Sample showing pieced fabrics gathered using running stitch
Sample showing pieced fabrics
gathered using running stitch

When the V&A asked me to demonstrate patchwork techniques as part of their programme in relation to a costume exhibition I was a little bit surprised. You can probably call me narrow minded but I tend to think of patchwork and quilting resulting in, well, quilts. Not necessarily quilts to go on beds, Iím not that blinkered, I also like arty quilts to go on walls but I have never really considered patchwork as a serious art form for clothes beyond the hippy movement. This fantastic little exhibition in the Dress Gallery of the V&A has totally opened up my mind to the use of patchwork for clothes. Another one of my prejudices: although I love textiles, I tend to find costume galleries rather uninteresting, partly I think because clothes are made to be worn by people and not stuck on dummies and also because I generally find them uninspiring. Again this exhibition showed me the error of my ways.

Samples on Show

Any recent visitor to the V&A will have noticed that it is going through a major makeover. The Dress Gallery is being completely redesigned and whilst work was ongoing the temporary exhibition Different by Design was there instead. Different by Design comprised costumes from around the world; all from the V&Aís own collection. It was full of bright colours, unusual fabrics and incredibly skilled sewing.

Sample showing how strip piecing works from strips to triangles
Sample showing how strip piecing works from strips to triangles

Shown here are some of my samples, which I made to demonstrate patchwork techniques to passers-by one weekend last October. To be totally honest, I felt a bit ashamed showing them beside such wonderful outfits but they were useful in explaining how the clothes were constructed. One child spent ages making patterns with my papers that showed the English paper piecing technique. Lots of people played with my gathered patchwork, rearranging the piece by pulling on the gathering threads. Some people thought that using a machine would make things more accurate but looking at my strip pieced triangles it was easy to demonstrate that sewing by hand can often be more precise! The samples that generated most interest though were not the patchwork ones. I had two samples showing smocking and lots of people of an older generation were reminded of their mothers creating lovely baby clothes with smocked fronts. My generation were reminded of the tight elastic smocked dresses that were popular in the 1970s (I hated mine as my Gran forgot that little girls grow up and so it was too small and the elastic dug in) and were surprised that smocking did not have to be done using elastic and that even without elastic the smocking makes the fabric very flexible. Finally, youngsters who had never seen smocking before and could not comprehend that it had been a practical technique in the days before jersey cotton T-shirts had been invented.

Sample showing felt appliqué onto cotton with red quilting
Sample showing felt appliqué onto cotton with red quilting

Dress Collection

Enough of my work: what of the beautiful outfits on display that showed the work of the virtuosos of patchwork and quilting in dress? Here is a small selection to whet your appetite.

Sometimes, particularly on City & Guilds courses, there is a drive to encourage people to use unusual materials in their quilts. However, I doubt many C&G students have tried using salmon skin. There was a beautiful marriage coat from Russia made out of the skins of 60 salmon, showing the ingenuity of a people who have to use the resources available to them. The design of the coat showed the shape of the fish skins as they were patched together and on the back there was a clever design using medallions of skin coloured black, cream and beige with intricate appliqué on each medallion. It was in beautiful condition, as the Museum believes it was never used because it is unlined (and it would have needed to be given the climate) and there are no fastenings.

Womanís green jacket from China c.1915. Photo courtesy of the V&A
Womanís green jacket from
China c.1915.
Photo courtesy of the V&A

Fastenings were what caught my eye on another garment, this time a hooded jacket from Algeria. It was a patchwork of woollen fabric with star shapes down the front. In the middle of each star was a circle from which a cord came out. These cords, with evil eye amulets at the end, would have been used to fasten the jacket. It looked a bit like crazy patchwork, as each seam had been decoratively over-stitched, hiding any messy joins as well as adding to the design. It was full of bright reds, blues and yellows, and being over 100 years old had a very jolly feel.

Visitors looking at Gillianís samples during her demonstration. Photo by Eadie Heyderman
Visitors looking at Gillianís samples during her demonstration.
Photo by Eadie Heyderman

A Burmese jacket was more subdued colour wise but still very striking. It was made of cream coloured cotton, quilted in pale yellow silk, a bit like a wholecloth quilt. The stitches were incredibly small and amazingly even. A variety of patterns were used, including straight lines, zigzags, curls and interlocking swirls. The quilting followed the shape of the jacket, emphasising the corners.

Over 100 years later, in 1995, Korean artist Chunghie Lee inventively used old patchwork techniques to make a pair of transparent trousers.More commonly saved up to make wrapping cloths called pojagi, she overlapped scraps of bright transparent fabrics. A special seaming technique was used to hide the raw edges, giving lines of stronger colours. Although the fabrics were bright the overall effect was pastel-like as the transparent nature of the fabric took away their strength. The patchwork pieces were all straight edged but had unusual shapes, making a fascinating geometric design.

Red and gold womanís jacket from South East Europe (probably Athens, Greece) c1830-80. Photo courtesy of the V&A
Red and gold womanís jacket from South East Europe
(probably Athens, Greece) c1830-80.
Photo courtesy of the V&A

Finally, there was a beautiful silk appliqué jacket from China that had been made in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. It featured rows of tonal blue appliqué on a yellow background and even had some fabric that looked like tiger skin on it. The Museum is not quite sure of its purpose: it apparently looks like a hunting jacket but the Museum suspects it may have been made to present to an important foreigner rather than to be used.

The exhibition is complemented by a lavishly illustrated book called Dress in Detail from Around the World (Rosemary Crill, £19.95, V&A Publications, 2002, available from Amazon). Featuring specially commissioned photographs and line drawings that demonstrate the underlying structure of each garment, the book is arranged thematically, drawing together examples of each type of detail and decoration from disparate cultures. Details of fastenings, necklines, cuffs, hemlines and fringes contribute to a wide-ranging survey, which is both a visual feast of textures, patterns and craftsmanship, and a serious contribution to the interpretation of dress. The text is packed with information about the garments, the ways they were worn and how they were made. The result provides a unique glimpse into a lesser-known part of the V&Aís world-famous dress collections, and opens our eyes to the variety and creativity of dress around the world. Visit www.vam.ac.uk for more details.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 13 Number 3 - March 2005