Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Exploring Quilt Based Research

In a previous post, I argued that "a quilt is more". But how can this "more" be accessed and identified through the material object of the quilt? There may not always be people around or documents available to tell the history of a specific piece and its maker(s). There are, however, different potential avenues of inquiry available that can help place a quilt in its socio-historic context.  I recently had a go myself at the tools of the trade of quilt based research at a so called 'study day' with the British Quilt Study Group (BQSG). Held at the Quilters' Guild headquarters in York, the one day workshop introduces researchers and anyone interested to basic methodological approaches of quilt based research and provides practical advice for beginners and more advanced researchers. The best part: participants get to handle a selection of the pieces from the Quilters' Guild Collection and can test their newly acquired skills under the expert guidance of experienced researchers and the collection's fabulous curator. 

A 1940s Suffolk Puffs quilt from the Quilters' Guild Collection

In retrospect, some of the information provided seems rather obvious, but somehow the importance of the fabric pattern in dating a quilt, for example, had never conciously been on my mind when looking at quilts. And yet, this simple example also exemplifies one of the many difficulties of quilt based research. After all, the quilter could have had the material in her stash for decades before using it or, in fact, could have inherited it from someone else. In a similar vein, it is hard to say whether some of the well preserved quilts from previous times have survived because they've been treasured and well cared for or plainly because they'd been kept in the back of a closet for years because people didn't like them. 

One avenue for finding out more about a particular quilt is by tracing family histories, provided a quilt can be associated with a specific family or household or perhaps at least with an area or region. Public records offices and local archives are important resources for such an investigation. Through finding out more about the socio-economic context of a family or an individual one might be able to make assumptions about the quilt and its maker. Was there a special occasion for its making? Is there any special reason why it was kept and preserved by future generations? Have similar quilts been made by the same person or others? Such findings provide important information about the meaning of quilts and their making within a society at a certain point in time. The "more" is partly made available in form of historic facts, which then allow for the speculation about and investigation of the affective economies involved. Did the maker experience the making of the quilt as a burden, as a work that was required of her or was it a creative leisure activity or perhaps even part of a general education in needlework? Was the quilt connected to specific memories and experiences of the maker, for example the death of a loved one or the experience of war?

A 19th century so called 'huswife' for sewing notions from the Quilters' Guild Collection.

The room for speculation is extensive and one needs to be wary of some popular quilt histories. The most notorious one is probably that of the Underground Railway, which claims that specific quilts hung up on clothes lines or porches guided runaway slaves from the American South to the safety of the North. The story, however, lacks evidence, specifically from traditional slave narratives. This high degree of uncertainty appears to me one of the reasons why quilt study or, more generally, the study of textile artefacts, is still very much a niche area within academia. However, this uncertainty or lack in documentation is partly, if not mainly, due to the fact that quilting was (and often is) regarded as women's work, as part of everyday domesticity and, consequently, as unimportant and unworthy to be included in historical records. These records were, of course, primarily produced by men and constitute a representation of what they considered to be of importance and value. How can the fascinating field of quilt based research become embraced by academia? The first step, perhaps, might be to accept that quilt based research and research based on textile artefacts in general requires a different register. Which one? Well, let say I'm still in the process of finding out ....

The 'Sidmouth Quilt' (1820-1840) from the Quilters' Guild Collection


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