be especially geared towards the blind, partially sighted and disabled. Situated just below part of the city walls, it's bound to be popular on completion.

Caroline travelled by train with National Express East Coast from London King's Cross to York, and read a book on quilting patterns while endless green fields passed by.

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