Sunday, 12 May 2013

about PATCHWORK ...

I love patchwork, I love looking at patchwork and pictures of patchwork. I have stacks of magazines and books and I watch youtube clips on making patchwork. I have made patchwork from fabric and wool and paper. You can stitch, knit, crochet, glue, carve, plant, cement or nail a patchwork.  You can buy fake patchwork with the patches printed onto fabric but real patchwork is made of small pieces or patches, joined together following a set design, or strips of fabric joined and re-cut and joined again. New designs and patterns are constantly being made and with endless variations it would be most unusual for a quilt to be repeated exactly.

This is a small section of a Bargallo quilt, made for me by my friend Alison.
It's an example of how beautiful patchwork can be.

Decorating with mosaic tiles is a bit like patchwork, as is laying a patterned pathway or planting a flower garden in a particular design but we usually associate the word patchwork with sewing fabric. And that brings up the image of quilts - as many quilts are made of patchwork, which is why they are called patchwork quilts. There are other quilts,  'whole cloth' quilts that are not patchwork at all.

Crochet squares.
Back in the days when my fingers and wrists were nimble, and I could successfully multi-task, I crocheted many small squares and circles from different coloured wool or cotton, and joined these pieces to make patchwork shawls and baby blankets and waistcoats. Thousands of women of all ages around the world do the same, some of them creating amazing works of art in wool, just with their fingers and one little hook or with two knitting needles.

I made my first patchwork on a hand operated Singer sewing machine in the corner of the kitchen.  It was a blanket for the very large rag doll I had also stitched on that machine. The sewing machine had been owned by a great aunt and passed on to my grandmother who gave it to me. Two years later, when she saw I was into sewing, she gave me her more modern machine which was operated by pressing a bar with the knee.  It was another Singer, one of the first electric machines and it only went forward, no back stick and certainly no zigzag.

I used that machine to make dolls and doll clothes, then all my clothes for 20 years. I've also carried it with me around Australia and it was only recently I discovered the wooden outer had disintegrated. It didn't like being left under the house for the last eight years.  In 1972 I made a full layette, including the bassinet liner and blankets for my first child. My first patchwork bed cover, not quilted, for my baby daughter was made of flannelette squares in pastel lemon, pink and mauve.  Each lemon square was decorated with an embroidered cuddly animal and the backing was white spotted mauve flannelette. Very pretty, and as it turned out, not very practical. The washing machine wore out the flannelette in a few years. 

My 38 year old UFO
Around that time I started looking for books about patchwork - not too many around in those days, but I did find some illustrated history books. So, by the time my daughter was three I had finished a bedspread for her, also not quilted, of hand stitched hexagons - my own design of a tree surrounded by flowers. It had taken me a long time to make even though the hexagons were huge - I did have a young child to look after and a part time job and I'll repeat... hand stitched. Each piece was cut out with scissors and stitched over a cardboard shape before being hand stitched together and the cardboard removed.  We used it but it's never been finished. When I found it recently it looked like the work of a child, possibly because the fabrics were off cuts of other things, not pretty new fashion fabrics specially chosen.  It could be worth fixing, but I'd be tempted to change so much it might not be a good idea.  Quilters and patchworkers call these unfinished projects UFOs.

This blog post is about my mistakes and, as usual, my search for understanding. The quilts I have kept are the those with memories or the experiments, so this is certainly not a display of amazing craft work.  I have a passion for understanding how things came to be the way they are - origins, history, stories all fit into that. But, with my investigation into patchwork and quliting, I didn't look for the source at first, but worked backwards from my own fumbling attempts to translate ideas into fabric.

When I did look at patchwork patterns, I was delighted to discover it could all be done on the sewing machine.  About this time my stepmother bought a new sewing machine and in a moment of unusual generosity for her, she gave me her old machine - rather than trade it in.

Patchwork begins with small pieces, squares, strips or triangles. These are sewn together in a certain pattern to create a block. The blocks are stitched together in rows to make the 'top'. This can be surrounded by one or more borders and finally bound to the backing fabric by a folded strip called the binding. In between the top and the backing a layer of wadding is usually added for bulk and warmth.  I didn't know all this. 

Even though sewing machines were passed around in the family I don't remember anyone, other than me, ever sewing.  Mum and my grandmother taught us to knit and I taught myself to crochet. No one knew about patchwork. There were no classes that I knew of, and I'd never seen a patchwork/quilting magazine. All I had were library books. Being unfamiliar with terms like piecing and blocks and sashing and with a dislike for following patterns I learnt by looking at the pictures and working out for myself how the blocks went together. I made some silly mistakes and did everything the hard way. Now I know there are short cuts and tips to make it much easier, but back then I actually cut a tiny triangle and stitched it to another tiny triangle to make a square.

