Wales is one of the Regions of the UK with a particularly strong tradition of patchwork and quilting. As part of the recent British Quilt Study Group seminar, I was able to view some of the wonderful collection of Welsh quilts held at St Fagans near Cardiff.

Although we saw some beautiful wholecloth quilts too, I have decided to share some highlights of the early patchworks this time:

This is the rayed sun centre of a wonderful patchwork bedcover made in the early years of the nineteenth century by Miss Anne Pritchard of Pen-Llin. I don’t think it can have been used very much, as the colours are still so bright and fresh.

You can see some of the same fabrics in this patchwork section of the inner border too – quarter square triangles (unlike hexagons) were easy to draft, and are a common shape used in early quilts:

The fabrics of this period would have been block printed by hand, one colour at a time, using natural dyes – a time consuming, multi-step, expensive process. If you look carefully, it is often possible to spot imperfections in the printing, which were almost impossible to avoid.

This fabric panel has an image of an eagle and a spider within a diamond – I must admit I don’t know what the origin is of this rather odd design. Can you see the “smudge” on the top left hand side where the darker dye was printed too far over the edge of the leaf?

There were two basket panels in different colourways, one with yellow flowers on an unusual blue background, and the same design with mainly red flowers. One of the experts in our group spotted that the basketweave hadn’t printed properly on the red one – so it would have been a “second” that was still considered good enough to use.

Another patchwork coverlet (shown below) of a similar period was made in Abergele:

There were so many pretty fabrics in this one, many of which would have been produced with madder, which can give a range of reds, pinks and browns depending on the mordant used. The inclusion of a lot of fabrics with a dark ground is typical of the period 1780 – 1810. The unknown maker probably bought bags of scraps from a traveling peddler, as it is unlikely that a local draper would have had so many different fabrics.

The centre circle and the corner fans were pieced, and then appliqued onto the plain cotton background.

Mary, Jane and Elizabeth Richards, the three daughters of the Vicar of Darowen, a small village in mid-Wales made an incredible patchwork bedcover between them over a number of years.

Mary, the last surviving sister added her own name in Bardic script (Mair) next to the date (18)76 which was only a year before she died. The earliest date on the quilt is 1801.

It includes all sorts of patterns and designs, which raised a lot of interest.

The little squares at the centre are a simple design, but some of the outer areas are much more advanced technically.

There are many sections with curved seams. Today we would applique this design of swirling teardrop shapes, but a study of the back of a similar section shows that set-in piecing was used.

This is really complex!

Did you notice that the back shows how many pieces are assembled from more than one scrap of the same fabric?

This section of hexagons shows several which are pieced – evidence of how patchwork could use even the tiniest scrap of precious fabrics.

We also saw two beautifully stitched woolen patchwork covers made by men.

This bedcover was made by Anthony Davies in about 1810, probably using scraps from military uniforms. I loved the quietly composed composition of the red, navy, sage and beige melton cloth patches.

A close-up of the back shows how the fine outlines made by inserting a folded piece of contrasting cloth in each seam.

These tiny seams are only possible with wool fabric that has been heavily “fulled” so it does not fray. This type of inlaid patchwork is known as intarsia, and originated in central Europe.

Even more impressive workmanship was seen on a tablecloth which it is now thought was made by a Hungarian tailor living in London in the late nineteenth century, named Michael Zumpf.

The reverse side is almost as neat as the front.

More of his incredible work can be seen in a recent book by Annette Gero “Wartime Quilts“.

Patchwork of this quality and age is rarely seen outside museums – and is usually kept away out of the light to preserve it. But, museum curators are always willing to allow interested individuals or groups to see items, and to share their knowledge and appreciation. Have you ever thought about asking what your local museum has tucked away? Or, contact the curator at one of the major collections, such as St Fagans a couple of months in advance, and ask to arrange a study visit around a planned holiday in the area.

With many thanks to Elen Phillips, the curator at St Fagans for permission to use these images taken at the BQSG Study visit in October 2018.

Although photos showing most of the quilts mentioned in this blog have not yet been included, many others can be found by searching for “patchwork” or “quilt” on the St Fagans Collection website. There is also a small book “Quilts” by Christine Stevens which is available second-hand.

If you would like to meet others interested in studying any aspect of patchwork, applique or quilting, then why not join the British Quilt Study Group, one of the specialist Groups of the Quilters Guild?