It’s taken me a while to appreciate the art of the quilt. When I was young, I associated quilts with infants, women’s groups, and the olden days—none of which interested me very much. Quilts didn’t feature prominently in my family, though two stand out now. My mother made a quilt for her grandchild, my brother’s daughter. It was the only one she ever made, but it’s beautiful, a geometric masterwork in hues of pink (her favourite colour). In my New Zealand home, I have only one quilt with family connections: a lap quilt, given to me by my older sister after her wedding. It was one of ten or so made by a group of ladies at my sister’s church from the colourful fabric used as tablecloths at the wedding reception. Composed of five-inch squares of pink, purple and yellow flowers with a pretty lilac backing, it’s a lovely memento of an important day in our family’s history. And, on cold New Zealand evenings, it’s also useful: it’s wrapped around me as I type this.
I started coming round to the artistic side of quilting last year, on a visit to my home state, Nebraska. I was in Lincoln for a conference, and there was a reception at the university’s International Quilt Study Center & Museum. Housed in a striking, twenty-first-century building—not the setting you’d expect for the homiest of textiles—the core collection offers a history of the American quilt, from the earliest decades of the republic to the present day. In recent years, the museum has added works from some fifty countries, gradually broadening its collection’s focus from national to international. Having grown up an hour north in Omaha, and having too often imagined my state as a parochial backwater, I was quite moved by the museum’s global outlook and its celebration of a household craft as versatile art form. It made me ponder how hard it is to see the wonders in one’s own back yard—or, in this case, front parlour. There were space quilts and avant-garde pieces, demonstrating how the quilt has become a canvas for contemporary artists. Not surprisingly, however, quilts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries most appealed to me: works that commemorated not only personal or family stories but also national history. I began to think that there isn’t a better artistic metaphor for the encounter of memory, family, and nation.
And migration. For what else is a traditional quilt but the fragments of previous lives, worn out and no longer sustainable, now reassembled and stitched together to create a new whole for a new life? This idea came home to me last November, when I visited “Making the Australian Quilt 1800–1950” at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The exhibition brought together some eighty quilted objects— bed covers, of course, but also rugs, tea cosies, and dresses—that reveal an important thread running through Australia’s immigrant history. As I wandered through the exhibition, early quilts, reflecting colonial Australia’s ties to Britain, gradually ceded space to works that celebrate native flora and fauna. The British lion made way for the Australian kangaroo; ANZAC mementoes replaced Queen Victoria. A large room celebrated the wagga, an Australian patchwork blanket made from grain bags and coloured with fabric scraps, while the final works suggested the belated influence of American tastes on Australian quilters.
Any visitor to the exhibition must have been struck by a central paradox: these intricate, idiosyncratic objects, made to be spread across a loved one’s bed or wrapped around one’s shoulders, will never again be used the way their makers intended them to be used. Of course, collectible quilts are not so unusual in this sense: think of all the Christian devotional paintings, the Buddhist or Hindu religious sculptures removed from churches, grottos or temples, now displayed in museums, utterly out of their intended context. But it seems especially regrettable (if necessary) with quilts: objects meant, above all else, to be touched.
The most famous object displayed in the exhibition—perhaps the most famous textile in Australia—was the Rajah quilt. This remarkable work, roughly eleven square feet in size, was created by British and Irish convict women on their three-month journey aboard the Rajah from Woolwich (east of London) to Hobart in the colony of Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania) in 1841. As I noted in a previous article, the British began dispatching convicts to their colony of New South Wales in 1788. By the time the last transport ship arrived in January 1868, more than 160,000 convicts on over 800 ships had been carried from Britain to the Australian colonies. The practice was slowing down by the time the Rajah brought 179 women to their new homes. Indeed, transportation to New South Wales had stopped altogether in 1840. Increasing numbers of free settlers were finding their way south, and these new colonists did not want convicts for neighbours.
In this unwelcoming climate, it was all the more important for new arrivals to have employable skills. The Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845) attempted to aid convicted women, teaching them patchwork while they awaited transportation in London prisons, and giving them supplies to create quilts during their long voyage. By the time they arrived, they would have honed their needlecraft skills and also produced quilts to sell. Though Fry and her assistants helped thousands of women from 1817 to 1843, the Rajah quilt is the only known survivor of this grand programme.
Perhaps this isn’t so surprising. Since they weren’t family mementoes, the quilts would have been sold to strangers who put them to use and wore them out. And, given the stigma long attached to transportation, the creators of such beautiful objects would have probably preferred to avoid such questions of husbands, children or grandchildren like, “Where did you learn such skills?” and “When did you have the time to complete such an elaborate quilt?”
The Rajah quilt is something of an exception, too, since it was no common quilt. Upon arrival in Hobart, the women of the Rajah presented it to Jane, Lady Franklin, the wife of Sir John Franklin, a famous Arctic explorer and, from 1837 to 1843, the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land. Soon afterwards, it disappeared from view and was only rediscovered in Scotland in 1987, when the National Gallery of Australia acquired it.
In some ways it seems unfortunate that a grand presentation quilt is the sole survivor of Fry’s remarkable enterprise, since the work was done to empower poor migrant women and to offer them a new life from the fragments of an old one—not to create display pieces for their wealthy transient patrons. In other ways, the Rajah quilt stands as an extraordinary vestige of, not one family or nation, but the British empire: created by a group of impoverished British and Irish women as a gift to the wife of a celebrated British explorer, decorated with flowers, birds, and geometric designs that suggest a Persian rug, carried on a ship whose name refers to a king or prince of India.
What did the makers think of their achievement? When I look at the Rajah quilt, I imagine a group of strangers, sitting together in the poorly lit hold of a crowded ship, thinking with regret of a homeland they would never see again, anxiously anticipating a new life on the other side of the globe. Perhaps as they pulled needle through fabric they told their life stories and made friendships that lasted for years. Perhaps they felt anger and injustice as they created a masterpiece for a privileged couple whom they had never met, and would probably never meet as equals. Experts say that small stains on the Rajah quilt may have come from pinpricked fingers, and that errors in the stitching suggest the work of novice makers. I’d like to think that those imperfections suggest humanity, individuality, and maybe just a flash of rebellion.
These are not the usual emotions we associate with quilts, and this is one of the reasons why the Rajah quilt is such a remarkable and ambiguous work. It suggests the rich possibilities of the medium, and it challenges us to look again at the handmade objects around us.
The quilts in my life have no such ambiguity stitched into them. When I think of the quilt my mother made for her granddaughter, I think I know how love can be transposed into material form. And when I feel my sister’s quilt around my shoulders, I think of the affection the makers felt for her and her husband, and the pleasure these women felt in getting together to share, talk, and argue while making something beautiful. As I wrap it around myself on a rainy night (like tonight), it brings me a little closer to my far away family and a former home.