When my little girl went to preschool I made a sampler bedspread. The idea is to work on different patterns as a 'sample' piece.  Samplers are also used to show off stitching skills. The blocks are separated by strips of fabric, called sashing, so the patterns can be seen better. Most sampler quilts are very simple, like mine, which had 6 designs on 12 large blocks, but some can be real show off pieces for piecing and quilt stitches.

I sold my sampler at a school fete and was given orders for more.  At this stage I'd still not done any quilting, my pieces were just bedspreads with no filling - though everyone called them quilts.  A friends husband worked for a textile wholesaler and he organised for me to get some fabric samples - most 2 or 3 yard lengths.  I soon found that the fabric 'made' the finished product. It's a huge investment though, so I bought a roll of plain calico and a roll of light weight denim (not stretch in those days) and designed my quilts around those fabrics.

The 35 year old checkerboard calico quilt
I continued making and selling my counterpanes (old fashioned word for bedspread).  I was amazed because I didn't think they were very good but people liked them and were happy to pay me. Before long I had 'quilts' on consignment in two shops and was selling and taking orders through a market stall. At the same time I was involved in making leather handbags and belts at home - hand made leather items were all the rage and we could hardly keep up with the demand at times.

One of my early quilts, made around 1978, was just a checker board of squares backed with calico. I had clued up on the wadding by that time so it was properly filled, but instead of binding I put a calico frill around the edge. There was no quilting but I 'tied' it by stitching through the three layers in the corners of the patches and tying that off in a knot. I still have that quilt. It's wearing thin and one day I plan to add new filling and quilt it properly.

Finally I made a red quilt, for my daughter. It was properly pieced, filled and bound but the quilting wasn't the best and some seams have pulled open. This quilt was passed down to my granddaughter, but I have if back now for repairs, which I hope to get to soon, and maybe a great granddaughter will use it one day. 

The red quilt - well used, torn and stained and in need of repair

This was followed by countless patchwork cushions, shopping bags, dressing gowns, rag dolls and other toys as well as the odd quilt. Living in the cold climate of the Blue Mountains, NSW, I had plenty of inside time to fill and this was in the days before computers, internet and facebook. 

When my first son arrived I made boy clothes, especially overalls, which I could draw on, paint or decorate with braid. My little boy came with me to markets and people began asking about his overalls.  I was a bit bored with the patchwork by then so began to make children's clothes instead. I'm a terrible craft worker, always distracted by something new and not very interested in repeating what I've done before.  It's really the design process that interests me.

Years later, still looking at pictures and reading about patchwork I fell in love with the plain fabric Amish quilts and Seminole patchwork patterns. By then I had two growing boys. I made them Seminole style quilt covers, rather than quilts, and this worked well for us. I bought the fabrics from a Sheridan sheet outlet, so it was very good quality cotton. When I pulled them out from the cedar chest this week to take these photos I found them in perfect condition despite ten years of heavy use and longer than that in storage.

The boys quilts with details of the Seminole style patterns.

I also love crazy or scrap patchwork, which includes as many fabrics as possible in more random arrangements, along with embroidery and embellishments. I am very proud of my prize winning crazy patchwork duck. It was my first crazy project and, just for fun, I entered it into the patchwork section of the local Show .... and it won!  It won the overall prize and I was stunned - usually my work is experimental and more naive than professional so this was amazing. The fabrics were mostly curtain samples, I used different types of lace, some of it very old and I used a piece of leather for the beak and it was the beak that got attention and made the whole piece.  

The crazy patchwork duck with details.

Eventually I learnt to quilt, by hand and by machine. Stitching together three layers, a top, a layer of batting and the backing,  is called quilting and the quilting stitches often follow very involved and lovely patterns - one area I've never gone into.  These days most quilts are made of patchwork but before patchwork was developed they were whole cloth quilts. 

Egyptian sailing boat
During those years of my experiments in patchwork I was also reading about the history of patchwork and quilting, the culture that has grown around it and the language within the craft.  Way back in ancient Egypt patchwork was used to make sails for fishing boats on the River Nile - I find that very interesting. As I've also done a little (and I mean tiny little) bit of weaving I understand that the size of the loom limits the size of the cloth. If you want a big piece of cloth you take the lengths from the loom and sew them together to make a wider piece - and that would be patchwork, of a sort.

