More than just the sum of their parts

Coverlet Elisabeth and John Chapman Kent c.1829 183.5x161.5cmV&A:T.428-1985
Elisabeth Chapman | Coverlet commemorating Wellington (detail) c.1829 | Cotton | Collection: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Gwendolyn Baker in memory of her husband, Stephen Baker | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sue Prichard, Curator of Contemporary Textiles at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (V&A), curated the V&A’s highly successful 2010 exhibition ‘Quilts: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories 1700–2010’ and is the curator of the Gallery’s ‘Quilts 1700–1945’. She was in conversation with Sally Foster, Assistant Curator International Art (pre 1975) QAGOMA.

Sally Foster | Sue, can I begin by asking you why you think patchwork quilts continue to resonate with audiences, even in the twenty-first century. Do you think that in addition to being beautifully handcrafted material objects, people relate on a personal level to them?

Sue Prichard | Absolutely, I think people have a very intimate connection with quilts. During the course of the [V&A’s ‘Quilts: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories 1700–2010’] exhibition, many people revealed that they remembered their grandmothers making quilts, saving scraps from childhood pyjamas or party frocks. These visual references help to prompt memories and often relate to feelings of warmth and security, possibly happier times. Quilts are also very tactile; they have an intimate connection with the body — sleeping under a quilt is a completely different experience from blankets, there is a heaviness and weightiness which again equates with warmth and security. I also think the ‘gifting’ of a handmade patchwork quilt is intensely personal, quite unlike something mass produced. I think that is why so many personal narratives are handed down with quilts; there is a sense of belonging not only to your immediate family but to your own history.

Sally Foster | Quilting is also a community-building activity. Doing a search online brings up an almost infinite number of websites devoted to it. In the lead up to the London exhibition, you were the author of a fantastic blog called ‘Sue Prichard – Quilts: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories 2009–10’, which chronicled various aspects of curating, from research to logistics to intensely personal stories.

Sue Prichard | I loved writing my blog! I knew that there was an enormous and very active on line community worldwide and I initially suggested writing the blog as a way of connecting with that community. However, I also wanted to present a very real and honest account of what curating an exhibition is like. My blog was a way of sharing that experience and going beyond the public face of the V&A — to go behind the doors marked ‘Private Staff Only’, if you like. The most wonderful thing about the blog was the fact that it wasn’t edited and I think people really did respond to the fact that I was so honest about both the highs and the lows.

Ann West | Coverlet or hanging 1820 | Wool patchwork and embroidered appliqué | Collection: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Acquired with the support of the Contributing and Life Members of the Friends of the V&A | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Sally Foster | For people who don’t work in large museums and galleries, I think it can be hard to understand what is involved in putting together an exhibition, particularly one of this size. You worked on the planning and research for the 2010 ‘Quilts’ exhibition for almost six years, but in your blog you wrote that, ultimately, the installation is ‘truly the best bit of any exhibition process’.

Sue Prichard | You’re absolutely right in saying that it is perhaps difficult for people to understand the process of putting together a major exhibition. Every curator at the V&A has to go through a number of checks and balances, defending why you have chosen specific themes and objects and ensuring that your ideas are sound. Throughout the planning stages of the exhibition you are constantly challenged to ensure that your exhibition is of the very highest standard — that it will be both academically rigorous and accessible to all our audiences. It can sometimes be quite hard to hold onto your original vision, but by the time you get to the installation process and you know that you are on the final leg — it’s just you, your exhibition installation team and the objects themselves. It’s the most amazing experience to actually see your vision come to life after being in your head for such a long time! It was also really interesting to work with the contractors who were quite bemused by the idea of a quilt exhibition — they kept calling it ‘the duvet show’; however, once I took them around and starting talking about the narratives behind the quilts, they became completely enthralled.

Sally Foster | I’m not surprised they came around — the quilts are stunning and the narratives in ‘Quilts 1700–1945’ are so strong, aided by the fact that you have arranged the works into four broadly chronological themes ‘The domestic landscape’, ‘Private thoughts, political debates’, Virtue and virtuosity’ and ‘Memories and emotions’. When you began to plan the exhibition did you have these themes in mind or did they reveal themselves to you as you gathered research and put the pieces together?

Sue Prichard I firmly believe in letting objects speak for themselves rather than impose a set of themes on them. At the start of my research I knew that I wanted to curate an exhibition about British quilt-making and also to focus on the V&A’s extraordinary historic collection, which had never been comprehensively catalogued or exhibited. Although the exhibition was roughly chronological, once I had my ‘A’ list I started to look at the oral narratives and histories which accompanied the acquisitions and realised that the objects fell naturally into thematic categories. For example, the collection of quilts which formed the basis of the ‘Private thoughts, public debates’ theme,1 were mostly created using popular print culture as inspiration, and illustrated an engagement by the makers with a world beyond the domestic sphere — a world of loyalty to the crown and nationalism, politics and popular culture. What I wanted to achieve was a sense that quilts were more than just the sum of their parts, and that their makers engaged in the act of making for various reasons, some of which will remain unknown, as indeed their makers are.

Sally Foster | Sue, finally, can you talk about the last section of the exhibition, ‘Memories and emotions’? It includes a number of patchwork quilts that appear quite ’humble’ in comparison with earlier, more elaborately worked and decorative pieces. How do you think they reflect on quilting and culture in the early twentieth century?

Sue Prichard | I think ‘Memories and emotions’ is really a celebration of the importance of making and what it means to the individual. I love the fact that Annie O’Hare (Pyjama coverlet 1940s) chose not to match up the stripes of her coverlet; it has immediacy and a vibrancy which is totally unique and refreshing. My grandmother taught me to sew and the importance of ‘make do and mend’, and there is sometime incredibly satisfying about creating your own clothes or domestic furnishings from the simplest of materials. Historically, the more modest ‘utility’ quilts have not survived — once their service as bed covers had ended, they would have been recycled within the home, possibly incorporated into new quilts before finally ending up as rags. We’re incredibly lucky that we have Annie’s coverlet and Elizabeth Magill’s patchwork coverlet in the exhibition (Patchwork of suiting fabrics and dress cottons 1930s): both pay homage to the importance of stitching in so many people’s lives. Today these skills are rarely taught at schools or within the home. This section is about the importance of self-sufficiency and community, the continuing relevance of ‘objects of emotion’ in our lives. My grandmother’s legacy — her love of stitching and the importance of her domestic landscape — lives on through me and my approach to the exhibition. I hope everyone feels inspired to go away and create their own heirlooms to hand down to future generations.

1 This section appears as ‘Private thoughts, political debates’ in the Brisbane exhibition.


Coverlet Elisabeth and John Chapman Kent c.1829 183.5x161.5cmV&A:T.428-1985
Elisabeth Chapman | Coverlet commemorating Wellington c.1829 | Cotton | Collection: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Gwendolyn Baker in memory of her husband, Stephen Baker | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Maker unknown | Coverlet with King George III reviewing the troops 1803-05 | Cotton | Collection: Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Given by Gertrude S Ferraby | © Victoria and Albert Museum, London