Hi, welcome to String Revolution. I'm Léan, I live in Dublin with my husband and two little boys, and I am a dangerous stringy subversive.
My job is to radiate my creative truth, and to help you radiate yours. I create, without exception, every day. I write here when I have something to say.

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Quilts 1700-2010 at the V&A: Review

Fat quarters by Liberty for the Quilts 1700-2010 exhibition

A week after my visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum‘s current exhibition, Quilts 1700-2010 (which, as you see above, occasioned the purchase of some fat quarters, oh yes!), my abiding memories are of shape.

Scallops on an incredible set of chintz bed hangings that opens the exhibition. Feathered quilting on an eighteenth-century wholecloth quilt. Squares and circles, stripes and triangles, stars made of diamonds. Hexagons from Wandsworth Prison and from a WW2 internment camp in Singapore, and their frighteningly tiny cousins sewed by a wounded soldier in (as it might be) the Crimea.

The exhibition is divided into five sections, which are broadly chronological.

The Domestic Landscape is a collection of eighteenth-century bed coverings and cot quilts. I lingered longest over the bed hangings linked above, and an incredibly fine appliquéd and embroidered quilt, which was displayed on a wall so that I could see the stitching in detail.

Private Thoughts – Political Debates consists of nineteenth-century quilts, many featuring printed or stitched representations of current events – such as a fabulously jingoistic quilt with scenes from the Napoleonic Wars.

I particularly like the way they’ve displayed one unquilted top, which still has papers and tacking in it: they’ve set it up on a temporary wall, and they’ve cut away parts of the wall behind it so that you can see both sides.

Virtue and Virtuosity shows how quilting functioned in the public sphere in the nineteenth century. It’s full of Stern and Improving quilts, featuring scenes from the Bible and similar.

By this point in the exhibition I was somewhat glazed, but I did pause to take in one enormous quilt, in military colours, made by a wounded soldier – its thousands of hexagons can’t have been more than half an inch across. I hope it helped him.

Making a Living records the importance of quiltmaking to depressed regions of early twentieth-century Britain. There are a few audio recordings giving fascinating glimpses into that world, but the quilts themselves largely left me cold, I must admit.

Meeting the Past looks at the role of a quilt as the repository of memory. There’s a strong theme of imprisonment running through this section: the Rajah Quilt, made by female convicts on their way to Australia in 1841; a quilt made by teenage girls in a WW2 internment camp, from pieces of their clothes; an art quilt made by inmates in Wandsworth Prison.

Earlier quilts in the exhibition delighted me, but many of the pieces in this final section strongly moved me as well. The Wandsworth Prison quilt is accompanied by a short video, which I ended up watching two or three times. The quilt itself I found stunning.

The hexagons in that quilt, by the way, are inspired by the central section of the prison building, which is hexagonal – panopticon style. I was struck by the fact that both the interned girls in Singapore and the wounded nineteenth-century soldier also chose hexagons for their quilts. Coincidence, presumably, but I wonder if the similarity occurred to the exhibition curators too?

Throughout the exhibition, the antique quilts are interspersed with twentieth- and twenty-first-century works. Many of these didn’t impress me particularly, but I did rather like Tracey Emin’s piece, which closes the exhibition – an installation of a bed draped with various textiles, some stitched with words. (I do love me some stitched words.)

I have one quibble with the curators, which is that in too many cases the quilts were displayed on bed-shaped blocks. This was no doubt authentic, given that they were bed covers, but it also left them frustratingly distant. More than once I tripped the alarm beams by leaning in to get a better look at the stitching – oops!

Overall verdict? Loved it. Go and see it, if you can. It’s on until the 4th of July.

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