During the research phase for my essay I feel I must look back in order to go forward with regards to how recycled or up-cycled fabrics and materials are used by textile artists and practitioners.
Historically patchwork and quilting is infamous for using recycled fabrics from community to community or era to era differing styles and types emerged and hence why I have decided to make this my focus for this archival research.
In my blog for the Recovery Quilt I mention the Crimea quilts which were supposedly made by soldiers recovery from injuries or illness but also learnt that these quilts were often made by soldiers on battlefields – in India apparently just 5% of the time was actually spent in battle and hence hobbies became a necessity to alleviate the boredom and hence learning to sew and subsequently make these quilts may have been actively encouraged by superiors. There is no question that some of the Crimea quilters were made by skilled tailors due to the scraps of cloth used and as I stated there is the question mark of whether the sick and injured were capable of making these quilts or whether this is pure Victorian propaganda but what is clear is that the quilts made use of often colourful scraps of clothing of whichever regiment the soldiers were assigned too and these created textiles that speak of the differing battles or locations of their postings.
I decided to look further into historical quilting and one particular type comes to mind – that of the Gees Bend quilts of Alabama. Gees Bend is a remote African-American community located quite literally on a bed of the Alabama River with its current inhabitants descended from the slaves that worked on the Pettway plantation in the 19th century. The quilts were historically made in order to provide warmth and comfort in unheated shacks and due to the isolated nature of the community were often made from strips torn from well worn clothing or household textiles and they developed a distinctive series of styles.
The patterns of the quilts included those which may descend into abstraction through improvisation, a work clothes style and also patterns and geometry which allowed for metaphors that were based on the ordinary lives of the women. I have long known of these quilts and what always strikes is the lack of use of rulers to create the more traditional style of patchwork and quilting which insists on perfectly straight lines and repetitive blocks which are identical to one another.
These quilts have distinct personalities and really speak of the women and communities that made them – they are a visual language for the quilting bees and lineages of the families that bear witness to their history.
As is often the case with crazy quilting each of the fabrics may have a specific meaning or memory for the woman or women who made the quilt – these are about time, place and memory through not just the fabrics but the very stitches that created them. The fabrics may be chosen for colour or pattern or as with many of the Gees Bend quilts they may be chosen to create abstract or more geometric styles with unusual colour combinations, palettes and compositions.
I mention crazy quilting immediately above and this is yet again a style of patchwork and quilting that makes use of scraps of fabrics but also notions such as beads, ribbons and differing yarns. The image shown on the right is my own small crazy quilt which consists of fabrics used to make dresses or tops for my daughter and myself but also includes scraps of fabrics from my late Mum’s stash with the only new purchases being the yarns and ribbons used to stitch each piece together – each piece of fabric has its own narrative and memory including the one just at the edge of the top of this photograph which is fabric I first made into a skirt 40 years ago (and then the skirt became a waist coat 10 years later) and now its final ‘resting place’ is here in this quilt. This ‘crazy’ is highly personal and has so many memories within it – at some point this winter I will finally finish it but the point is it for me my ultimate up-cycling as its sentimental value cannot be measured.
The origins of crazy quilting are unknown but it certainly took off after the Industrial Revolution as fabric prices began to fall and also richer fabrics slowly became available particularly for the more wealthy woman. During the Victorian era there is no doubt Queen Victoria herself was a major influence on this style through her preference for cluttered and richly decorated homes. The wealthy women which could afford these luxurious fabrics spent considerable time planning the fabric scrap arrangements which could then be embellished with exquisite stitching and beading – a perfect way of showing off your skills to any visitors. However, this craze for this style of quilting was primarily, as stated, really only for the rich who could afford the fabrics but women from the lower ranks of society wanted to be able also create this style and hence used clothing passed down from more affluent relatives or silks sold through factories and mills or even used simple flannels, cottons and wools which were generally not decoratively stitched and used more for utilitarian purposes.
The Irish shirt quilts of this same period were also known to use shirt fabrics purchased by the weight from the shirt making companies that were prevalent around Belfast and Londonderry at the time and very much part of the Northern Ireland textile industry. These scraps of fabrics were made into quilts by the workers which were then often sold to make extra money for the families.
I have long been aware of both the British and Irish patchwork and quilting history which includes many quilts that were made of hand woven fabrics, old suiting or scraps from dressmakers, travelling sales man or shop samples with some of the Irish quilts of the 18th century comprising of just two layers, as opposed to 3 which is considered the norm, primarily due to the families simply not being able to financially afford a middle lining (wadding). In more rural areas in Ireland and again in communities across Britain old woolen blankets or sheets may provide that third missing layer in order to create a warmer quilt but like many quilts of the period these were very much for use in homes as bed covers or even the layered up to create padding for beds.
I own a fascinating book, inherited from my late Mum, that tells the history of quilts and a people – the American people which tells me of how these textile items were used as door and window covers with old blankets being used as that central layer and feed sacks often being used as backing (the latter also made their way over to back many Irish quilts too during World War II). The quilts were ways of recycling every scrap of precious fabric left over from making new clothes and up cycling worn clothing or other textiles which families in poor rural communities could not afford to simply throw away. Many quilts were of the utility variety to use within the home with many being also made as part of a young woman’s wedding chest with the more fancy quilts being made or kept purely for when visitors arrived and perhaps used within front parlours – this was particularly common amongst the less well off. Some crazy quilts were made as wedding gifts by whole families or communities – bearing in mind the quilting bees that would get together to hand quilt a quilt before machine quilting became common place.
Every single type of quilt that uses recycled or up-cycled fabrics, no matter which community it is sewn by, for me really shouts out the memories, the sense of place and often the sense of community that has been a part of its making. I strongly feel hand quilting is more personal to me although my own attempts are somewhat lacking, (my late Mum’s work was exquisite despite only learning quilting after she and my father emigrated to American 7 years before she died) – if I look at hand quilting in terms of techniques I am familiar with through my studies hand quilting seems to be a form of slow stitching through its meditative nature and its embuing of the materials with the memories and places of the stitcher.
If I was to focus on one specific type of patchwork and quilting which resonates with my essay title from a recycling point of view then it has to be crazy quilting through its use of the materials to tell the narrative through abstraction and memory – however, the Gees Bend quilts are more direct due to their use of metaphors for normal every day life in their use of patterns and colour.
This has been an interesting research point to do – I was brought to this degree through a patchwork and quilting course and certainly the Gees Bend quilters and the Crimea quilts may form the foundation of my essay through their use of the aforesaid recycled fabrics but I am aware I need to focus more succinctly on how I wish to include them and in what way.