The Story of North Country Quilts and Quilters

A summary of the talk given on 15th May 2019

The traditional craft of quilting has been practised from at least Mediaeval times in England and may well be considered as one of the few examples of a genuine survival of folk art in this country. Quilted garments were worn under chainmail for added protection. Quilted clothing was both lighter and less costly than plate armour. The popularity of quilting in England reached its zenith in the 17th and 18th centuries when it was used in fashionable costume.

The history of quilting in the North reflects the social and cultural conditions in which the quilts were made, where the craft had survived in a relatively isolated region, which had developed its own distinctive culture and traditions. It was a craft carried out not only by women but also by men such as Joseph Hedley, known as Joe the Quilter from Warden near Hexham, murdered for his supposed wealth from quilting in 1826. George Gardiner of Allenheads, took to designing quilt tops, giving him an income in the late 1800s, after the demise of the leadmining industry.

Quilting flourished in the country areas of Teesdale, Weardale and Allendale, where quilted petticoats were worn for warmth, in Northumberland by bondagers working in the fields, and also along the Northumbrian coast, by fishwives.

Quilting Clubs were operated by the miners’ wives of Northumberland and Durham, from the 1880s until the 1930s, providing a much needed extra income, when there was little compensation for miners and their families on hard times. The Methodist Chapels’ Sewing Circles also used the making of quilts to raise money for the chapel.

Usually a young lady would make a number of quilts for her ‘bottom drawer’ prior to getting married and symbols of baskets and flowers reflected the hope of fruitfulness. Originally a traditional craft, passed down from mother to daughter, quilting has had a huge revival and can now be regarded as an art form – its future ensured for many to enjoy.

Rosemary E. Allan


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