My first impression was that it was very busy, and looked quite big. As we had walked along the tunnel from South Kensington to the V&A, hordes of pairs of women were ahead and behind us, and we joked that they must be going to ‘Quilts’. This turned out to be all too true. Every exhibit had a group of four or five women crowded around it, which is a negative in a quilt exhibition because the beauty of the piece is in the intricate detail of the stitching. But you can’t legitimately criticise a major exhibition for being popular on a Saturday morning, and so I won’t. In fact, it’s highly encouraging to see what could be considered a niche subject proving so popular.
A large exhibition can indicate a reluctance on the part of the curator to edit confidently, and indeed in this exhibition there were one or two pieces that added nothing new to the theme, either contextually or in terms of the techniques and patterns used. Having said that, every single piece on show was pleasing and had something interesting to offer.
The show is laid out chronologically, and so the earliest pieces at the beginning are both the most awe-inspiring and the most aged. Each piece is worn and faded, in stark contrast to the wild colours featured in the modern artists’ quilts at the end of the exhibit. What strikes you most is how much better people seem to have been at their chosen craft when it was harder, and when it took longer. Eighteenth-century quilting would have taken hundreds if not thousands of hours, painstakingly stitching over candlelight and doing everything by hand, but the quality here is so high that it’s breathtaking. The modern quilts and embroidered pieces make use of digital technology (as in the digitally-printed Timorous Beasties fabric utilised by a modern quilted piece) and use larger repeats and patterns, which rather cops out of the point of quilting. It’s meant to take ages, it’s meant to be hard work. There’s also a debate to be had by pedants about entitling the exhibition ‘Quilts’ when no distinction is made between patchwork, embroidery and stitched pieces of art that will never touch a bed.
Some of the modern pieces are predictable: feminist artists making their point about the blanket pain of being a woman by drawing female ephemera – lipsticks etc – into a quilt, thus ‘trapping’ them (as a woman feels trapped, geddit?). This type of statement is both too crude and too blanket for me to swallow, but I liked Tracey Emin’s teenage scrawled messages on pillows and duvets, and the stand-out modern piece was the faultless ‘Punctuation’ by artist Sara Impey. This was a properly gorgeous piece that made great use of typography to spell out a poem inspired by two phrases from a letter written to the artist’s mother. The poem wraps itself around various forms of punctuation, and finishes on a poignant note. The quilt is intricately stitched, beautifully designed and makes you think. It’s the only piece in the exhibition I couldn’t tear myself away from.
It’s a thoughtfully-arranged exhibition with text to guide you through every stage, which makes you feel comfortable even when equipped with zero prior knowledge of the art of quilting. The few brave men I encountered on my way through the show seemed as absorbed and intrigued as anyone else, and it proved to be a subject well worthy of an hour or two of scrutiny.
The gift shop is pretty fantastic as well, the design team having devised a great array of quilting fabric for sale as well as countless ribboned boxes of needles, beautifully handmade pincushions and a feast of other covetable ephemera. My one criticism? There wasn’t a postcard of ‘Punctuation’ to buy; else I would have snaffled it home to gaze at every so often, to remind myself of the beauty of stitch.