Reviving the Art of Quilting

Quilting has seen a global revival in recent years. But just what is it about this ancient craft that appeals across the generations?

I've never made a quilt. But as the son of a quilter, the husband of a quilter, and the grandson-in-law of a quilter, I get it. I understand why people love quilting. And maybe one day, when I learn to take a break and treat myself a little, I'll make a quilt. 

One of my favourite quilts by the Gees Bend Quilters. Image courtesy of  Paulson Bott Press.

One of my favourite quilts by the Gees Bend Quilters. Image courtesy of Paulson Bott Press.

Quilting is Therapy

In a world of instant messaging, instant food, and instant gratification, quilting forces us to slow down and make time for our self. Like many repetitive, processed based crafts - knitting, crochet, and hand stitching - it contains therapeutic properties; allowing us to lose track of time and unburden our minds from everyday responsibilities. 

My mum, for example, used to teach quilting in prisons. Yes, grown, hardened men making quilts. Quilting is seemingly destructive at one point and at another completely restorative: the cutting into pieces followed by the stitching into something whole and beautiful. Perhaps this imagery holds some appeal for those 'doing time'. Or maybe it's the creative control that quilting gives them; something that they wish they had more of in their own situations.

This was certainly the case for the quilters of Gees Bend; a small African American community living in rural Alabama. Around the mid-20th century, they still lived in abject poverty and under social oppression, despite the civil rights movement. As the Daughters and Grand-daughters of plantation slaves, they had inherited the skills for using odds and ends to make quilts; a necessity with unheated shacks for homes. But despite this practical application, quilting was still creative catharsis: a form of self-expression for a people discarded. And the women would often sing hymns of redemption as they sewed.

Today the Quilters of Gees Bend have found international recognition. And their quilts are seen as modern masterpieces. You can watch their powerful story in this Emmy award winning film. 

A quilt from the  Quilters of Gees Bend .

A quilt from the Quilters of Gees Bend.

A quilt made of old shirts, ties and trousers. Image courtesy of Mamaka Mills.

Quilting is Personal & Memorable 

Another trait of the Gees Bend quilters was the practical use of what they had to hand. Without the money for new fabrics, they generally used scraps. And even today, some people who can afford new materials, are still making quilts in this way. Incorporating memories into something that will last a lifetime, or even beyond: the clothing scraps of a loved one, the baby clothes of a child now grown up, or the fabric stash of someone who's passed on. 

Even if your quilt doesn't incorporate memory fabrics, the whole thing is a memory. And the making of a quilt is a journey in itself. When you gift someone a quilt, you give them this journey, which most people come to treasure. My teenage nephews still cherish the quilts made for them as babies, and will probably hold on to them for the remainder of their lives. This goes against the grain in a culture where everything is throwaway and very few gifts make it past their first year of use. 

Quilting is Sociable & Rewarding

Some people quilt alone. But many people quilt in groups. When I was younger it was a sort of in-joke that my mum's quilting group didn't really get much quilting done. My best friend and I (his mother was a quilter also) thought that they should rename themselves according to their more obvious activities, which were drinking red wine and laughing uncontrollably. 

Therapeutic powers aside, this social aspect of quilting is another way in which quilting has health benefits. In my experience, quilting groups who come to The Stitchery, usually come out the other end feeling encouraged and having formed a bond with the other people on their course - the people they have journeyed with. And some groups still continue to quilt together to this day.

Many times people are surprised at what they have achieved during these class, discovering that they are in fact artists, and just needed a little encouragement. 

Layering up during one of our quilting courses. 

Layering up during one of our quilting courses. 

Some quilters from our course here at The Stitchery (actually this is from when we used to have the studio in our flat!)

Some quilters from our course here at The Stitchery (actually this is from when we used to have the studio in our flat!)

Contemporary quilts by Rachael Coghill of FOAK

Quilting is Traditional & Contemporary

Quilts will forever have warmth and comfort as their primary purpose. But today many people are experimenting with quilting as art, applying contemporary thinking to traditional techniques. One such artist is Rachael Coghill, our resident Quilting Instructor at The Stitchery. Her FOAK (First Of A Kind) collection includes wall hangings, one-off quilts, weavings and soft furnishings. Her colours are bold and experimental, and her use of quilting blocks is a modern twist on some well known techniques. 


Quilts made by our students from the Contemporary Quilting Course.

Rachel is our instructor for the Contemporary Quilting Course, where she gets to take a group of students on their very own journey of making a quilt. Along the way she introduces some modern colour theory and some unique ways of using traditional quilting blocks. The course is constructed in a way that encourages self expression through an element of design. And it purposely runs over several weeks, allowing each of our students the time they need for their own processes to take shape, and 3 hours each week to call their own and 

Quilting is All Around Me

Although I've never made a single quilt, my house is full of them. I even have one from Gees Bend, which must have cost a bob or two. I'm blessed to be surrounded by quilters. And my hope is that, by running these courses, more people will be too.