Saturday, October 10, 2009

The E. Dickens Quilt : Rare early 19th century quilt

Late in 2007 the NGV acquired, through generous donation, a rare and valuable ‘frame’ quilt about which very little was known. The quilt was given to the donor two decades earlier by someone who had, in turn, been given it by relatives who were also unacquainted with the original maker.
Quilting was a common pastime of genteel and middle-class women in colonial Australia, yet there are only a few extant examples of these quilts in Australian collections. Quilts of this type were particularly popular in the first half of the 19th century, with examples using similar fabrics and designs found in England (and subsequently Australia) from between 1800 and 1860.
A large medallion-style, pieced patchwork, the quilt comprises many graduating, linear borders around a central panel. The particularly impressive central design consists of appliquéd cotton chintz partridge and flower motifs executed in the broderie perse technique (a technique used to appliqué small flowers and leaves using a tiny chain stitch). While on the reverse, embroidered in black cotton crossstitch is the enigmatic dedication: E. Dickins / The Gift of Her Mother / Finished When 60 Years / Of Age.
Sadly for us, no date accompanies this dedication, although it has been suggested that the embroidered ‘signature’ may mean that the quilt was sent to an early Australian settler as a gift – a practice that has been previously documented.
When the quilt first arrived at the NGV it was in a fragile condition. Damp storage had caused mould and mildew to develop while the presence of iron in dye mordants had corroded fibres, resulting in areas of discoloration and loss over time. The surface of the quilt was badly soiled and despite initial cleaning with a low-suction vacuum, it still appeared grimy.
On the recommendation of our Textile Conservator a wet-cleaning treatment in de-ionised water was undertaken (to remove degradation products and to minimise their effect on the quilt in the future). The challenge, however, was the quilt’s large size. A tank was custom-built by NGV’s Conservation Art Technician, which enabled the quilt to be completely submerged. At times this required the assistance of nearly all the conservation staff! Yet the result has left the quilt in a much-improved state both visually and structurally.
Through the process of acquisition and a combination of expert opinion and curatorial knowledge, the NGV has also endeavoured to recover some of this quilt’s lost history.
A quilt is usually dated from the most recent fabrics used in it. In this case, we discovered that many of the printed cotton fabrics along the outer patchwork bands were similar to those seen in 1840s dresses from the NGV Fashion & Textiles Collection. The floral chintz was also found to resemble fabrics from the 1830s. The most exciting revelation, however, was that the central bird chintz fabric could be identified as an English furnishing chintz called Partridge and May Tree printed circa 1815, making our quilt a valuable piece of textile history.
While the name of the maker and the actual date of the quilt’s completion may never be known, it remains a rare surviving example of textile endeavour and a significant example of early domestic skilled handicraft.

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