Recent visitors to the Hever Castle Quilt Show will have been lucky to enjoy a collection of quilts made by Inger Milburn. Viewers will have been able to see for themselves the unique inspiration, detail and care that she brings to all of her quilts. But what of the quiltmaker behind these quilts?
Coming from Denmark, Inger first became aware of quilts on a visit to Bath with her then boyfriend Simon (now husband) whilst she was a student at Oxford. At the American Museum she admired the wonderful display and in particular was affected by the black and white quilt in the Widow’s Dart pattern. As well as the name of the block, the poignancy of the stark colours and the fact it was a single bed cover touched her. The importance of the traditional block’s name in an overall quilt’s appeal has remained with Inger to this day.
Drawn to the patchwork possibilities that she had admired in Bath, her first quilt was made in hexagons from Laura Ashley fabrics. It seemed an understood law that a beginner had to start with hexagons, so she obeyed! Working from a small booklet which explained the basics, but not particularly enjoying the process, she soldiered on for ten years. However, at the same time she made several traditional American-style bed quilts on the sewing machine. During this time she worked alone, unaware that there were specialist quilt fabrics and equipment such as quilting needles and thread.
Although Denmark has a strong needlework history, unlike Sweden, it does not have a tradition for patchwork. Inger was taught to sew by her maternal grandmother, who was an expert and prolific needlewoman. She spent a lot of time with her as a little girl, starting to knit and sew before she was three years old. Her grandmother’s standards were extremely high and Inger was all too aware of the differences between their work, even though she referred to the holes in her knitting as the ‘pattern’. In this creative environment, patchwork was the only form of needlework her grandmother did not practice.
Growing up in a family with a strong interest in arts and crafts, it was natural to have a go at making anything. Inger has created soft toys, clothes, pictures, jewellery and even now makes the most exquisite Christmas cards. The family learned everything through practice, trial and error plus reference to the odd book and that is how she became a quilter.
Asked whether she could identify any quiltmakers who had influenced her, Inger said that she could not really name anyone, particularly as she was largely self-taught and this is possibly one reason that her own work is so individual and has such a strong personal identity.
Partly as a result of possessing an enquiring mind, Inger’s designs always have an interesting background story, but she doubts whether her creative inspiration is linked to her degree in Oriental Languages. On the face of it there is not much connection with those studies and quilt making, but an interest in other cultures obviously influences her views and what she makes. Oriental art has inspired several quilts and she has often incorporated different types of script in her work. One example is Having Something to Say which has both Arabic script and Chinese characters, suggesting that messages come in many forms, including the quilt itself. Often ideas come from reading or a picture in a book or magazine. Inger also feels that she is a great beneficiary of her daughters’ education, as their studies often provide her with material for a quilt.
Pozzuoli 1538 started as a photocopy of a woodcut from a book that Inger’s daughter, Erica, was reading. It depicts the arrival of the Monte Nuovo volcano in the Bay of Naples
The influence of her homeland, a country renowned for its design, can be seen in Inger’s preference for simplicity and also in clarity of colour. Living in Britain as a student and then spending a decade in the Middle East has also affected her approach. She feels that her techniques are very much rooted in tradition, although her quilts are, without doubt, contemporary in style. Ideas are often sparked off by particular colour combinations in the environment and she spends much time analysing exactly how to recreate those colours in textile. She believes that colour is the reason for making patchwork, and there is always an excitement of seeing what happens when two colours are placed next to one another. When she started quilting, there were colours that Inger definitely would not consider. Now there is a place for all colours in her work - although some of them might have to wait for the next quilt!
September Hedgerow made from 100% cotton, some hand dyed with a few commercial fabrics. Squares from 2cm upwards with each group of squares representing an abstract interpretation of autumn fruits. One of Inger’s favourite quilts to make
Inger is open minded about the techniques she uses, but likes to take a simple approach using all kinds of torn or cut strip-piecing, including curves. She also enjoys the adventurous course of cutting into a luscious coloured fabric at random and seeing where it takes her. Often starting with a subject in mind she rarely makes drawings and then only for part of the design. For example, in Pozzuoli 1538, the patches were cut freehand and tacked together just before quilting them in place. Inger says that the great thing about making original work is that you don’t know how it will turn out until it is finished.
In 1986 she was first time lucky at a competitive show winning a trophy. A wonderful result as it was also the first exhibition she had ever attended. Looking at her quilt Reculver Towers now, she feels we have all come a long way. Another double success was at Quilt Expo ll 1990 in Denmark, when her Turkish Garden II won for best overall workmanship and Inger was able to be there to receive her award in person. At the previous Expo she had won best interpretation of theme with the quilt Repeat Performance, but was unable to attend.
Inger is a founder member of the Hanging Together group and several other local groups including one she runs in the Ashford area in Kent. She enjoys the company of other quilters which she finds inspiring and enriching, particularly when she sees the great number of exciting textiles produced. She feels that there are plenty of talented quilters in this country, both traditional and innovative. Most of us learned by copying classic American block designs and tradition is a matter of importance for all of us.
However, the quilting world is not a theme park or a museum and we should use the medium for contemporary purposes, whatever that may mean for the individual quilter. Inger believes the divide between traditional and innovative quilters is largely a red herring. What is perhaps more critical is the inward looking, self-referential nature of the quilting world. We ought to get out more!
Anyone who has attended her workshops will tell of her beautifully executed teaching aids and class notes. This preparation makes huge inroads into the time she can spend on her own work. She often has several quilts on the go at once, all at different stages of completion and comments that, compared to most other arts and crafts, quiltmaking is a slow process.
Chinese Whispers features ancient jade artefacts which Inger admires for their simplicity and beauty - all the greater for their mysterious purpose. From a book given by her daughter, Olivia, on the original of Chinese characters and that provided her with the bird script quilting pattern
The past twenty years of Inger’s life have been profoundly affected by quilting. She has made many friends and had so many experiences that would never have happened otherwise. It has given her an enduring interest and focus - she says she will never be bored. Her family, especially her husband have been enormously supportive. When she frets about her ever increasing fabric stash, her daughters just smirk and tell her they are looking forward to inheriting it!
Asked about her ambitions and where she sees her future she says that she hopes to go on making quilts. She is currently working on two pieces which are nearing completion and is getting fabrics together on the subject of water. Without doubt, judging by her previous work, Inger’s new quilt will provide a different slant on a familiar subject.
Photographs by Simon Milburn
First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 10 Number 10 - November 2002
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