June 22, 2008

The Viking Loom

This is the name of a shop I went into yesterday, and it's fairly appropriate for a post about York.

I've been there a few times now - a good friend went to university here, and I popped up to see her when I lived in the UK - at least twice.

York is in the very north of England, and it's a main tourist attraction town for very good reason. There are many fantastic half-timbered houses, a river, a castle, and several heritage manors and guild halls from the medieval age. And of course, there's a Monster.....

York Minster is the cathedral for the city, commonly known in this family as the monster. (As in, watch out, there's a monster behind you!)

It's a fantastic building, a huge cathedral with buttresses, beautiful windows, and extravagant carving over the west doors. (And during the restoration of the 1990s, local people were used as the models for the character portraits carved in stone over the west doors, including a fine portrait of one of my friend's colleagues from the Medieval Studies department....)

But we went to York not just to see the Minster and remember good times, but also because there is a new kid in town....

... the National Quilt Museum!

I am in love.

A few years ago, when I lived in the UK, I was a member of the Quilters' Guild of the British Isles (great name), an organisation set up to encourage, teach, record and preserve Britain's quilting history. They have a library, teaching facilities, they collect and preserve old quilts for study, they publish an academic journal, and - my favourite - they run the major quilt show in Britain, the Festival of Quilts, at the Birmingham NEC.

We lived just outside of Oxford, which is only an hour's drive from Birmingham, and the first year I drove up, attracted by the possibility that there would be a few quilts to see. Many hours later, I emerged, exhausted, eyes revolving gently in my head, enthused, inspired, amazed - there were something like 800 quilts to see, of all sorts and skill levels, all colours and sizes, from miniature to maximum size. Even a tent made of patchwork!

So the next year I was prepared for the some 1100 quilts that greeted me - I took provisions, I planned my route, I wore runners for maximum walking pleasure, and I went back for a second day. Mmm. Bombing up the motorway in my rattly old Nissan, I was quilter-spotting all the way - cars of 4 women, white hair and homemade patchwork bags on the back shelf in the car - they must be off to see the quilts!

Back then, the Quilters' Guild were promoting the idea of a national collection for quilts in Britain, and I was eager to see how and when it might come to fruition. I was right behind the idea of preserving and displaying the wonderful heritage of British quilts, from wholecloth to english paper piecing, crazy quilts, quilted garments, and the wonderful colours of Welsh wool quilts.

The collection opened just a few days ago, on 7 July, with their first exhibition, Quilts from Bed to Wall.

This exhibition includes examples of heritage and modern quilting, including utility quilts and a Canadian Red Cross quilt made for displaced people during the war, as well as recent quilts by some of the best and/or most well-known British quilters, including Laura Kemshall and Pauline Burbidge, some of which were commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the Quilters' Guild. You can read their notes about the show, which explain the development of the idea better than I ever could.

The show is housed in a medieval guild hall - St Anthony's Hall - which is a bright, large, and above all, fascinating space for quilts, sensitively remodelled. They talk about the work that went into the show here.

Long may the quilts hang in bright colours under the black-and white eaves. Well done to the Quilters' Guild, I applaud your achievement!

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