Ask a Curator Event - 16th September 2020

Published: Thursday, 17th September 2020 06:54 AM

Ask a Curator Event - 16th September 2020

On September 16th, curator of the The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection, Heather Audin took part in Ask a Curator (#askacurator), an annual global social media event which gives the public an opportunity to ask questions to museum professionals about their roles and Collections - throwing open the virtual doors to museums and storerooms that house our cultural heritage all over the world. We took part on two social media channels - The Quilters’ Guild Facebook page and on Instagram. There were lots of interesting questions asked and topics raised, and for those of you who missed the event or don’t take part in social media, you can read the questions posed by members of the public, and Heather’s responses below.

Q: At what point does vintage become antique and when should I stop using a vintage quilt and start thinking about preserving it?

A: I had to google your first question! I think it depends on the type of object you are talking about, and different people might judge things a little differently. I think both terms are not really used as much in the Museum world - we tend to call things by the era or decade they were made, or in more general terms we talk about contemporary and historic collections. In terms of your second question, that really is up to the individual. There are only so many historic examples of textiles that can be looked after by institutions like museums, and so it might be worth finding out first if the vintage/antique piece you have is particularly rare or unusual. This might influence your actions! Even if it isn't you could decide to keep it for your family to enjoy, and pass it down through the generations with its story. If you want to preserve it, you need to think about storing it in a dry place with a steady temperature, and keep it away from light and dust. Check it every now and again to make sure no nasty pests have worked their way in! Or, you can continue to use it, take care of it and enjoy it for the purpose it was created! Heather

Q: If you had a time machine, what question would you most like to go back and ask a quilter of the past?

A: I would love to ask Mary Prince, the maker of the Mary Prince Coverlet what really happened to the centre of her piece. This is a really beautiful mosaic patchwork coverlet made from printed cottons and dated 1803 in cross stitch. But the centre of the piece has fabrics made using a lapis dyeing technique that was only invented after 1811. We have speculated that perhaps the centre was damaged and a later, newer section replaced it. But what really happened - if anything - to the middle of the piece to account for this unusual construction? The outer fabrics are earlier in date, and normally the date indicates completion, unless the date commemorates something else? It has always intrigued me, and I would love to ask her!

Q: What would you say the attributes are for being able to fulfil your role?

A: Gosh, I haven't answered a question like this since my interview 12 years ago, which brings back nervous memories! I would say curators need to be approachable and friendly and have a deep rooted sense of the historical importance of the collections we look after. Our jobs are quite unusual really - we aren't looking after health or keeping the economy going, but we have an important role to play to contribute to mental health and positive leisure-time experiences, and we're the place that people come when they need a diversion from every-day life. Like other arts, it's an opportunity for escapism and creativity, and a chance to connect with our past to enrich the present. History is fascinating, and we love to share our passion about it with others so that they can share the same excitement and interest that we do. It's important for people to learn about the past but also enjoy it, so being able to get that across is a job well done.

Q: Where did they buy their beautiful fabrics?

A: Fabrics could be sourced in a number of ways, and as always it depends on how much money you have, where you live and your status in society. Fabrics were recycled from old dresses and furnishings, and we have plenty of evidence in the fabrics themselves to show lines of unpicked stitching or repeated washing. But, just like us, they would also buy fabrics - from the drapers or haberdashers, from travelling salesmen, from markets etc. You could buy offcuts ready for patchwork, and you could buy factory fents - end of rolls where the printing process hadn't quite worked and parts of the design are missing or mis-matched. And of course you could swap bits with family and friends. You could also get hold of sample swatches, and this would definitely be my preferred way - as they are already pre-cut into squares and rectangles!

