North County Quilts – Bowes Museum

North County Quilts – Bowes Museum 20 March – 19 September 2021

Even though I am resident in Northern England, I must admit to never having come across the tradition of quilting that is displayed currently at the Bowes Museum.   The quilting tradition is displayed here as a rural woman’s tradition, with the names on every exhibit being feminine, and the locations most lived in being, for the most part out of the main cities, in the countryside.  Traditional  crafts, especially those done by women very rarely get moved out of the realm of handicraft and into the regions of being considered art, so it is lovely to see a whole gallery full of examples of such artwork all collected into one place. 

The exhibition catalogue discusses the current exhibition as the successor to a series of popular past exhibitions of northern quilts, one of which even saw the main gallery stripped of its artworks to accommodate the display.  The premise for this show however appears to be to display new Acquisitions alongside some of the Bowes existing collection.  The variety of the work on display demonstrates a whole range of quilts that would likely have been made for a whole range of different social functions, It also incorporates some that were of single manufacture and others that may have been group or community projects. 

The display of work in the museums gallery includes some real gems, There is one quite cute quilt made by a teenage girl, she even embroidered her name and the creation date onto her centre panel.  A couple of the collection contain a ‘Sanderson Star’ design, named after a lady who created and designed quilts as a quilt stamper – she would put together and mark out the pattern for sewing.  It is amazing to see the variety of quilting design within the pattern as well as the borders of these quilts, each and every one of them, even if bought from a stamper is likely to be a whole unique piece of artwork on its own, even when displayed among quilts of similar provenance.

Quite a number of the quilts on display though were created from entire single pieces of cloth, well planned out and executed with flowing traditional designs running over their surface.  The choice of the curator at the Bowes to hang a wedding quilt in the middle of the gallery gives a great opportunity to see both sides and to look properly at their construction.  Aside from two of the quilts, the others are hung against walls.  The whole cloth quilts have a plain surface on which the quilting patterns can be much more clearly visualised than on the strippy quilts where often the colours themselves, or combination of hinder the viewer from seeing the pattern in its entirety. 

A small selection of other quilting paraphernalia including pattern templates has been included within the gallery, giving anyone viewing the opportunity to properly imagine how these would have been used to produce the intricate, flowing patterns that are prominently displayed.  There is also a design outline.  Towards the very end of the display, there are a few quite newly designed quilts, which have the intricate patterning but against a background of pained silk that to my eyes looks similar to Rothko paintings in their overall colour composition. 

Overall, I would view this exhibition as a fine balance between displaying the old and traditional northern quilt, alongside the new, and highlighting those who are keeping the tradition alive albeit with a few changes to the traditional quilt to make it more artistic as opposed to utilitarian.  The exhibition catalogue which goes alongside this exhibit has beautiful pictures of quite a few of the quilts, and is extremely well priced and very informative in its arrangement. 

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