For over twenty years, Irene MacWilliam has been recording significant world events, through the medium of her quilts. Her textile anthology dates back to 1986 when the Space Shuttle Challenger made its last, fatal voyage and Sport Aid raised money for African relief. The desire to do this was borne out of a realisation that her lack of historical knowledge was, as Irene puts it, "just appalling" and that somehow she should make an effort to create a lasting reference that would chart significant events in her lifetime.

Challenger Piper Alpha Berlin Wall
Details of some of the individual blocks

Many people associate quilts with decorative or functional uses, but their role in recording historical events and commenting on the world around us must also be recognised. The Hmong tribe in Thailand are famous for creating the Pandau, meaning flower cloth or sometimes called a story cloth. This is a new craft that evolved in the refugee camps in the late 70s and early 80s. Pictorial representations employing appliqué and embroidery techniques are used to record the history and the story of their people. Arpilleras from Peru record the day-to-day lives of women in local villages through detailed appliqué in a stunning array of colours. On a more personal level, many quilters produce family heirlooms that chart their lives and family events. Recently I was shown a quilt that was made for a 25th wedding anniversary by friends and family members across the globe. Each contributor was sent a piece of cream silk cut to size and asked to embellish or decorate this in a way that would celebrate or mark a particular event in the couples life together. The end result is a map of their life together; a pictorial biography that will tell their story to future generations for years to come. The European Quilts Triennial collection, which travelled to the Festival of Quilts in 2007, contained many pieces which make a statement about society and Irene herself records her reflections on social and environmental issues through her work, much of which can be viewed on her website, Irene MacWilliam

Diana Zimababwe Iraq War
Details of some of the individual blocks

Personal Interpretation

The Events of the Year hangings each measure 216 x 140cm and portray 19 events with the 20th panel showing the year. The choice of events included is Irenes personal selection. The quilts do not represent the entirety of these years but my interests, concerns, sympathies and antipathies. I chart environmental and humanitarian issues, achievements in sport, exploration and physical endeavour and scientific discoveries and events, says Irene. Wars and unrest throughout the world are, not surprisingly, a common theme and particular attention is given to Northern Ireland where Irene lives. The collection also includes two special Northern Ireland Peace Quilts. The first was produced to mark the 1994 Ceasefire and includes 3,161 pieces of different red material each commemorating someone killed between 1969 and 1994.

Events of 1986
Events of 1986

Some might find the content somewhat bleak, but that is very much a reflection of how the world is portrayed through the media. As Irene points out, when you return home and switch on the latest news broadcast, it is dominated by the negative rather than the positive and it is the dramatic and controversial news that makes an impact rather than the everyday events. The creation of the quilts has meant that Irene has evolved her very own reference library, much like a news clipping service, with stacks of files filled with articles that provide the basis for the panels. Her main sources are The Times, The Belfast Telegraph, The Sunday Times, and more recently, the web.

History in the making

Irene learnt to sew at boarding school at the age of five when her parents went to live in Malaysia; she was responsible for repairing all of her own clothes during her school years. Years later in 1985, these skills came into play when Irene attended a talk about appliqué at the Northern Ireland Patchwork Guild and decided to have a go. She uses a lot of free machining and other decorative techniques and many pieces incorporate text, often almost hidden. The borders of the Events of the Year quilts are decorated with free machine writing almost creating a stitched version of a ticker tape or newswire. Her pieces draw upon a wide range of techniques: appliqué, embroidery, painting, free machine drawing and writing, digital transfer, plain, printed and home dyed fabrics. They are assembled in a simple grid with sashing and minimal quilting. The individual panels are created as the year progresses with the last few panels completed in the following year. At time of writing, Irene is working on Events of the Year which will be available in the near future through Irenes own website.

Events of 2005
Events of 2005

What is so special about this collection is its immediacy. Where else can you gain a perspective on issues that span two decades in just a few minutes? Rather than pouring over several historical tomes, which could take many months to digest and assimilate, the quilts are quite literally in your face. When viewed side by side, it is easy to see that certain issues such as AIDS, BSE and human fertility recur again and again. The rhythm and recurrence of earthquakes, famine, flooding, forest fires and volcanoes is startling, comments Irene. She has created a wonderful educational tool for everyone - for children trying to make sense of the world that they are learning about and for all of us grown ups who occasionally need a sobering reminder of what is important and valuable in this world.

You can see examples of more of Irene MacWilliams work at her website where you can also be dazzled by her résumé of past work and inspired by the list of lectures and workshops that she gives. (Her workshop entitled Design and Construction for the Frightened must surely be a winner!)

Interested in hosting an Events of the Year exhibition? Irene is always happy to hear from organisations who might be interested in showing her collection as it grows. CDs of the quilts plus details are available to buy for £6.00 (includes P&P) for UK. Just email Irene for more information.

First published in Popular Patchwork April 2008