Collection Focus: Uncle Tom’s Patchwork Coverlet

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We are looking forward to celebrating the 2021 Festival of Quilts by showcasing our forthcoming exhibition ‘Quilts and their makers’, taking 10 historic quilts and 10 pieces from our contemporary works. Newsletter readers can take a sneak peek in advance, as over the coming months we explore the variety and skill of our makers both past and present, and celebrate their creativity in a selection of the quilts which will be on display.

Detail from Uncle Tom’s Patchwork Coverlet, C.1910-1920, 163cm x 163cm, The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

This wool pieced quilt made from brightly coloured octagons and squares is arranged to create a central cross surrounded by coloured frames, and is edged in an outer border of wide bobble fringing on all four sides. Each piece is outlined in the same or contrasting coloured embroidery thread, and many of the shapes have crosses or stars, adding further embellishment. The square shape and the fringing on all four sides suggests it was more likely intended as a table cover rather than a bed piece, and the fringing would have hung down the sides of a small piece of furniture.

It was made by the uncle of the donor’s grandmother, and the family were always told that ‘Uncle Tom’ made it ‘during the War’. Like many stories attached to family heirlooms, certain details are missing or ambiguous. Who was Uncle Tom, and during which war did he make this piece?

Detail from Uncle Tom’s Patchwork Coverlet, C.1910-1920, 163cm x 163cm, The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

The donor’s grandmother, Elvira Prigmore (née Edwards) was born in Cardiff in 1909. Looking through ancestry records, we can see that she and her older sister, Frances, were orphaned at the ages of 7 and 12. Her mother, also called Frances, died in 1914 shortly after childbirth, from ‘White Leg’, a form of deep vein thrombosis which can occur during and soon after pregnancy. The baby boy only lived a few days. Their father, William, died 6 months later in 1915, heart-broken over his wife’s death. Elvira was sent to a children’s home, but after absconding she went to live with Aunt Annie, one of her mother’s sisters and her husband, Uncle Tom who lived in Finedon, Northamptonshire. The couple were in their 40s and had no children, and Uncle Tom worked as a Railway shunter, moving trains and carriages between platforms and yards, organising rail freight and hooking on locomotives. Before this he was a railway porter, responsible for loading and unloading goods onto trucks.

Uncle Tom’s Patchwork Coverlet, C.1910-1920, 163cm x 163cm, The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

The records show that Tom was always a railway worker, and as such would have been in a protected occupation during the First World War. It was presumed that ‘made during the War’ meant he was serving in the forces at the time of the quilt’s construction, but in fact this reference is more related to the possible time period of construction. It’s interesting how a small reference can create an assumption surrounding a piece of history. However, this in no way lessens the achievement. This is a detailed, hand-sewn patchwork which would have been time consuming to make, and the bright colours must have added a sense of cheer to the grim outlook of Britain at War and a family mourning the loss of a sister, her husband and a new-born baby boy. Uncle Tom and Auntie Annie provided a wonderful new home for Elvira, who was very happy living with them after her parents died, and remembered them fondly. Through their nurture and care she was able to get a job in service aged 14 with Lord Vaux of Harrowden Hall, and went on to marry Reginald Prigmore in 1936. Uncle Tom’s fabulous patchwork was treasured and passed down through the family, and donated to The Collection in 2016.

Detail from Uncle Tom’s Patchwork Coverlet, C.1910-1920, 163cm x 163cm, The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection.

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The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection is sponsored by Bernina UK

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