Cefyn Burgess solo exhibition at The Quilt Museum and Gallery in York might not strictly conform to your traditional idea of Patchwork and Quilting, but is fascinating none the less. Cefyns beautiful work manages to combine the solidity and comfort of woven wool with the fluidity of his pen and ink sketch style machine embroidery. This is a wonderful skill, and it is a rare treat to see this combination of heavy and light in the same piece of work. The exhibition in York is only running for a couple more weeks, but I would really recommend a visit now, or anywhere else you see the name Cefyn Burgess in the future.

I was particularly interested in visiting this exhibition due to a peculiar series of coincidences. I live in the North West, and Wales has never felt very far away. I actually went on holiday in Cefyns home town, Bethesda, when I was seven! My family went on day trips to Snowdonia regularly where I vividly remember buying Welsh tapestry souvenirs in the 1970s. Welsh tapestry is a wool textile of blanket weight, with a double sided woven pattern, typically featuring three or more bright colours with lozenges and four patch grid type grid squares in a regular pattern. It was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, but is seen less often now. My mum had a wonderful green, orange and brown Welsh tapestry cape, which I was most impressed with at the time. I recently realised that the choir stall cushions in my local church were made of beautiful cerise, purple and black Welsh tapestry, and I started to wonder what had happened to this craft in the last few decades. The cushions were certainly not new, but I had never appreciated how gorgeous the fabric was. The repetitive geometric designs are very appealing, especially to a quilter. Beyond seeing a cloak at Gresford Craft Show last year, I havent seen any other examples for such a long time, I had forgotten about this form of textile.
Weaving is not a very adaptable craft for the hobbyist, you do need a quite a lot of space for a loom, but I wondered if the commercial producers were still in existence, and whether anyone in the textile world was developing new patterns and uses for this interesting material. There are a small number of mills in Wales still producing the traditional bedspreads or carthenni, but as a luxury item, rather than the household necessity of old. Welsh tapestry is not as well known as Scottish tartan, but it can be as beautiful and is surely deserving of contemporary consideration. The carthenni produced in Wales today reflect modern tastes, and the garish colour schemes of the past have been replaced with more muted, elegant tones. I also wanted to know who, if anyone, was moving the craft forward. Then, out of the blue, in a Quilt Museum press release, I found my answer, Cefyn Burgess was the man I was looking for!
Cefyn studied at the Royal College of Art during the 1980s, and then started to design and produce textiles and ceramics for several leading design companies, which he continues to do today. He then became weaver-in-residence at Macclesfield Silk Museum, which increased his experience with looms, and helped him later renovate a number of looms for his own use. In addition to weaving and his art pieces, he designs beautiful fabrics and carpets, which have been used in some fantastic and impressive locations such as Cyfarthfa Castle and Plas Penglais, Aberystwyth. He has received many awards in recognition of his work, including the gold medal for craft from National Eisteddfod of Wales and Worshipful Company of Weavers: Craft Weaver of the Year.
This exhibition concentrates on his artistic rather than functional, commercial or furnishing output, and is comprised of two distinct elements. The first is firmly rooted in Wales, and features Welsh tapestries adorned with wildflowers, whilst the second part truly begins the Migration story, as Welsh people move out of the countryside, firstly into nearby towns and cities, and then overseas, to America.
The first pieces featured in this small show are the most quilt like, and are stunning examples of Cefyns work. The Handkerchief quilt is cleverly created with Cefyns subtle take on traditional Welsh tapestry, in muted cream and beige tones, a woven ground broken by old fashioned handkerchief blocks. Each hankie is edged with a striped border, and then delicately machine embroidered with beautifully detailed wild flowers. The theme of the quilt is There are more flowers in the fields than you can count and this certainly applies to the quilt too! I found bluebells, daisies, clover, poppies, foxgloves, mallow and many more hedgerow plants. There is a tremendous level of detail in each; the skill required to render these plants in mono-colour machine stitching is amazing. The sashing area of the tapestry is stippled and machine quilted with simple flower shapes in a sympathetically matched thread.
Cariad Cefyns Love Quilt is similar in construction. This red and white tapestry has a heart motif woven into the sashing, leaving block sized plain red and white panels embroidered with stem roses, poppies and carnations. Each panel is heavily stippled in the background in the same coloured thread as the wool, which brings the flower embroideries into stark relief. This is a difficult piece to photograph, the quilt is far more beautiful in the flesh than the gallery photographs prepare you for.
Accompanying these two large pieces is a collection of stitch and ink drawings of more wildflowers. Actually I have rather assumed that these use ink, as they convey such an impression of pen, ink and watercolour sketches. Some of the drawings feature watery blots of colour, which are then worked and over embroidered with thread detail. Others are slightly sooty in texture, with distressed areas of worn muslin. These are interesting pieces, framed behind glass, but very textural, and tactile.
The second part of the exhibition features Cefyns work on Chapels, and illustrates the migration of the Welsh from their homes in the villages. Certainly in North Wales, even the smallest hamlet will have a slate roofed simple church, of a simple shape with a gable roof and without ostentatious embellishment. These basic templates can be seen applied to chapels made of grander materials and on a larger scale in the cities of the North and West of England, where the Welsh people began their journeys overseas. Then over in America, there are lighter, airier versions in the towns where the Welsh eventually settled. Cefyn shows us this through his work, Narate, the American Quilt, features machine embroidered chapels in variegated colourful thread on a muted stippled background. There were definite colour themes applied to different types of chapel here. The true Welsh chapels of Aelwyd, the home quilt were described in neutral tones, with beautiful Italian quilting style lettering. The Liverpool chapels, constructed as the Welsh moved into the busy city looking for work, were illustrated in solid strong colours, brick red, summer holiday sky blue, and Victorian black. Then the American chapels were pale again, washed out and bleached clapperboard buildings, with variegated thread details, rather like a re-sanded and repainted chair, allowing its previous coats to bleed through the worn edges.
I really enjoyed looking at these pieces, there were so many stories to be told through these buildings. I might not be able to get to the US, but next time I go to Liverpool, you can be sure I will tracking some of these buildings down. I spent a happy couple of hours on the internet reading about the history of the Welsh in Liverpool, and then began to wonder what Cefyn made of the migration of the Welsh to Patagonia in the late eighteenth century, in similar circumstances to the migration he has so skilfully documented here. I hope he continues this theme; I will be very interested to see how this series develops or what happens next. I have become slightly obsessed with tracking down a Welsh tapestry of my own, but it seems Im not the only one! There is a healthy market for vintage blankets on Ebay, and via specialist websites such as Jen Jones, but I will have to save up, as they are a bit out of my price range at present! Ill just have to keep my eyes out. Thanks Cefyn, for reminding me about this craft, some important Welsh history, and my own childhood memories! What more could I have asked for? If you get the chance to visit this exhibition soon, please do, and watch out for more work by Cefyn in the future.