This post is inspired by a subject I studied during university. I really enjoyed this research and thought it would be a shame to not revisit it! Here is a summary of my thoughts and findings on 18th century patchwork.
In the archives of the Quilters Guild Museum, York, lies the beautiful 1718 patchwork coverlet. Created from a range of silk fabrics placed in geometric blocks and encrusted with a variety of hand-stitched motifs, at present, the coverlet is considered the “earliest known dated British patchwork.”
Little is known about the exact identity of its creator, the mysterious “E.H”, whose initials are placed in an understated position towards the top of the coverlet along with the titular date. However examinations and detailed investigations into the intriguing coverlet have revealed a variety of clues surrounding the class, personal talents and thoughts of the mysterious creator. Ultimately the coverlet is a visual expression of identity and reveals ground-breaking ideas surrounding 18th century “femininity” and domestic needlework.
18th century needlework is subject to various opinions, both historically and within contemporary research. For instance Mary Wollstonecraft, the renowned social philosopher and advocate for women’s rights, often expressed her distaste for sewing.
“Confining girls to needles shuts them out from political and civil employments, narrowing their minds.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
Wollstonecraft’s particular views ties into the concept and challenge of feminine ideals. The traditional womanly qualities, that of “nurturing, humility and delicacy” which were also attached to needlework (examples: see Jean Jacques Rousseau’s work) were rejected by Wollstonecraft. Instead she promoted equal intellectual capacities, rationality and political independence of men and women and also attacked the process of needlework for being “motionless” and distracting these functions.
Hannah More, 18th century writer and campaigner, followed suit and claimed that the different types of needlework were true imitations of true femininity. Specifically, More had concerns with material culture and attacked needlework for carrying “aristocratic decadence” – it was nothing more than replicating aesthetic values to display the fashionable home.
This idea was more than taking the needle and completing embellishments or exotic motifs, it also surrounds particular fabric. For instance, cotton was often utilised for purely practical purposes, with items such as coverlets later being made from the material for durability and that is was more comfortable than previously popular textiles, such as wool. While the Calico Act of 1721 banned the importation and sale of these materials in England, there is evidence that they were accessed on the black market which can then be potentially construed as an act of desire – which to hark back to More’s ideals – the desire of material culture and taste.
The 1718 coverlet presents opposition to these powerful 18th century views. The visual elements of the coverlet provides a response to More’s aesthetic decadence; the materials used, the variety and the silks, provides evidence to the class of E.H – not necessarily aristocratic but from a family of wealth. The beautiful motifs, a majority being depictions of nature and wild elements suggests a rural location, potentially of agricultural wealth. There is no hint of cultural replication in the coverlet; while highly valued materials are present the central purpose of the coverlet is to depict an individual story, the life of E.H.
In regards to Wollstonecraft’s attack on needlework’s restrictive tendencies, a detailed x-ray investigation into the surviving coverlet has revealed a strict numbering system for the unique and extensive design. The material blocks of the coverlet mount paper templates which house the
templates which house the correct number and symmetrical design for each block. This numerical, among with various other inferences, demonstrates the high level of thought, focus and intellect of E.H and how the coverlet is an expression of these strong, natural faculties.
Further to expression, the motif blocks within the coverlet depict the memories, knowledge and interests of E.H. Specifically, they can tell observers what she has seen, from the different types of flowers to her own impressions of a wild animals as well as demonstrating her creativity with colour and placement.
What is particularly interesting is a specific pair of blocks which are located towards the bottom of the coverlet. On either side of a single diamond motif lies an embroidered lion and a unicorn, positioned in such a way that represents heraldry. With both the date of the coverlet and Wollstonecraft’s encouragement for female political thought in mind, this subtle pairing can suggest numerous political ideas. It potentially demonstrates E.H’s support for the 1701 Act of Union between England and Scotland or expressing herself as a loyal Royalist. Ultimately, the coverlet embodies and conveys a political and personal expression.
Not only do historical pieces of needlework challenge both historical, and in some cases contemporary, ideas of needlework and femininity but they provide a platform for a variety of personal expression and freedom.
 Heather Audin, Patchwork and Quilting in Britain, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013)
 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) With An Introduction by Elizabeth Robbins Pennell (London: Walter Scott, 1892)
 Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine.