Every Quilt Tells a Story

There are many ways to tell a story but one of the more beautiful, to my mind, is through a hand made quilt. The pattern, the fabrics, the stitches and most importantly, the stitcher, all combine to weave together a story of life as it was then. The current exhibition at the NGVAustralia, Making the Australian Quilt: 1800-1950 , is a beautiful example of the stories quilts hold within them.

We can see how fashion changed from rather dour colours to a greater vibrancy as we move further away from the days of Queen Victoria; from serviceable cottons to flouncy chintz and sultry silk. 

The shift away from the home country to a burgeoning pride in the new country is charted through the quilts. As is the increasing influence of American culture as our womenfolk became exposed, through travel and magazines, to the more intricate patterning used by American quilters.

The effects of deprivation, either through the War years or the Great Depression, are made tangible by the materials used in the quilts, especially the waggas – utilitarian rugs or quilts, made from the likes of suiting samples, or scraps from old clothes, and often lined with remnants from hessian bags.

Using whatever materials are at hand is gloriously shown in the quilt made from the golden slips of fabric that were used to wrap cigars, how ingenious was this sewer:

Quilts can show us snapshots of daily life, or a family’s personal story. Quilts often give a physical presence to a mother’s, grandmother’s or sister’s love. We can chart the trajectory of a life by reading the stories embroidered onto a quilt.

Nor is the art of quilting confined to women – the exhibition contains two stunning quilts made with care and skill by men, one a POW who used the quilt to tell the story of his war, the other a sailor with plenty of time on his hands and the skill of sailmaking as his launchpad into quilting.

One of the centrepieces of the exhibition is the beautiful Rajah Quilt, created in 1841 by the 180 female prisoners on board the Rajah. The quilt comes out of the initiatives undertaken by Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker who was concerned about the plight of female prisoners. She formed the British Ladies Society for the Reformation of Female Prisoners, which in turn provided sewing supplies to female prisoners, both incarcerated and being transported to the colonies. The sewing talents of the 180 prisoners varied but the outcome is beautiful.

There are more than 80 quilts in the exhibition, all of them asking you to stop and ponder their story. The exhibition finishes on Sunday, so hurry in to make sure you listen to what they have to tell us. 

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