Gillian Cooper admires the quilts and talks to Anna Dolanyi, the former President of the Hungarian Patchwork Guild
Long before I even arrived at the Loch Lomond Quilt Show I had been told to look out for the blue and white quilts from Hungary as they were special. Going round some of the other venues of the Show, people kept mentioning the blue quilts in the blue church. Anticipation was high when I got there and there was no sense of let down. They were fabulous. Even better, there was one of the makers, Anna Dolányi, there in person. Anna is the founder and former President of the Hungarian Patchwork Guild and was on hand to answer the viewers questions about the quilts.
The quilts were made in response to a competition challenge to make a quilt using traditional Hungarian blue and white print fabric. This fabric is block printed by hand and was used for folk costumes. The production of the fabric has declined due to cheap imports and all the other normal reasons.
Amazingly, this fabric is not popular in Hungary, not even for patchwork, with associations of being old fashioned; hence the competition to promote the use of the national material in Hungarian quilting. There were many entries from individuals and groups. The competition was juried and the ones on show were the selected as the best. These quilts have been shown in a number of places, most recently in Reykjavík in Iceland. Anna was astonished at the number of quilters in Iceland it must have the highest concentration of quilters per head of population in the world. The quilts were as well received there as they were in Scotland.
As these are precious objects, Anna personally drove round Hungary collecting them and will do so on her return, taking each one back to its maker, telling them of how the exhibition went. This is a lovely touch and it is nice to hear of quilts being so valued.
All the quilts were beautifully made: being of stark, contrasting fabrics means that mistakes could not be easily hidden. A case in point was Collected Pieces of Small Size (Positive Negative) by Jozsefne Bekesi. Using both the royal blue and navy blue fabrics as well as white, Jozsefne has created a block quilt. Each block is perfectly constructed and by clever use of fussy cutting, each small piece has the fabric design impeccably placed. Leaves are in diamonds, flowers in squares and even the arrow flashes have the same repeat in them. Overall, it is delightfully executed.
The Hungarians' Flower Garden by Zsuzsa Meszaros was pieced from tiny hexagons, like the pattern Grandmother's Flower Garden. However, this clever version uses the hexagons to make two maps: the larger shape is Hungary, pre World War II, the smaller one in the middle is Hungary today, about two thirds smaller. Again, the fabric had been carefully cut to make the most of the patterns in the hexagons. It looks like different fabrics have been used for different provinces and in the former Hungary the hexagons have been sewn into wavy lines. The smaller map was also outlined in navy hexagons, giving it an almost 3D effect. There are tiny pearls added in the centre, each one marking the site of a former blue dye workshop.
One of Annas own quilts was included, called Blue Snow. It used a pineapple pattern, with the centre hexagons of different blue fabrics and the little bars being mainly white, with some blue to give a star effect. Her title was inspired by the way the quilt looked and the blue stars do look like giant snow flakes. However, when I asked if I could take her photo with the quilts, she refused to stand with her own, choosing one of the others which, rather modestly, she felt was more important than her own. At prior showings of these quilts, it has won the viewer's favourite award. This was In praise of Handicraft by the Foltlekek Group. This quilt makes good use of the different shades of blue to make a striking monochromatic design. The central motif is a 'sujtas' which is a traditional Hungarian pattern found on many items such as saddles and tools as well as clothing.
What impressed me about many of these quilts was how they took traditional starting points, either from Hungarian craft or American block patterns and then built on them to make the quilts unique. For example, Flood of Flowers in Blue and White by the Nyirbalok Group has blocks of blue flowers surrounded by white sashing. What makes this quilt exciting is the border of appliquéd flowers, which snake around the edge, almost like a quilting pattern. The flowers in the border are made from hexagons, again referencing the pattern Grandmother's Flower Garden.
Agnes Szomor had two quilts included, both exploring symbolism in Transylvanian flowers. The tulip motif used in both quilts is loaded with significance. In Woman's Life, it symbolises a girl coming of age, getting married and being pregnant. From Conception to Death follows the whole life cycle of a woman from embryo, through birth to old age, represented by falling leaves. Often these days, for art work to have a message, it needs to be ugly and made from ugly materials. I really appreciate Agnes' simple beauty in expressing the life cycle, so the quilt can be contemplated at two levels: aesthetic appeal and meaning. In From Conception to Death different blue print squares are used as background for the white tulips to be appliquéd onto. It also has strong quilting patterns in white on the dark fabric, a bit like sashiko quilting. The colour arrangement was reversed in Woman's Life, with the appliqué in blue on the white background. It had a beige/grey border and it felt reminiscent of hangings I had seen in when on holiday in Hungary a number of years ago.
It was amazing to see such a wide variety of quilts all made from the same materials, but all so different. Putting restrictions on your making, such as only using blue print and white fabric, may seem to make quilting more difficult. However, sometimes, like here, strong quilts can emerge as it results in the makers concentrating on the design rather than being distracted by colour. It was also interesting to see quilts made using the local traditional materials. Nevertheless, I don't think I will be trying a tartan equivalent any time soon!
Hungarian blue print fabric is available in this country from Gilly Thomson, details from www.kekfestocotton.co.uk
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