Q: How did you get this amazing job? I really want to be a curator (especially in textiles) how would I achieve this? 😊

Working in Museums can sometimes be difficult to get in to, but there are lots of different routes in for those wanting to work in the heritage industry. Normally related qualifications are required (such as a degree and a post-grad degree - there are lots of different courses out there), lots of enthusiasm and experience in the way of voluntary work. Roles in museums have now greatly diversified, and the traditional role of curator is a bit narrower then what is increasingly required of museum professionals. There is an increased demand for digital based roles and using collections to engage with the public in a virtual and social media world. If you are interested in the conservation route, there are very specialist courses available for this. A good way to find out what prospective employers want is to look at job descriptions of current posts and see what they're asking for. It might give you some idea of the things you need to be looking at to move forward. Thanks for your question, and best of luck for your future, Heather

Q: What is the earliest quilt you’ve seen that was pieced on a machine rather than by hand?

A: That's a very good question! Sometimes it is quite hard to see if it was machine or hand pieced, especially when they have backs and are fully quilted. It's also tough because some of the fashionable and popular patchwork styles, which are predominantly made in the late 19th century when machines were very definitely a common feature of most households, are mosaic patchwork which has to be done by hand and can't be done my machine. From memory (and not being anywhere near the collections today to check!), i think there are definitely some made in the 1880s, and I remember seeing a log cabin piece where the machine stitching could be viewed on the reverse. We also have a lovely double sided piece that dates from the 1880s-1900s which has mosaic patchwork on one side and machine stitched rectangular patchwork on the reverse - so it is a mixture of both. We find that many of our quilts also have machine stitched edges - the edges have been butted in and then a (sometimes wobbly!) double row of machine stitches is sewn around the outside. This is true even of beautiful hand quilted wholecloth pieces. We do also have some examples of early attempts at machine quilting from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They aren't hugely successful when compared with hand-quilted pieces, as the machine must have struggled with the thick layers, but they are interesting from an historical point of view.

Q: How are the quilts stored? Does the room need to be temperature controlled, and do you need to air the quilts on a rotating basis to make sure they’re ok?

A: Hi and thanks for your question. The Quilts are all kept in an environmentally monitored storeroom, where the temperature and relative humidity (%RH) is controlled - as best as it can be. The key to good storage conditions is stability, as fluctuations cause expansion and retraction which can be harmful. Many of the quilts are folded, though our more fragile pieces (or those contemporary pieces with a lot of surface decoration or painted techniques, are rolled). They are folded with acid free tissue paper between the layers and rolls of acid free tissue supporting each fold to help prevent creasing. Objects are checked periodically, and then folded a different way back into their boxes, which are made from conservation grade acid free cardboard. Unless the quilts are very small, they usually have a box to themselves, and once all that padding is added they can easily fill a large box! Getting quilts out of storage and putting them away again can be a lengthy process - and a large workspace is also needed to be able to do this properly!

Q: Here are my questions: What qualities in a quilt make you desperate to buy it for the collection? Do you have to consult with others before buying a piece? Are there quilts in private collections that you feel strongly would be better held in the Museum Collection? And if there are, why?

A: We are very much governed by our focussed Collections policy in terms of what to acquire for The Quilters' Guild Museum Collection, and the great strength of our Collection is the breadth and variety of patchwork and quilting history it represents. We are therefore always looking to fill gaps that are not represented, looking at rare pieces, those that don't survive as well as others, or those techniques that were perhaps less popular and harder to find. Most of our items come to us through donation, so if we are going to spend out money and purchase something it has to be really unusual and rare - unfortunately that often means that it is attractive to other buyers too - so it's a bit of a catch 22! Yes I definitely don't make acquisitions decisions on my own (especially if it means I am let loose with the budget!), but this is pretty standard of public collections. We have a committee of around 12 people and we decide on new items for The Collection together. Each person has a different area of expertise in quilt history and education, and that way we get a rounded decision from several viewpoints. It also prevents one person's personal area of interest or love of a particular style dominating and side-tracking The Collection. I'm sure there are many beautiful and wonderful quilts in private Collections, and I would love to have them all! But we have limited space and resources for everything, which is a great shame. Of course the good thing about a publicly held collection is that it is available for public research and viewing (albeit with appointments required). As a museum curator of course I am always in favour of items being donated to museums for inclusivity and accessibility, and in the knowledge that it will be cared for under certain rules and standards. But it can be said that private collectors also have their role to play in preservation too.

