Currently, there is a wonderful exhibition of Heritage quilts on display at the Bowes Museum, which is near Barnard Castle. These are all British quilts made in the North East of England from the mid nineteenth century onwards.

If you think that all traditional quilts are made from blocks, you may be in for a surprise. Blocks are an American tradition which only really influenced our quilts in the 1970s – here you will mostly find typical examples of the different British styles which date back much further:

  • Strippy quilts
  • Frame quilts
  • Wholecloth quilts

I took a lot of photos (without flash) so will share them with you in three separate posts. The Bowes Museum has a lovely catalogue showing all the full quilts with details of the makers – it’s only £7.95, and you can buy it online (scroll down their page). It also includes a few modern quilts based on these traditions, made by Leila Anderson and Pauline Burbidge.

Strippy Quilts

This photo shows the lower half of a Strippy quilt made by Alice Coulthard at the turn of the twentieth century, and shows the basic structure of parallel strips of fabric, usually quilted with designs which run down the strips.

Strippy Quilt made by Alice Coulthard 1890 – 1910

The blue pieces across the bottom are unusual – maybe her piece of white fabric wasn’t quite as long as she needed?

Most later Strippy quilts are made with two alternating plain fabrics, such as a lovely mid-blue and white one made by Mrs Beattie:

Lined Quatrefoil

(it was a bit difficult to take photos of the whole quilts, due to the lighting levels designed to protect the quilts, so most of the other photos are close-ups)

Cable Twist
Rose within lined triangles

These really show the beautiful hand quilted designs.

As is common, there are an odd number of strips, so that the same colour appears on both edges. Here, there are nine strips, alternating between blue and white.

The quilt is made with cotton sateen fabric, a very popular choice in the first quarter of the twentieth century, as it’s slight sheen showed up the texture of the quilting designs so well.

Most of the designs appear twice, on strips which are arranged symmetrically about the central one.

(Have another look at the Strippy quilt by Alice Coulthard above – can you spot where she made a mistake in the order of the quilting designs, leaving it without the perfect symmetry?)

There are also earlier two Strippy quilts made from printed fabrics.

This one was made by Elizabeth Bayles, who was the grandmother of Hannah Hauxwell, a single farmer who became known through a television programme about her isolated life in Teesdale.

Print Strippy quilt labelled “E.B.”

She has planned the distribution of the different fabrics well, but also had to find a substitute where she ran out of the light background floral fabric.

She used a piece of “fent” (printer’s fabric waste). When I first saw this section, I thought it was pieced from several fabrics, but it is in fact just one piece, and the only seams are to the purple check.

Fent used at the bottom of one strip

Its easier to see the quilting designs on the plain fabric than on the patterned – but can you see traces of the blue pencil used to mark the quilting designs?.

The quilting designs are also not easy to see on a Pieced Strippy quilt also displayed, which is mostly made from printed floral fabrics.

Pieced Strippy Quilt c. 1860 – 1875

I missed taking many photos of this, apart from another place where a piece of fabric showing printing mistakes had been used. The fabric must have had a small pleat in it during the printing run, which now shows as a white line – and can you see that the last part of the blue was not printed?

If you look at the picture of the entire Pieced Strippy Quilt available in the book, you can see how cleverly she has used the pieces of fabric that she had in a balanced and pleasing way. Although advances in printing and dyeing technology had made fabrics much cheaper by the mid-nineteenth century than fifty years earlier, not everyone could afford to buy all new fabric in the long lengths required for a Strippy Quilt.

So why were so many Strippy Quilts made during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Remember that they were all hand quilted in a large rectangular floor frame like this one:

Only a long thin section could be seen and worked on at any one time. So a quilting design which ran along this would be easy and quick to mark and stitch – and instead of time consuming patchwork to make the top, the fabric strips could quickly be seamed together on a sewing machine.

Hand quilted designs on two strips of Alice Coulthard’s Strippy Quilt

So these Strippy Quilts were usually the “everyday” quilts” made and used by the women in mining and farming communities all over the North Country; Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire.

Look out for the next blogs about Frame quilts and Wholecloths – and do go to the exhibition yourself if you can.