The ‘1718’, as it is affectionately known, was bought by The Quilters’ Guild at auction in September 2000. Until that time it had been in the possession of the Brown family of Aldbourne, Wiltshire, for many years. The coverlet is an outstanding historical piece, and the worked date of 1718 identifies it as one of the earliest known dated patchworks.
The coverlet measures approximately 169 x 185cm (66″ x 73″) and is made up of basic units of 11cm (4″) square. The block containing the date also has the two initials “E” and “H” worked into it.
Made from silk fabrics, apart from 6 pieces of wool velvet or plush, the coverlet is constructed in the technique known as ‘piecing over papers’, where the fabric is folded and tacked over a paper shape before being stitched together. The blocks have been stitched together with white linen thread. The tacking remains in place and unusually is worked through the back fold of the fabric and the papers only; no tacking can be seen on the front of the coverlet. The back of the coverlet is linen, pieced together in the form of a crazy patchwork of recycled pieces.
“Researchers from our British Quilt Study Group were the expert driving force behind the huge body of work surrounding the history and context of the iconic 1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet. Their extensive findings provided a solid foundation of information surrounding early 18th century patchwork practice that is useful for all other researchers looking into this period of the crafts’ evolution.”
Heather Audin, Curator
The fact that the paper pieces have not been removed, even though it has a backing, has helped to preserve the coverlet. The coverlet was x-rayed by a special radiography machine in the hope that the papers would provide some information about the maker and her life at the time the quilt was made but sadly this did not happen and the papers are keeping their secrets. It was, however, discovered that some of the fabrics had originally had gold patterns on them, which have since vanished. Extensive genealogical research in to the family and the area where they lived has not yet identified the owners of the initials E and H and the maker of the coverlet remains unknown.
A report was written by Sonia O’Connor, Research Fellow in Conservation at the University of Bradford, who undertook the X-radiography. The coverlet was X-radiographed using low energy X-radiographic imaging, which was hoped would show up the writing and text on the papers providing the inks used had sufficient metal content in their pigmentation, such as iron gall ink. Unfortunately the texts on the paper were not visible using this method, most probably because the black ink used in the two areas that were examined did not contain any metal pigments, but were probably carbon based. However – the radiographs did record a wealth of information and detail relating to the materials, construction and condition of the piece.
Interestingly, the radiographs of the central star motif showed a high proportion of damage most likely due to the habitual folding of the coverlet into quarters for storage. The images also showed that some of the creases detected in the papers were not due to damage, but were evidence of the technique used to create the shapes by folding. The images also showed up the tacking stitches between the paper and the silk pieces, and also some evidence of a lap stitch that joined pieces of the paper support/templates together. It’s useful to remember that paper in the 18th was handmade ‘laid’ paper made from linen rag pulp.
After the Coverlet’s conservation, conservator Karen Thompson and conservation photographer Michael Halliwell undertook a research project transmitting visible light through the fabrics of the Coverlet in order to photograph the papers underneath. This provided very interesting results, allowing us to view the maker’s world of construction – her pattern redrafts, re-assembly markers and tantalising glimpses of the handwritten and printed papers in her household that were chosen to provide templates for this fascinating piece.
The paper templates are a mix of letters in different handwriting styles, accounts and printed text. One of the printed text images has been identified by Thompson and Halliwell as a published speech by Lord Haversham to Parliament on the Union of Scotland and England in 1707. Another appears to be religious in subject, printed in Latin in black letter type, mostly out of common use at the time this coverlet was made as it was difficult to read. Some of the more complex figurative designs also showed evidence of re-drafting. As can be seen by the image below, the lady block was originally drawn with a much smaller head, before the maker decided this either looked incorrect or would simply be too difficult to piece together, and it was redrawn on the same piece of paper.
Almost all the fabrics are dress fabrics, the majority of which show signs of previous use. There are over 120 different fabric designs used and the oldest fabric has been identified as being from the 1640’s. There is a great variety in the block designs. Simple geometric designs are pieced alongside complex representational motifs including; hearts, a man and a woman, stylised flowers, tulips, a partridge, pheasant, deer, a cat with a bird in its mouth, dog, rabbit, swan, goose, butterfly, lion and a unicorn. The construction of each of these motif units is complex with even components such as beaks, legs and tails for the animals and stems and leaves for the flowers being worked as separate pieces over papers.
As the original coverlet is too fragile for display except in specialist museum conditions The Guild decided to make a replica to duplicate as far as possible the size, colour and fabrics of the original. The replica also used the same method of construction. Our expert ‘replicators’ were Guild members. Pauline Adams, who masterminded the construction of the replica coverlet, had great difficulty obtaining appropriate fabrics; skilled dyers provided some indigo dyed silks and Pauline painted some herself. Some fabrics had to be ‘recreated’ using modern computer technology. The result is a look-a-like, as-good-as-new coverlet that can now be displayed. Through exhibition of the replica, The Guild hopes that people around the world will appreciate the beauty and interest of the 1718 coverlet, our most important historical item.
“Having a group of enthusiastic and knowledgeable quilt experts such as BQSG at your disposal is an unbelievable advantage for The Collection! Their vast range of personal areas of expertise means there’s always someone you can call on to help. They also generously give their time to help with research and writing related to Collections items, which enhances exhibitions and articles that spread this expert knowledge to a wider public audience.”
Heather Audin, Curator
As the earliest dated example of British patchwork the coverlet has a profound importance and relevance not only to patchwork and quilting but also the cultural and social history of the British Isles and beyond. The 1718 coverlet has been conserved and is now in a condition that will keep it safe for occasional display hopefully for many years to come. The conservation took place at the Textiles Conservation Centre in Winchester. The cost of this important conservation has been met by the generosity of several grant-making bodies; The Mercers’ Company, The Leche Trust, The Yorkshire Museums’ Council and The Clothworkers Foundation, as well as member fundraising. We are most grateful for the financial contribution and their recognition of the immense historical value of this magnificent quilt.