Last week I went to The American Museum in Britain, at Claverton Manor which is set on a slope overlooking a valley just outside the city of Bath. I know the museum well having visited it many times for the last 30+ years since I moved to the west of England. This occasion was organised for Textile Forum South West members specially to see the museum’s collection of Classic American Quilts as part of what seems to be the year of the quilt in Britain; the V&A museum is currently showing a large quilt and patchwork exhibition which I saw earlier in the year.
This smaller show is of traditional quilts only (held to celebrate the new book “Classic American Quilts from the American Museum” by Scala publishers and written by Kate Hebert the Collections Manager and Laura Beresford, curator) but coupled with the opportunity to see the quilt collection within the museum itself, it really is worth a visit before it closes on 31st October. The one thing about the museum which makes it stand out from others in this country is the quality of its staff, unfailingly friendly and polite even when telling you that you can’t take photographs, but knowledgeable to a remarkable degree about the entire museum.
One of the most interesting things about the quilts are the names given to them in the catalogue, which you can see on the museum’s website. Here the Hawaiian quilt in the classic exhibition has a truly remarkable title. As a visiting party we were given a very thorough guided tour from one of the quilt specialists, Judi Grant, she certainly knew the collection and its history well and even the quilt experts amongst us were impressed.
I particularly like crazy quilts as they are usually embroidered and several years ago I wrote and sampled a book called Crazy Patchwork, for the publishers Collins and Browne. To my delight I found a darning sample in one of the corners of this quilt, but because of the necessary low light levels needed to conserve the collection I have only got a very shaky picture from my hand held camera which was only permitted without the flash.
So this got me looking really carefully at everything else for signs of mending and darning. The guide had explained that the museum policy is to conserve but several of the quilts showed signs of mending, obviously made before the museum had acquired them. This 19th century wool quilt was very unusual for the amount of darned areas, it must have been highly valued by its owners to have kept repairing it and I imagine this was not just a case of necessity for it really is a beautiful textile; the soft and faded colours make harmonious patterns even though it is stained and worn.
While on my hands and knees trying to photograph the darns on this woolen quilt I found this tiny red heart appliqued in the left hand corner. Now who put that there for whom? I asked myself.
Now I had a mission for the rest of the collection – looking for mending….so off we walked to the manor house to see the main quilt collection and on my way up the stairs, I noticed this perfectly crafted stone repair.
The collection on view is apparently only a small proportion of all the quilts that are held and I recognised most of these quilts from earlier visits; sadly one of my favourite pieces is not photographed, either by me or by the museum for its own archives yet – a small patchwork that is tied together rather than quilted, it is made out of faded blue and white working clothes fabrics, denims, tickings and shirtings. It is the first piece that you see on the racks of quilts and it brings home to you just why this type of textile was first made – out of sheer necessity.
But onto a spectacular quilt with a spectacular name, the Tippecanoe and Tyler Too quilt, it is large and made of stars set in diamonds which are sashed and bordered with chintz prints, but even better from my point of view – a quarter of it has been cut and re- sewn together in a very curious patchwork.
The quilts are obviously my major reason to visit the museum so often as well as the various textile exhibitions they put on in the purpose built modern gallery, but it is also full of fine furniture, ceramics, stencilled rooms and a large ornate copy of the Declaration of Independence, which I particularly like as July 4th is my birthday.
However no visit is complete without sampling the brownies and cookies for sale in the stores and the terraced restaurant/tea rooms – not exactly a diner – but once on the terrace go to the small herb shop where tiny hand tied bunches of flowers are made and sold, called tussie-mussies they are exquisite and worth a blog all to themselves.