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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Making Welsh Quilts
Necessity the Mother of Creativity
by Mary Jenkins

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Mary Jenkins is a collector of Welsh textiles and taught in adult education in Wales. Her family roots are in Pembrokeshire in South West Wales, a county that produced some of the finest old Welsh quilts and is caretaker of a family quilt made there in the 19th century. She wrote HOUSE AND GARDEN SAMPLES and co-authored MAKING WELSH QUILTS both published by Krause Publications. She is a member the Quilters Guild of the British Isles and as a Regional Coordinator advised on the formation of many quilting groups within Wales.

I had been part of the patchwork and quilting revival in Britain in the late 1970s, when we were excited by American quilts with their wonderfully romantic names and infinite variety of patterns. No one I knew then in the quilting world in Wales was greatly interested in old Welsh quilts, I returned to quilting after a ten-year gap spent teaching and designing embroidery, though like a true fabric-holic I never stopped collecting fabric. Probably the break gave me a new perspective because I looked afresh at Welsh quilts and fell in love with them.

So what actually are Welsh Quilts and what makes them special? I would say that a ‘Welsh Quilt’ is one that has been made in the style associated with Wales for at least 200 years. This style can be identified by the quilting layout and the traditional motifs used in the patterning. All other quilts are quilts that happen to be made in Wales but could have been made anywhere as they have no distinctive quilting patterns and associated motifs and only their provenance links them with their home country.

In the 19th century it was possible for quilts to be one hundred per cent Welsh because we had a wool fabric industry. In a country famous for sheep, the wool was not only used to make fabric but also used as a filling for the quilts, so Welsh quilts could be described as entirely home made.

The materials used were further enhanced by the method of quilting; the combination of traditional patterning and the springiness of a wool filling gave our quilts their very distinctive sculptured appearance and stamped them with their Welsh identity. Not all Welsh quilts were made of wool, however. When roller-printed fabric produced in the cotton mills of Lancashire became generally available, Welsh quilters used the new fabric, but they also continued to use the quilting layouts and motifs that gave their quilts a Welsh identity.

When I finally decided to try to make a Welsh quilt, I naturally looked for a book that would tell me all about them, but I couldn’t find one that contained the information I needed. So I read all I could on the subject, gleaned mainly from exhibition catalogues, out-of-print books and old textile magazines. I also studied Welsh quilts in museums and visited exhibitions displaying them and asked owners if I could look at their inherited quilts.

At first I was rather intimidated by the quilts and quite daunted at the prospect of making one in their style. They were so intensively stitched, their patterning so intricate and the designs seemed so complex that I didn’t think that I would ever be able to do such highly skilled and time consuming work. However, when I began recording their formats and the motifs that were regularly used I came to understand how they were planned and worked.

The most encouraging thing I discovered was that their quilts, though wonderfully stitched, were not perfect because the women (it was mostly women who worked the quilts that survive today) made them to commission and worked quickly. If they made a mistake in the patterning they didn’t unpick but simply carried on, cleverly manipulating motifs and using dense stitching to disguise any inconsistencies. Not only did this approach appeal to me as a beginner but it made the quilts much more interesting.

I decided that I wanted to adapt the old ways to suit me and my existing equipment. I felt that by doing this I really would be carrying on the tradition of 19th century country quilters, which was the group that I most admired. These were poor but practical women who used everyday objects such as cups, saucers and plates to form their designs. Their craft drew from their environment and they adapted their way of working to suit the way they lived their lives in the country areas of South and West Wales in the last half of the 19th century.

One could say that each quilt told its own tale and the personality of its quilter shone through the intervening decades. I found them totally inspiring and it eventually led me to co-authoring the book MAKING WELSH QUILTS which now gives anyone interested all the information that I had been looking for myself when I began. Making the patchwork with a mixture of hand and machine piecing can be done relatively quickly, though selecting the right fabrics can take time, but, as it is so important to get the look I want, I don’t mind how long it takes. I feel that I have served a 30-year apprenticeship making many types of quilts, but now, finally, I am making the quilts that have always been my quilting ‘destiny’.

In the 21st century things are very different. We still have the sheep in Wales, but there are just a few woolen mills left producing fabric mostly aimed at the tourist market. Now we are making quilts as a hobby, not a job as it was years ago. Because we use imported fabrics (or perhaps paint and dye our own fabric) and use many new techniques, no one could say where our quilts were made and in no way could they be identified as Welsh!

Should we worry about this? Yes I think we should. Of course we should try new things and experiment just like everybody else, but we have such a rich and unique quilting heritage here in Wales, it would be a shame if it was lost and nobody practiced it in its home country. But what is to be done? Welsh quilting takes time and everyone seems in such a hurry. They enjoy making patchwork but few do hand work. Most people piece and quilt on their sewing machine or have it quilted by a long armed machine quilter.

There is no doubt that Welsh quilts are respected greatly by the textile world and now much more so in Wales itself. Gone are the days when quilts were mistreated and ended up covering cars in winter and being used as beds for animals. They are now a diminishing resource and worth money and that fact alone commands respect. However, we still don’t have enough people quilting in the Welsh style here, nor is the craft being supported with grants or recorded for posterity as are many other endangered aspects of Welsh life. So it seems it is down to the quilters themselves to carry on the tradition. It is entirely in our hands and a few of us are busy fanning the extinguishing flames. However, one interesting fact has just come to light; the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall have a collection of Welsh quilts in their newly renovated Welsh farmhouse and the Prince is reported to have said that he likes quilts especially Welsh ones! Welsh quilts can’t get more high profile than that!

Mary now lives in the capital of Wales, Cardiff and runs the website www.welshquilts.co.uk. She makes as many Welsh quilts as time will allow and exhibits them regularly. She advises the Museum of Welsh Life on their quilt collection and curated the first comprehensive exhibition of Welsh Samplers for Brecon Museum. She is also a member of the Embroiderers’ Guild and a contributor to their book MAKING SAMPLERS and designed one of their first needlework kits.

For more about the authors, Mary and Clare: http://www.welshquilts.co.uk/index.html


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2008 - 2015 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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