Text and Context: Quilts and the Written Word


In honour of the 20th anniversary of the Special Interest Group, Contemporary Quilt, guest curator and Contemporary Quilt member Judy Fairless was invited to curate this year’s exhibition at The Festival of Quilts, featuring The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection. In this article, we talk to Judy and Guild Curator Heather Audin, about the ideas behind this exhibition and some of the inspiring pieces which will be on display. 

This exhibition, ‘Text and Context: Quilts and the Written Word’, was conceived to complement Contemporary Quilt’s Spotlight Gallery which displays banner like quilts depicting the theme ‘Uncharted’.

“Contemporary Quilt members strive to work in an innovative way exploring the latest media and techniques. Amongst the 78 quilts originally submitted for jurying to ‘Uncharted’, a significant number used Text either as a means to express a concept; to document an often highly personal event or else simply as a decorative motif. Several quilts also incorporated paper, either in the construction, as in the case of paper lamination, or as the primary material which is often folded into smaller units and joined. So we wanted to carry these themes through to the Museum Collection Gallery.”


Deciding on themes for exhibitions can often be challenging. It’s a good idea to display a wide range of items from our Collection so that there’s something for everyone – but we’re all inspired by different things.

“From my point of view, I wanted to ensure our theme not only tied in well with CQ’s juried exhibition, but also let us explore the diversity of interesting pieces within our fantastic resource.”



This exhibition selects quilts from The Collection which either incorporate text in the body of the work as part of the design, or else use paper and text in a different way.

“Many of the historic pieces constructed by mosaic patchwork used old letters and documents as their backing papers and templates, and where these original papers have remained in situ they also provide some interesting historical context.”


In curating this exhibition, Heather played an advisory, facilitating role. She and Judy knew they wanted to display a range of historic and contemporary pieces to show the diversity of pieces in The Collection, and so they spent time looking through our Collections database in order to see which pieces incorporated text and paper as part of their construction.

I love working with guest curators – they always bring a fresh perspective to the objects that I am so used to working with. As Collection curator I have a good knowledge of what we have, and also practical knowledge such as what can and can’t be exhibited or what might fit the limitations of the exhibition space, so I usually prepare a shortlist of suggestions when it comes to picking objects – but I really wanted the choice to be Judy’s. The pieces she picked needed reflected the themes she wanted to explore in conjunction with the Uncharted exhibition. “


We asked Judy and Heather to tell us about some of their favourite pieces in the forthcoming exhibition.

I chose the quilt made by Cam Blue Coat School pupils in 1874 not only because it is one of the few items in the collection made by children, but because it uses cross stitched text in the plain borders. The text is taken from various biblical passages and shocked me by the harshness of the quotes considering the age of the makers. They must have been terrified into compliance by such words as “After my skin worms destroy this body. Yet in my flesh I shall see God. “ Job XIX. The coverlet itself depicts images of more child friendly forms such as animals, butterflies and stars.”


“The two fragments of mosaic patchwork, the Jockey Cap (1840) and the Hexagon Rosettes (1840), fascinate me because the inclusion of the papers gives me an insight into the world of the makers. Fragments of advertisements and various scraps of information relating to the world of the Temperance movement together with examples of beautiful handwriting give me a hint of their circumstances even if their names have been lost to obscurity.”


“From the contemporary pieces, Mary McIntosh’s quilt, ‘Forty Years of Progress – Thatcher to May’ (2019), is a fine example of work made to highlight the concept that the same issues which dogged us 40 years ago are still with us now, and nothing really changes. Newspaper headlines have been used to great effect and this approach compares in an interesting way with Khurshid Bamboat’s quilt “Will Our Lives Ever Be The Same Again?” in the Uncharted exhibition.”


I love the Clothes Label Coverlet made in the 1970s-80s by Winifred Dodge – the result of decades of collecting clothing and furnishing labels. It’s a real piece of accessible nostalgia; some of these brands are no longer available, but are certainly familiar and interesting to explore. I also love mosaic patchwork – almost more for the papers in the reverse more than the front, though the printed fabrics also interest me as well. So I was really pleased when Judy picked a few of these pieces to show, and it will certainly be a different approach for us, to show the paper filled reverse of these unfinished pieces rather than the fabric front side which was intended to be seen. “


“And of course I love Sara Impey’s ‘Context‘, whose work is always impeccably stitched and specialises in using words to comment on social and personal issues, using her journalistic training to mix the visual with the verbal in the creation of her pieces. Her iconic, signature text-based style provides the design for Context, which aims to subvert the assumption that textiles are always domestic objects associated with comfort and security. Comforting words are placed alongside those with less pleasant connotations – showing that context is everything, and objects can mean different things to different people. “


‘Context’ by Sarah Impey is the inspiration piece behind this year’s collectible Festival of Quilts souvenir badge design. Pick up your badge from QShop at the festival, just drop by stand TG9.

‘Text and Context: Quilts and the Written Word’ can be seen at The Festival of Quilts from 18-21 August 2022, Stand TG9.

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