Originally published: 30.08.16
The gallery had sold out of the glossy, colour catalogue for Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 by the time I saw the exhibition last week. But I had a terrific chat with the young woman serving at the museum shop while I placed an order to have the catalogue mailed out (at a discounted rate, no less).
“Isn’t it interesting,” she said, “how contemporary some of those quilt designs are. It’s amazing to think they predated modernism by decades. But not acknowledged, of course.” She gave me a gorgeous, wry smile. “Why would women’s sewing be acknowledged as art?”
Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is a wonderful and important exhibition now showing at NGV Australia (the gallery at Federation Square, in the heart of Melbourne). Over eighty works are on display – mainly quilts and bedcovers – and they are variously beautiful, historically significant, poignant, charming and fascinating. Intricate quilts stitched by convict women en route to Australia. Depression-era blankets (called waggas) made in desperation from scrounged bits and pieces. Delicate embroidery commemorating the jubilee of Queen Victoria.
But you know there was only one quilt that I really wanted to see. This hexagon quilt, pictured above, is attributed to Elizabeth Macarthur. Her descendents believe she started it sometime around 1840 and her daughters (and/or grand-daughter) finished it. By the 1840s Elizabeth was in her seventies, with fading eyesight and prone to headaches. If she did begin it, I do wonder how much is actually hers…
The colours have faded with time, of course, and some of the fabrics have started to perish. But if you look closely below you can see the individual stitches – perhaps made with Elizabeth’s own hand. I’m a (sometime) quilter myself and I can assure you that those stitches are impressively tiny!
Lady Mary Fitzroy, the wife of the NSW Governor, was making a similar quilt at around the same time. But in 1847 she was killed in an accident (she was handed into the carriage but before her husband could take the reins the horses bolted, took a downhill corner too fast and her carriage tipped over and hit a tree). She’d attended a Macarthur wedding only three days earlier.
The coverlet Lady Fitzroy was working on remains unfinished to this day – the colours of her hexagons a little brighter for having spent a century and more tucked in her sewing bag (see photo below).
Lady Fitzroy evidently had a better eye for design than the Macarthur women. She practiced what today we would call ‘fussy cutting’ – deliberately selecting and then cutting fabrics in such a way that a secondary design is created once the hexagon was pieced together (see photo below).
But Lady Fitzroy and the Macarthur women used the same technique to ensure the consistency of each hexagonal piece: paper piecing. Hundreds of paper templates were cut, then the fabric was basted on top of the paper, then each hexagon was whip-stitched (with those tiny stitches we’ve already seen) to those adjacent. It’s a technique still very much in use today.
One of the quilts in the exhibition was displayed with the wrong side showing (below).
Usually a quilter will pull out all the papers once the quilt top is finished but historians are often very grateful if the quilt-maker didn’t manage to get around to it!
Making the Australian Quilt: 1800–1950 is open until 6 November 2016. The adult entry fee is $15 (concessions are available). The curators have done an excellent job of selecting and displaying the works and it’s an exhibition well worth a visit. I can’t wait for my catalogue to arrive so I can enjoy it all over again.
Adventures in Biography: I have a young family and a demanding day job but in my spare time (!) I’m working on a biography of one of Australia’s first white colonists: Elizabeth MacArthur. So far in the course of working on the manuscript I’ve met some wonderful people and travelled to some amazing places. I thought it was about time to share the wonder and my amazement.