Helen Johnson meets the Swaledale quilter, Kate Trusson
Kate Trusson makes traditional quilts. "I like to do the traditional North Country patterns," she says. "They're usually done on plain fabric or sometimes a 'strippy' one with alternating bands of two different fabrics. The plain one, called a wholecloth quilt, was always the best one," explains Kate. "It showed off your skills as a needlewoman. It was also a statement of wealth: you could afford to buy a whole piece of material."
Kate continues, "I mainly do hand quilting. I sometimes use the sewing machine for patchwork. I tried machine quilting but I found it hard work and didn't enjoy it so I don't do it. Plus I love the old patterns; you can never do two the same. There's always a new one that I want to try and see how it works in. And now there's a new freedom – you can put your own patterns in as well. If I'm doing something for a child I'll use anything, after all there is no reason why you can't have a duck hiding in the feathers. I made a quilt incorporating wine bottles in the pattern for my daughter-in-law, who at the time worked for a wine guild."
Kate learned quilting from her grandmothers. "One showed me how to do hexagon patchwork and the other – who was Welsh – taught me how to quilt," she explains. "Once I was married, patchwork was something I could do when the children were in bed and my husband was still at work."
Then, 25 years ago, Kate and her family moved to Swaledale. "When we first came here I did more patchwork than quilting," remembers Kate. "But once people knew what I did they asked me to do demonstrations. At these demonstrations people who had done traditional quilting in the 1930s would come and talk to me. They'd tell me about what they did, invite me to see their work and show me their templates."
This was how Kate learned about the old quilting traditions. "I also did a City & Guilds in Embroidery (they weren't doing the Patchwork and Quilting course then) and a teaching course." She now demonstrates in her home area of the Yorkshire Dales and at quilt shows. "I show how quilting used to be done with carded wool as wadding: as far as I know I'm the only person doing that, most people use polyester wadding nowadays." Kate thinks that wool wadding gives a lovely hang to the finished work, although she does use polyester to make washable children's quilts.
With her reputation established, more information came to Kate. "People would give me old quilts so that I could study them," she says. She now has piles of these. They include wholecloth quilts, finely hand quilted all over, and patchworks of faded old fabrics. "People had the most amazing stories to tell," she continues. "Men would come up, with tears in their eyes, talking about quilts they remembered their mothers making. Women, on the other hand, would come up and say 'huh – quilting – aching backs and sore fingers'! Quilting seems to have been a female only activity, although men sometimes helped with marking out. Some people sent their fabric away to a stamper to have the design marked on it: George Gardiner of Allenheads was a famous stamper."
Kate continues, "The link between fabrics and social history – how people lived their lives – is fascinating to me. When I first came here you could look into a shed and see a beautiful quilt laid out over a tractor, but now people are beginning to appreciate the value of them. Some women quilted to make money. One lady had three daughters who each had to thread 30 needles before they went to school then she'd sit and quilt all day. She also ran a smallholding, so she had milked the cow and fed the pig before she even started to quilt."
Kate has even found that a previous occupant of her own house used to quilt for money. "I found an old quilt that had been made in this house – it had been stuffed up the chimney to keep the draught out," she says.
Kate continues, "North Country quilting patterns are different to Welsh ones, even though one woman's quilt can be different to her neighbour's. North Country patterns tend to be very flowing, such as feathers, leaves, twisted chains, curlicues and spirals. But Welsh patterns are sometimes called 'string and teacup' because they seemed to have used household objects to draw round or used straight lines. Some of the patterns I've used, like four hearts and the bellows, are not exclusive to Swaledale but you do find them a lot in the area. When people think about North Country quilting they tend to think of Durham and Northumbria and not about the northern dales of Wensleydale, Swaledale and Teesdale, but these areas also have unique patterns – there’s an openness and a primitive quality about them."
As well as demonstrating Kate also gives lectures. "I give a talk on the history of quilting, which starts at 2000BC. Very old quilts were made with carded wool or combed cotton. After all, it was a quicker way of getting a warm cover than spinning and weaving the fibres. The saddest thing about the quilt revival in this country is that people copied the American way. The death of wholecloth quilting was that it became difficult to get the bonded wadding and that people didn't want the quilts anyway. The uniqueness of Swaledale is that the traditions seem to have gone on longer here, even into the 1950s and 60s."
Kate is determined to keep North Country quilting alive. "Many people have told me their stories but fewer come to me now, as they are tending to die out. I’m beginning to realise that I’m just about the only person left now with this knowledge and I ought to write it down so that it doesn’t get lost."
Kate teaches, demonstrates and makes quilts to commission – and does bed and breakfast as well!
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