History In The Making
Popular Patchwork|February 2018

When The Quilters’ Guild acquired a 1718-dated patchwork coverlet, it was clear they had something very special in their possession, but what of its mystery maker? Diana Woolf talks to guild curator, Heather Audin, to find out more.

Exactly three hundred years ago, an unknown embroiderer put the finishing touches to a patchwork coverlet, proudly adding the date 1718 and signing it with the initials, EH. In the process, EH created an important piece of textile history, as the coverlet is the oldest known dated example of patchwork in the British Isles. Today it’s one of the most treasured possessions of The Quilters’ Guild of Great Britain and the highlight of their collection of historic quilts. “It’s our star piece and is internationally significant,” says Heather Audin, curator at The Quilters’ Guild.

The coverlet’s importance lies in both its extreme age and its highly sophisticated design. Not only is it the oldest known dated example of patchwork in the UK, but it seems that it’s the oldest example of this type of patchwork in the world. There is a similar piece in the McCord Museum, Montréal, dated 1726, but it is much simpler in design, with the majority of the blocks following the same pattern of four joined triangles. “It doesn’t have the variety of motifs shown in our quilt,” says Heather, adding, “Ours is quite unique and no other patchwork from that period shows the same level of complexity or is so old.”

Given its age, you might be forgiven for thinking that the coverlet would be one of those museum treasures that is interesting historically but not particularly appealing to the non-specialist. However, EH’s coverlet – and we must be careful to call it a coverlet rather than a quilt as it isn’t actually quilted – is completely delightful, full of charming, often unexpected detail and rich colour combinations. Although the fabrics have faded (and sadly the black materials have almost completely disintegrated), the first impression is of warm, homely colours, with deep reds, golds, rich browns and clear sky blues dominating. At the centre there is a large block worked with an eight-point star, which draws the eye in, and this is surrounded by rows of smaller blocks with four larger blocks at each corner. It’s relatively small, measuring a modest 169cm x 185cm, but the variety of design and colour means that you want to take your time looking at it, ‘reading’ each different block in turn. “It’s an amazing piece,” says Heather. “When you get it out and look at it the first thing that strikes you is how small it is, but this makes it all the more special as the pieces are so intricate, and even though the colours have faded they still work so well together – it was clearly made by a very accomplished hand.”

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