Gillian Cooper visited a textile collection in Southeast London. All photographs by David Ramkalawon.
Quilt by Don Mettler Inspired by African-American jazz quilts (detail)
The Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles is a textile collection in London, providing a research facility for Goldsmiths College Visual Arts Department. Constance Howard was one of the most important and influential people in textiles in the twentieth century. She headed up and developed the textile course at Goldsmiths College and made it one of the most exciting in the world. Everything in recent textiles seems to be directly descended from her. If you weren’t taught directly by Constance then the chance is that your tutor or your tutor’s tutor was! Not only was she a great educator, she was also a talented textile artist and an ardent collector of anything to do with textiles. Her collection is the basis of this growing Centre in London that carries her name.
Mennonite quilt (detail)
A TREASURE TROVE
The Centre is housed in the basement of the former Deptford Town Hall in Southeast London. There are lots of textiles stored there, along with books and photo archives of art textile groups such as The 62 Group and the Fibre Art Group, and of students of the Goldsmiths Textile course. As it is a research and resource centre, you can make appointments to go and examine the textiles or to go through the photo archive. I love going past the building and seeing groups of people crowding round an object with their white gloves on, drawing pads and notebooks at the ready. The collection is very diverse, ranging from quilts from the nineteenth century to the latest Japanese techno-fabrics. There are some amazing items like tiny shoes made for a Chinese woman who had bound feet: although exquisite, it makes you realise how barbaric foot binding was as the shoe meant for a grown woman is about the size of a baby bootee.
Medallion quilt from Constance Howard’s own collection (detail)
As you can gather, the collection is diverse but there are a number of quilts. Curator Margaret Hall-Townley brought them alive for me. Margaret is a walking history repository and seems to know everything about each item in the collection and where it came from. It is even rumoured that she rescued one of the textiles from a skip.
QUILTS, QUILTS, QUILTS
Quilt found in Welsh garage (almost full quilt)
A medallion hexagon quilt came from Constance Howard’s own collection. It was a summer quilt, as there is no wadding between the layers, and was probably made in the nineteenth century. It is made of printed cottons, probably bought in bundles to be made into quilts just as we do now. It is fascinating that despite all the technological advances that have occurred over the last 100 years we still have the same interests. I wonder if new fabric ranges excited them then as they do us today.
The second quilt was found in a Welsh garage. The fabrics in the quilt top are mainly from the 1920s and 1930s. Although, as Margaret says, dating a quilt can be quite problematic as people would save their favourite and precious fabrics for many years before using them in a quilt (sound familiar?). The quilt was a functional bed quilt, made using simple piecing to get it finished quickly. The back of the quilt is pieced from coarse wool fabric of the type used in suiting or for skirts for working people of that time. Using such fabric makes the quilt an interesting object of social history as not much of this fabric has survived. Although this quilt would never win a competition, or even be entered for one, there is something rather special about looking at it. You can feel the love stitched into the quilt that someone, although money was tight, saved up her beautiful fabrics to make. You can tell money was tight as through some of the worn holes you can see the wadding, which is a real mishmash: there is an old blanket, some cotton and even uncarded (but washed) raw sheep’s wool. It makes me feel sad that an object infused with such love ended up at the back of someone’s garage. However, it is great that it has been redeemed and is now cared for by the Centre.
Another family quilt, this time from the other side of the Atlantic, is the Mennonite quilt from Indiana. This is one that Margaret bought herself from an American antique dealer. She admires the resourcefulness of the Mennonite people who make these quilts from worn out clothing. The quilt shows several mends, including a piece of old pyjama fabric. Once a quilt can no longer be repaired the Mennonite pass it to an antique dealer and receive money for it. That is true recycling and also quite amusing, as the quilt only becomes ‘art’ once it is worn out! If you know anything about Mennonite traditions you can even begin to work out whose clothes the fabric came from as, for example, unmarried girls can only wear certain colours.
Another quilt from America is more recent, made by quilt artist Don Mettler who is based in Detroit. This quilt was made in response to African-American jazz quilts. It is exquisitely made and hangs beautifully. The hand quilting is in simple straight lines so as not to detract from the exciting, bright fabrics he has chosen. A narrow binding of white dots on black fabric sets the quilt off nicely.
Felt quilt by Anne Doherty (almost full quilt)
Finally, Margaret showed me a very different quilt by Anne Doherty. Anne was a student at Goldsmiths in the 1980s and this was her final piece for her degree show. Unlike the other quilts I saw this one is definitely not functional. It took two of us to lift it as it is made of panels of felt. The felt that Anne had made was not strong enough to hold together for such a large hanging (it is about six foot square), so she put it through a needle puncher machine to make it stronger. This process also combined the colours giving the quilt an amazing surface with a real richness of colours. It reminded me of the earth and hot explosive volcanoes with molten lava pouring out. Although such volcanoes would be rather dangerous the quilt is very alluring. Each block has a strong irregular geometric pattern and, not surprisingly, given the weight of it, it has been machine pieced and quilted. Anne made the quilt in response to the ‘American quilt tradition’, which at that time was starting to become influential in Britain, and hence the use of the blocks.
The Constance Howard Resource Centre in Textiles is an amazing treasure trove of all types of textiles. I particularly enjoy the fact you can see so-called ordinary items from earlier eras. As it is also used for teaching purposes it is exciting to be able to handle items that would normally be displayed behind glass in a museum: it helps bring them alive. Over time the Centre aims to develop its role of conservation and to make its resources more readily available to all those with an interest in world textiles.
The Constance Howard Resource and Research Centre in Textiles is in the old Deptford Town Hall, New Cross High Street, London SE14 6AF Tel 020 7717 2210 or email firstname.lastname@example.org The Centre is open, by appointment only, 10am-4.30pm Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can learn more about the Centre by visiting www.gold.ac.uk/constance-howard/