Remnants of patchwork have been found in ancient China and illustrations show that it was probably practiced in other cultures as well, but as fabric doesn't survive like pottery, we can't know for sure. Some people might think that patchwork was invented in America, but the craft was taken to America by early settlers from Europe. Who knows when or where it began, the birth of patchwork was a matter of women saving precious scraps of fabric from worn out clothing. Old skirts and shirts were cut down to fit children and any leftover patches were stitched together for head coverings, blankets, draft stopping curtains or small decorative items. Fabrics made by working people may have been rough and hand dyed but when anything is hard to get, or expensive, it becomes precious.  I love that it came from need, became a handcraft and is now preserved as art.

Those who could afford softer fabrics often had clothing decorated with embroidery, lace and beading.  From about the 12th century traders brought painted and printed fabrics from India, but the dye wasn't always reliable and it was expensive so was mainly used as decorative wall hangings. By the end of the 17th century printed linen and calico was produced in France and Germany, but working people didn't have access to cheap printed cloth until after the industrial revolution, early in the 19th century, and this was in the form of printed calico flour sacks. Bread was baked at home and the sacks washed, opened up and made into clothing. In America the flour producers deliberately used floral printed calico for their sacks, to attract the housewife. What did not go into petticoats and skirts became patchwork bed covers.

Here in Australia my great grandmother, Annie Morehead, made a new petticoat for each of her six daughters, every year. They were made from bleached flour sacks or sugar bags. No pretty flowers though, just the product name printed on the calico. Any leftover scraps were saved to use in quilts. pillows or as bandages.

Gradually patchwork designs developed to make use of different coloured and patterned  fabrics. Designs travelled the world, were copied and adapted, given names and meanings and we arrive at the patchwork phenomenon we know today.  It's a huge industry.  There are now millions of fabric designs and colours to make into millions of patterns.  The original idea of using salvaged fabrics is long gone and today's patchworkers buy new fabric to cut up.

Patchwork has a vocabulary, a history with special museums, local and international shows and competitions, university degrees, folk tales, an industry in publishing and fabric sales - even super star pattern and fabric designers.

A quilt made with pre-cut fabric squares,
which also means pre-chosen by the manufacturer.
And, Patchwork has risen from a craft to an art form. Works are embellished with beads, embroidery, other fabrics and feathers or hand dyed and hand painted. Patterns can be traditional, scrappy or even free form. Landscapes and portraits are made in patches and new processes of printing at home enables us to print our photos onto fabric, our favourite poetry or personal messages. Today you don't even have to cut your fabric as precuts are sold in rolls of strips or packs of squares, to enable a bulk buy that includes several different patterns, and with such unfabric-ey names as jelly rolls, charm packs or bundles of fat quarters.

Patchwork can also incorporate appliqué, which is stitching a fabric shape over the top of a base fabric, a little like sewing a patch over a worn area, but decoratively. Appliqué designs can be very elaborate and have been found as part of folk art across the world, from Africa to Egypt to South America.

This appliqué piece was made in Egypt - by a man, as this is an industry for tourists now and not suitable for women in that culture. Men run the stalls and stitch while waiting for customers. I recognised the story above as a fable often called, The man, the boy and the donkey.  Originally by Aesop there are different versions of the story from different places. The original version ended with the donkey falling off a bridge and drowning - not nice - so I prefer this version from Switzerland. It doesn't match exactly with the design but almost.

A man was riding home on his donkey, while his boy walked beside them. 

A traveller passing by said, "Father, it is not right for you to ride while you make your boy walk. You have stronger limbs."

So the father climbed off the donkey and let his son ride. 

Another traveller came along and said, "Boy, it is not right for you to ride while you make your old father go on foot. You have younger legs."

So they both mounted the donkey and road on a little way. 

A third passer by and said, "How stupid! Two fellows on one weak animal. Someone should take a stick and knock you off its back!"

So they both climbed off, and all three went along on foot, the father and son left and right, and the donkey in the middle. 

A fourth traveller came along and said, "You are three strange companions. Isn't it enough if two of you were to go on foot? Wouldn't it be easier if one of you would ride?"

So the father tied the donkey's front legs together, and the son tied its back legs together. Then they put a strong pole that was lying beside the road through its legs and carried the donkey home on their shoulders.

That's how far it can go if one tries to please everyone.

                                                       ---------------- FIN ----------------

Working with hexagons

A watercolour patchwork landscape

Patchwork waistcoat

Patchwork garden


  1. Janine Thanks for that really interesting article. I have never thought about the history of patchwork. Although I knew about the Amish using patchwork and thought that was the beginning of patchwork.
    I have always been fascinated about how you can place individual bits of fabric and get such a beautiful quilt.

  2. Interesting article and a lot of pictures


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