The history of the North country quilts is a history of the families of the northern Dales in the mining communities, first in the lead mining valleys and then the coal mining areas giving work and much needed wages for struggling families.
I first saw a display of North Country (Durham) quilts at the Beamish Museum. It is a living museum of the north which gives a fascinating insight into our historical heritage.
One area of the museum has a 1900s’ town, pit village, colliery and cottages. In the pit cottages and Ravensworth Terrace you will find a variety of quilts on the beds. These displays together with a quilt exhibition gave me my first insight into the variety and quality of the North Country quilts.
Beamish has a huge collection of quilts that have been donated over the years and Rosemary E. Allan has documented many of them in her excellent reference book ‘Quilts and Coverlets’, well worth a read.
Returning last year we saw the recently added ‘Joe the Quilters Cottage’. Joseph Hedley (1745-1826) became a professional quilter and marked up the top of quilts for sale after working as a tailor.
Pages on Joe the Quilter in R.E.Allans book
He was well known and created intricate designs including what is now called ‘Old Joes Chain’. Inside the cottage his quilting frame is set up with an example of his work.(reconstructed by Margaret and Aidan Nichol)
He was murdered aged 76 and consequently a lot has been recorded about him, making him an obvious choice for the museum to showcase.
A wholecloth which has survived has twists, cables and fan motifs (1820). This has been reproduced by Margaret and Aidan Nichol who I had the pleasure of meeting last year. They skilfully traced the design and beautifully quilted this antique quilt for the Museum.
Photo of article from The Quilter no 157-2018
Beamish is well worth a visit for all the family with trams which take you around the northern landscape and you can even buy a little fabric in the Co-Op!
Before talking about the Quilting clubs I think it is important to know a little bit about the area in which they came about.
A photo of Weardale today, once an industrial Lead mining area.
The Northern Pennine region including Allendale, Weardale and Teesdale had rich deposits of Lead. The Lead mining was at its height during the 1700’s &1800’s when thousands of workers mined the area, many setting up homes there. Some of the quilting clubs started in this time to bring in extra money into the home, particularly for those who had been widowed.
By the late 1880’s the price of lead was so low, the big mining companies withdrew and unemployment was writhe. Many workers moved into the coal mining areas further to the east of the country, around Durham, Northumberland and Newcastle. Here quilters clubs were set up by miners wife’s who had been widowed or their husbands disabled. The quilt clubs came into their own during the strikes and depressions of the 1920’s and 1930’s and provided a much needed income.
The women in the mining areas would have been engaged in making quilts on large wooden frames in the farmhouses and cottages and would have fitted the quilting around household and farm chores. Three generations, grandma, mother and daughter might work at the frame.
If a quilt club was set up just one person would have worked on the quilt for longer hours each day, making a quilt in 1 or 2 weeks. The patterns would have been easier and quicker to complete and the running stitches not so small. They would have generally marked out the quilts and could be wholecloth or strippy quilts.
This quilt is from the Beamish collection and is peach/pink sateen with a cream sateen reverse. Quilted with a central rose and a rose in each corner with 12 concentric circles equally spaced around the quilt. It has a diamond infill finished off with a feather border. –circa 1920.
How the Quilt Clubs worked
This is a simplified example of how the quilt club could work, which was like a higher purchase system.
The quilt club would have 25 members, each person contributed 1 shilling per week for 25weeks (the quilt costing 25 shillings) Names would be drawn out of a bag to determine the order customers would get a quilt. So once a week one person would receive a quilt and by the end of 25 weeks all 25 members would have a quilt.
After materials, wadding and thread for a quilt the Quilter was left with a small profit to live on.
The quilt clubs gave a continuation of the craft through the beginning of the 20 century and played an important role in providing a means of survival for women and families in hard times.
If you would like to read more M. Fitzrandolph in her book “Traditional Quilting” (1954) has interviews and stories about the quilt clubs which makes very interesting reading .
The quilt clubs by 1939 declined dramatically. due to textile rationing during the war years.
Rural Industries Bureau Scheme
Although we now refer to North Country Quilts, during the 1930’s it was called ‘Durham quilting’ when it was promoted through England and abroad.
The Rural Industries Bureau raised the profile of quilting and gave it a new lease of life in County Durham and South Wales (which also has a great quilting tradition). The Rural Industries Bureau wanted to revive various crafts in ‘distressed areas’ including quilting. During 1929 a record was started of quilters who wanted orders for work. Wholecloth Quilts were made to a very high quality and sold in London.
This cot quilt was made to sell at Little Gallery, London (1930-1939). It is cream on one side and fawn on the other with bellows and flower motif in the centre, and a border of rose.
In 1932 the V & A Museum commissioned a wholecloth quilt. It was made by Mrs Nina Pirt, a coal miner’s wife who lived in Spennymoor.
Dressing gowns, tea cosies, cushions and soft toys were also made for sale. Durham quilting was also promoted by Miss Armes who encouraged the craft in the Women’s Institute and entries in the agriculture shows were fierce.
To encourage the quality of the Durham Quilting Lady Headlam set up the Northern Industries Workrooms in 1933. Work was in demand and it was sold at Liberty’s, to Claridge’s Hotel for bed coverlets and commissioned by private customers.
The Quilters Guild Museum Collection has a lovely green and red example of a wholecloth quilt made at Barnard Castle Workshop (1930-1940)
As with the quilt clubs the market collapsed in 1939 due to the Second World War.
North Country quilting declined after the war years as an economic activity. It was carried forward by homemakers and enthusiasts. More women worked and people wanted new modern textiles that were factory made. However quilters such as Mary Lough, Florence Fletcher and Amy Emms all were teachers who excelled at the craft and taught classes. From these classes competitions were entered, the Women’s Institute continuing to promote the craft. Amy Emms was awarded an MBE for her ‘services to quilting’ and she created some beautiful pieces. The instructions in her book are very clear and well worth a look at. (Amy Emms’ Story of Durham Quilting’)
Women in the Dales did continue to quilt together to meet and chat, this was mainly at the village Church or Chapel.
North Country quilting is still carried out by keen quilters and the British Quilt Study Group with the Quilters Guild are active in researching and documenting quilts and their history.
This is a link to the British Quilt Study Groups with a wealth of information on our historical quilts.