Sunday, 15 July 2012

Durham quilts

I have recently had a number of customers asking about the origins and history of Durham quilts so a short potted history seems appropriate. 

Quilted fabrics start to appear in England in the early 18th century. A set of bed furnishings, dated around 1708, at Levens Hall in Cumbria, is the earliest known example of quilted patchwork in Britain. As in most parts of the world, patchwork and quilting were originally two distinct techniques, serving both functional and decorative purposes. In poorer households, patchwork would have been an important way of prolonging the life of fabrics, which in pre-industrial days were labour-intensively produced in the home and would only have been discarded as a last resort. More affluent homes, tended to own highly decorative quilts and quilted clothing which were partly designed to display the wealth and importance of their owners. Quilts are generally made with two layers of fabric sandwiching a layer of padding /wadding/batting in the centre. In Durham quilts this wadding or batting is normally cotton. In Welsh quilts it is more usually wool sometimes in the form of a wool blanket. There is an excellent post about Welsh and Durham quilts on

Regionally, several different styles developed in the UK. One outstanding tradition is that of the North of England. The quilts made here were called Whole Cloth Quilts, North Country Quilts or Durham Quilts. Their main feature was that they are made from one whole piece of cloth (or widths of the same fabric joined to provide a bed-size cover). The pattern being created entirely by fine quilting over the entire surface.

This is a close up of an exceptionally well stitched and designed quilt in plain colour.

A variation was the 'Strippy' quilt, in which the top was pieced from long strips in fairly wide bands and the quilting pattern was done within the bands - the quilt below has alternate stripes of plain and floral fabric.

Later, more decorative quilts were produced with a plain side which showed the quilting design well and a floral print top side. The quilt in the next few pics (and the one at the top) show that style of Durham quilt.

Many quilts were made as wedding quilts and incorporated such symbols as the Lover's Knot, a continuous unending design symbolising a long and happy marriage. Other such quilts include motifs such as hearts and continuous cables and twists.

Often mothers and daughter or friends would get together to work on each side of the quilt. Some women quilted for a living. The work would be carried out at home and would help to supplement the family income. A tradition of professional quilters grew up in Allendale in Northumberland.

In the later 19th century, George Gardiner of Allenheads developed a reputation for marking out the patterns on to quilt tops. The quilts would then be sold and would be stitched by another person.

George's best known pupil was Elizabeth Sanderson who developed a school of professional quilt markers (called stampers) and many of these quilts survive especially her favourite design being the eight pointed star and therefore these quilts are often referred to as a Sanderson Quilt. The photo above is an example of George's design. It is still possible to find quilts where the blue chalk marking lines are still visible under the stitching as the quilt has been marked, quilted and then put away and never used.

Elizabeth's many pupils started to take apprentices and the tradition passed down several generations. In the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century many quilting clubs came into existence in the pit villages of the North East.

A club would be run by one quilter who would find about twenty clients to buy quilts. They would pay the quilter weekly until they had covered the full cost of the quilt. This enabled the quilter to buy all her materials and produce a quilt about every 3 weeks. Everyone paid about one shilling a week until about £3.10s.0d was collected. (the average labourers wage in England at this time was around 12 shillings so £3.10 shillings was the equivalent of 6 weeks wage).

Many quilts used different colour fabrics on top and reverse sides - this allowed them to be reversed. The photos also show the wide range of quilting designs that were used.  Quilts were also produced using patchwork and then quilted using the Durham quilt designs - this gives the reverse side an interesting look.

I usually have at least one Durham quilt and a patchwork quilt for sale so drop into the Ebay shop to look!