Quilt Archaeology

I have been digging around under the stairs and in the back of the wardrobe, in bags and in boxes, and finding old quilt projects – or, as I like to term it, indulging in Quilt Archaeology. I’m in between two phases of an enormous project and I’m having a bit of a break before picking it up again.

An enormous project: The Cromwell Trilogy Quilt as at 6 July 2021

I finished work on the Wolf Hall section of the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt on 19 August 2021 and have been busy writing up the project and matters relating to it for a conference about Hilary Mantel’s work which takes place in October. I started doing a bit of work on the Bring Up the Bodies section but I realised I was forcing the process, and that’s never a good idea.

19 August 2021: The Wolf Hall section of the Cromwell Trilogy Quilt is finally finished, and I am both exhilarated and exhausted

So rather than going back to my notebooks, index cards, and Hilary Mantel’s glorious prose, I started to sort some of my fabric stash into better order, and in the process unearthed some old and unfinished projects.

The difficulty of replacing a central star: not recommended

During my quilt archaeology session, I came across various pieces. There’s a star quilt, which I started in 2005. I abandoned it because the central star was off: the original fabric had a particular pattern and I hadn’t cut it with any thought to pattern matching. It looked terribly clumsy. In October 2019, I replaced the central star with a different fabric. This piece is now half way quilted, but I keep thinking about whether I should replace some of the outer pieces before going any further. The pattern matching is a bit off in a couple of places. So, yes, I probably will have a further fiddle with the piecing before I finish quilting it. Maybe next year…..

I also found a hexagon quilt which I paper pieced in 2013. I don’t do much paper piecing these days, as it is so hard on the hands. I had started quilting, but I can’t think what led me to want to place a circle on every single hexagon? I like the effect, but it’s going to take years to finish. Can I be less strict about the quilting design I wonder? Maybe finish it with something less dense? Or would that spoil the overall effect?

The most problematic piece I found is a very floral quilt that I made in 2007-8. I was figuring out how to handquilt properly, rather than by stabbing the stitches through the different layers. My taste has changed so I wouldn’t make anything so floral now, but I remember liking it fifteen years ago. Do I keep this piece to remind me of learning to handquilt? Do I finish it and highlight those painstaking learning stitches? Or do I decide it’s not worth the effort? When I examined this quilt more closely I found that there were multiple problems associated with the layering: I didn’t get the wadding properly flat and it has twisted slightly. It’s not fixable to my satisfaction without unpicking everything and relayering it. Can I be bothered? I haven’t decided yet.

Then there’s a bee folklore quilt top that I’ve just washed. I remember doing the research for this piece, but I have no memory of putting it together. My memory insists that that’s a project waiting to be started, so how did it get so far ahead without me noticing? There’s an aggressively bright strippy floral quilt, which is very near completion – why didn’t I finish that in 2009 when I made it? I’ve an unfinished purple and cream diamond quilt top that’s been lurking since 2013: I know my hands don’t appreciate the paper piecing involved so I can’t make it any bigger, but perhaps it can be appliquéd onto something else as a centrepiece? Under the desk, there’s a double wedding ring quilt top I painstakingly handpieced in 2018-19, just to to see whether I could. All that effort really needs quilting….

If you work entirely by hand – as I now do – quilts take a long time to make, and there’s a good chance of becoming disenchanted half way through stitching. Or of deciding that something isn’t working. Or of finding a structural problem that you don’t know how to fix. Yet. But one of the joys of making quilts is that they don’t go off: you can put them aside for days, months, or even years, and pick them up again. You can fix what defeated you before, you can unpick, rework, and restitch, or possibly even decide that the thing that was bothering you before is actually all right.

Scrappy quilt – finished in 2019: 13 years after I started sewing it.

The scrappy quilt above is a case in point. I started it way back in 2006. I felt then that I should learn how to stitch by machine, even though I hated doing it, and I was a very inexperienced quiltmaker. I got half way through handquilting it, and then found that, structurally, there were real problems, due to my inability to machine stitch a straight seam. So I stuck the whole thing in a bag and refused to think about it. I picked it up again in 2019 and realised it was fixable with some unpicking, some restitching and some patching. I finished it in late 2019. These days I quite like having it around. It’s comfortable. And it reminds me that one day’s abandoned project can become tomorrow’s finished quilt, with just a touch of rethinking.

A Year of Quilting Differently

time-quilt-close-up-3

The clock is ticking…..

My quilting practice has been changing in recent months as my PhD deadline looms ever closer. I want to submit my thesis this autumn, and, while I have already written about 85,000 words about the early career of British film director Maurice Elvey, I know they are not yet the right words, so the next few months are going to be very busy, with redrafting, checking, editing and checking again. Essentially, my quilts are getting more straightforward while my thesis gets more complicated. And that’s because I don’t have the space for thinking too much about my sewing just now.

Thames Quilt - up the garden path

The Thames Quilt – leading me up the garden path?

It’s a year since I started my Thames Quilt project and I got as far as Greenwich Reach when I had to put it aside. Although I planned the whole project quite carefully, and had a good idea of how the quilt should progress, the research that sits behind each section of the quilted river is proving a hurdle. At the moment, I can’t look into munitions workers at Woolwich, or find out about the Nore Light Ship, and the ancient forest at Purfleet will have to wait. I have more than enough reading to be getting on with….

too-much-reading

Having said that, I don’t want to stop quilting. It’s a really important part of my life – the one thing I never worry about – and it’s essential that I have an alternative to writing and worrying over the next few months.

I have a notebook full of quilting ideas – Bleriot’s flight over the English Channel in 1909; Dr John Dee and his magical mirror; the many wonders of bee folklore; maps of places known and unknown. All very involved. But until my thesis is finished I need to find different ways of sewing that involve less research, less interpretation, and less planning. And, for me, that’s a challenge!

time-quilt-complete

First finish of 2017 – an unplanned quilt

Quilting in an unplanned way and just letting fabric and stitch take me into new styles of sewing is proving interesting. My first experiment involved turning a small amount of mid-century clock fabric and a very textured big stitch style into a wall hanging. I didn’t plan in advance but just let the piece grow, adding bits here and there, and working up the texture as I went along.

time-quilt-close-up-2

I’m wondering how far this change of approach will take me – but I’m also eyeing up some Nelson’s Victory blocks I made a couple of years ago. Surely I can manage another Nelson project without too much difficulty? After all, there’s a Nelson chapter in my thesis….

Nelson's Victory Quilt Block

From 1905: Nelson’s Victory Quilt Block