Q: I know we love all quilts but for you personally what is your favourite quilting style? 😃

A: Do you mean just quilting, or patchwork as well? For me, I love mosaic patchwork. Partly because I can actually do it (well, hexagons anyway!) and also because it's slow and requires hand sewing and neatness. I love seeing the amazing hand sewn paper-pieced coverlets of the early 19th century, and the fact that they get all the shapes to fit together like a jigsaw is just amazing. I bow down to their skills! In terms of quilting, I prefer hand-quilted to machine-quilted, but I certainly appreciate the machine quilting skills on contemporary works. Least favourite patchwork - probably the Suffolk Puff. Sorry to any Suffolk Puff enthusiasts out there - it's not personal!

Q: What are you looking for next to add to the collection?

A: Mostly it works in reverse, so looking at what is offered or comes up at auction and seeing if it fills any gaps. In terms of our gaps in the Collections Policy, we have identified that we could be stronger on 18th century pieces, community project pieces based on significant events and social activities, items from notable makers and teachers in the field from the last 30 years, contemporary fashion featuring patchwork, quilting and applique and work from leading miniature quilt artists.

Q: What is your least favourite piece of conservation work?

A: Do you mean that has been done, or to actually do myself? Mosaic patchwork with teeny tiny pieces are tough to put the netting over, as they need small pieces of netting which are difficult to handle and by their nature difficult to see! They blend in too well! Let me know if you meant something else and I can add another response.

Q: Some time ago I was given a bag of antique patchwork. I think I told you about it at the time, and you kindly gave me advice on how to look after it! The person who gifted this to me didn’t know anything about its history, I believe it had also been gifted to her. The papers include stamps and handwriting - there’s also extra papers that have been cut ready, and pieces of fabric that were going to be used next. I’d love to do my own research into it one day, even just to age it and find out more about the fabrics - I think finding the maker is unlikely! My question is, when you have very little to go on, other than the piece itself, where do you even begin your research? And what is your opinion on the discussion as to whether it’s better to leave antique pieces exactly as they are, or whether it’s a shame that after so much hard work they were never finished?

A: It can be tough to try and start from nothing, and it's difficult to know where to start. If you have nothing else to go on then you have to start with the piece itself. The fabrics and style will help with an initial idea of date. Some fabrics were only created using those dyes from a specific point in time, and certain patchwork styles went in and out of fashion at different times too. With Mosaic patchwork, the papers being left in is a great bonus and of great interest, although they don't always yield as much information as you would hope! You have to compare it to other pieces of a similar type to investigate where it fits in the historic timeline and how it relates to them. The papers might give you a clue to the makers’ education and social standing, as will the fabrics to some extent. The question of finishing them off is a tough one! And I think it has to be an individual choice! There are many of these types of pieces in existence, so they are not necessarily rare, but there is a feeling that they shouldn't be altered and should be preserved in their current state. My personal opinion is do what you feel has most value and interest, and what you feel most comfortable with. The learning process in working on historic textiles can be fascinating and add so much to our appreciation of these historic makers. Good luck with finishing it if you decide to do that - and document it along the way so you can share the experience and the journey!

Q: For quilts where the name of a quiltmaker is known, with the approximate date, what are the most common ages for the quiltmaker at the time of making?

That's a really interesting question and it would be something that I'd like to find out more about, even if just for fun! I think we have a fair representation of quilts being made in all stages of life. I've just done a quick random sample of pieces I know the details of. Agnes Bentham made this quilt in her 30s, the maker of the Farne Islands quilt was in her late 40s, and Mary Dennis made her stunning Mariner's Compass patchwork at some time in her 20s. This lovely patchwork was made by Jessie Richman in her 68th year. Just like now, I think people made pieces throughout their lives whenever time and circumstances permitted.

