Making the Australian Quilt at the Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square, Melbourne CBD


It has taken me some time to get to the exhibition called Making the Australian Quilt: 1800 – 1950 at the Ian Potter Centre.

I read about it back in June and I have only just made time to view these historical works of art.

A quilt pieced in diamonds

A quilt pieced in diamonds

Show me handwork done by women in the past and I am caught rather like a fish on a line.  The hook is baited with the amazing skill and patience shown by the women. It is always women!  Every stitch is one of perfection.  In a double bed quilt there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of fiddly little stitches all done by the light of a candle or a lamp.  Although I suspect they were mainly stitched in daylight rather than by the light of the moon and one flickering candle.

Diamonds showing details of fabric used

Diamonds showing details of fabric used

How is it that these women didn’t go mad?  They sat for hours sometimes for years working on these beautiful objects.  I suppose they stayed sane because the examples of fine needle work, on show at the Ian Potter Gallery, are domestic items and were for  practical use in the home as well as beautifying it.  The needlewomen may have got immense satisfaction and fulfillment from creating them.The descriptions of the people who made these wonders does mention two and three people making the one quilt. As I looked at them I pictured a convivial afternoons of drinking tea, gossiping and working on a quilt.

Many of them (and there are over 80 or so quilts beautifying the walls of The Ian Potter Centre)  have a spiel outlining their history.  This often dovetails in with the evolving history of Australia.

They are call Australian quilts but a number of them were pieced (I discovered that was the word for making a quilt) by women on the voyage out to Australia or in England for a relative who was emigrating.  What love would have gone into the making of a quilt for someone to take to the other side of the world. It seems, in many cases, scraps of material familiar to the recipient were used – piece of fabric to trigger a memory of home and the people there.

Quilt with Applique

Quilt with Applique

As I wandered around I wondered what, other than photos, we have around us to trigger memories.  How do we use garments we had as children and loved  or the dressing gown that our mother thought was beautiful and wore whenever she could or that old shirt our father insisted on wearing.  I like the idea finding every day articles made to trigger memories of people we love.  I can’t think of anything that I have that does that.

Looking around the exhibition, is to be overwhelmed by the industry, the beauty, the love and the history that surrounds these art works.  I feel very pleased that today’s energetic and minimalist people who advertise their skills as de-clutters weren’t around then.  Who would have been allowed to keep an old and worn quilt pushed in the top of the wardrobe that great grandma made?
We are lucky that many people did shove the old thing away somewhere to be found decades later by a descendant who saw its value as part of our social history.

This quilt was made by convict women who were being transported on the Rajah in 1841

This is from a quilt  made by convict women who were being transported on the Rajah a ship that sailed to Australia in 1841

 This quilt has a piece missing. There is no note on the reason for this.

This quilt has a piece missing. There is no note on the reason for this.

In the exhibition we can see how the early settlers developed uniquely Australian quilts that began to show Australian plants and animals in the designs.

There are some quilts that have little beauty but display the ingenuity used by women during the depression years of the 1930s.  Men’s suiting and sacking or any piece of fabric that was available was sewn together and lined to give warmth. One quilt is made completely out samples of men’s suiting.

Viewing the way our pioneer women lived is always inspiring to me and when I get a  chance I visit the Women’s garden in the Royal Domain Gardens in Melbourne. It gives me strength and pride.  These women helped to make the country the way it is today.
The Making of the Australian Quilt 1800 – 1950 is a slice of our Australian history. Go and see the exhibition if you a get a chance.  Tell me what you think.

I would also be grateful for ideas on how I could use some of the pieces of material I have folded carefully and put away in a cupboard. I don’t want to throw them away but I haven’t the patience to make a quilt.  There is something about the skirt of a dress I loved as a child, the curtains from my childhood room, the tea towel that reminds me of a loved aunt coming with presents and other things too that I can’t bring myself to throw away. How to use them is the question.

Making the Australian Quilt: 1800 – 1950
The Ian Potter Gallery NGV in Federation Square Melbourne CBD
The exhibition is on until November 6th.

You can read the NGV’s information on the exhibition here.

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