Jean Gardner plays detective with Veronica Main of Luton Museum
As Veronica Main gently eased open a long tissue wrapped roll, she revealed an old patchwork bedcover in muted colours. "Every time I look at it I see something new," she says. "I've just taken over as curator of textiles and I'm really looking forward to researching it. It's always been known as the Mary Greening Quilt but I'm trying to get used to calling it a coverlet because it's not actually quilted. All We know is that it came here to Luton Museum in the 1930s without any information. It will be the centrepiece of an exhibition in June 2008 to mark its I50th anniversary."
Mary Greening Coverlet, still partially rolled up, and detail of one block
Where and When?
"We know how old it is from the large central square with a prayer dated January 1858 bearing the initials MG and two smaller ones which have the name Mary Greening. The one at the top is dated January 17th and the other at the bottom is marked November 20th 1858 which seems to indicate the start and finish dates."
"I always tell sewers to date their work when I'm giving talks," Veronica went on. "It's so important and to put the place where the quilt was made. We have no idea who Mary Greening was or whether it's local but there are a few clues. One square has the words 'May Hill' embroidered on it with trees going up into a pyramid shape. One of many May Hills is just outside Gloucester. There were plenty of Greenings in that area at the rime, including several Marys. Elizabeth Kilby has signed a square and a funeral sermon on one nearby is dedicated to WK who could be another Kilby. We just need to link them together."
Mary Greening Coverlet, an embroidered patch
A mixture of large and small squares cut mainly from everyday cotton dress fabrics of the mid-Victorian era, both plain and patterned, the coverlet has texts, messages, and embroidered motifs. An odd woollen piece is included and some of the applique is from furnishing fabrics. The designs include the small roller prints in muted natural shades that inspired Laura Ashley's fabrics, and the floral block printed ones where colours were separately applied. The yellow dye laid over blue to produce green leaves has in most cases faded and left blue leaves which have also been reproduced by modern designers. On one fabric the spots are just a shadow now.
The embroidered squares feature natural subjects among them birds, leaves and vases of flowers worked in threads ranging from fine as hair to a double twist cotton. The traditional Paisley shape is worked in chain stitch in various sizes, threads and colours. Variegated threads have been used in a few designs. A red loose thread twist was chosen for the writing and a very fine one for the minute cross stitches.
Mary Greening Coverlet, the fabrics look surprisingly modern
Burgeoning Women's Liberation appears as a message full of spelling mistakes, indicating a lack of formal education but the message is one of awareness. It reads: "Cocerning marage we now the God instituted it for He said it was not good. That man should be alone so He made an helpmate for him he did not take her out of mans feet by man to trample upon."
A make do and mend element shows that they were a humble group. Squares ranging from 3in to 5 3/4in are made up of as many as five different pieces of the same fabric or even different designs. Odd insertions reveal where the sewer ran out of material and simply used something else. When the thread ran out they just changed to another colour. "Pieces were put in to make some lovely adjustments where the alignment was completely lost when it was put together which suggests that several people worked on the making up," Veronica continued. "And there's no attempt at symmetry. Some of the fabrics are beginning to disintegrate. I shall work with the conservationists to preserve it."
Mary Greening Coverlet, Blocks showing some of the written passages
"We hope to find out the reason for making it. It's too gloomy for a marriage. Could it have been a mourning quilt? The many Old Testament texts indicate that it might have been made by a group centred on a chapel. One with 'NO CROSS' and 'NO CROWN' embroidered on it suggests that the sewers were non-conformists. As soon as I get the photographs that one of our volunteers has taken of the individual squares that have been lovingly worked by different people, I'll be able to compare the different styles of stitching and get some idea of how many people were involved."
"It's a real social history of its time. We know it's not a forgery because the binding is contemporary and the fabrics have been checked. They are all pre-1858, mainly about 1850. I'm longing to get to work on the research. If we could find all the names in the same place we might discover where and why they did it. We should know more about it in time for the exhibition. It would really bring it alive. The back is not fixed to the front except at the edges. If a conservator agrees I might put some temporary running stitches in to hold it together before the exhibition. A previous curator stitched a tape across the back to take a rod and we shall probably use that to hang it."
"It will be an inspiration to today's designers. The point of the exhibition is to gain a concept of a community project representing life today. We're working with Bedfordshire Quilters and New Horizons of Hertford who will take elements of the coverlet and interpret them in a modern way. We're also working with a group of textile students at a Luton school to get them to work together to produce something as a community group. They have the freedom to express themselves as the people did in 1858 but showing in a new way how they see their community. With the boys and girls coming from diverse multicultural backgrounds, the unveiling should be very exciting. The exhibition will run during school holidays and we will have activities associated with it. By then we should know more about the coverlet and will be able bring its story into the present".