Q: I would also like to know whether there is a convention of whether the female maker of an item is referred to by her maiden name or married name if it is unclear which she was using when the quilt was made. I know who made this large patchwork coverlet in my own collection, and have chosen to refer to her as Harriet Yeatman (her maiden name), rather than by any of her three married names, partly because it is simpler, and partly because the fabrics fit her younger life (she was born in 1867). I suspect that this was made in preparation for her first marriage in 1889.

A: I suppose in most cases you would probably refer to her married name with the (nee [insert maiden name]), but I can see how it would get confusing, especially when she married three times. For this instance, if I was writing a label I would probably do what you have done, and refer to her maiden name as the piece was most likely made in her youth. As a matter of interest if you were talking about her life generally you could mention that she went on to marry three times and had so many children etc, but it might depend on the focus of the article or label/interpretation.

Q: I asked because in the USA there seems to be the idea of making a certain number of quilts as a dowry before marriage - but I've always thought that this was perhaps a rather isolated part of a bigger picture. Having a large number of children probably did limit the time available for elaborate quilts for working class women, but it would be interesting to document this properly.

A: Yes indeed, a proper documentation would be interesting, and I guess there are always the red herrings and the presumptions too - the stories that come from the families about it being made in preparation for marriage but was in fact just made, or made at another point in their life. I definitely second the comment about having limited time once you start a family. My sewing progresses at a painfully slow rate....!

Q: Do you keep a record of country of origin of the quilts? UK v. USA for instance but also within the UK? We hear a lot about Welsh quilting - but very little about Scottish or Irish. Also a breakdown for different areas of England. Thank you.

A: We only collect British quilts, so any pieces made outside Britain don't fall under our collecting policy. And then the rest of the information is really what is passed on from the donor or what we can tell from the traditional or characteristic style of the piece. For those donations which are family pieces, we always try and get as much information as possible, although they don't always know where pieces and which side of the family it has come from. Other items are donated to us by people who have been passed them by friends, or bought them in charity shops and jumble sales, so we don't know anything about their origin. Welsh and North Country quilts are often referred to as their wholecloth quilt motifs are very distinctive as from that region, and so their geographical location of origin can be guessed without even knowing anything of the maker. Other patchwork quilt styles are not set to a particular region, and so without the knowledge of the provenance we're not able to guess where it was made. West Country quilting and Hawick area of the Scottish borders are also two other areas sometimes referred to.

Q: If you want to make a quilt like for instance the Red Manor Coverlet, just for your own use and pleasure, do you got to have permission from the Museum?

A: No you don't need permission from us to create, or recreate a museum piece for your own use and enjoyment. If you wish to use our original images in publication or social media or design and create a commercial product based on an item in our Collection then you would need permissions and a licencing agreement. Thanks for your question.

Q: Is there an item or type of item that you would really love to add to the collection - no expense spared. (Sorry, not offering to buy it for you!)

Aw, I was getting all excited then! I love 18th century pieces, so a complete quilted 18th century gown would be my idea of ultimate heaven! I'd also love a corded 1830s corset too. But I think there are also so many unusual and one-off pieces out there that you don't necessarily know even exist until they come up. It's always interesting to see how creative quiltmakers have been in the past.

Q: Thank you Heather! 18th century corded work is beautiful. Can I ask another question? What is your opinion about washing 'old' quilts both as a curator and from your own point of view.

It's a scary thing to do! I don't think I would ever be brave enough with a large quilt, although I have washed some small historic (costume) pieces that were part of my own collection to try and improve their appearance and get rid of some grime. As a curator, I would say if it can be done safely to improve its condition, therefore preservation and longevity, then that is a good thing. For us that would mean using a professional conservator. It's scary if not, as it could go wrong, and that is a big responsibility for a publicly owned collection piece. For a private collection, the risk falls on the owner and how comfortable they feel doing it. If you are going to do, then do some research and do it as correctly as you can, and accept that there could be some damage as a result of the cleaning process if it doesn't quite go to plan!

Thank you to everyone who took part in this event. We look forward to doing this again next year!