Linen

Linen

When we think of quilts we generally think of cotton cloth and cotton filling, so why am I making this quilt from linen cloth with a wool filling?

Cotton is the most common fibre used for contemporary quilt making and it is also the fibre that many surviving antique quilts are made from.  There are, however, some beautiful surviving examples of linen quilts and woolen quilts in the collections of The Bowes Museum and Beamish, The North of England Open Air Museum, the materials having been home spun and mill woven and finished before being hand quilted.  Linen and wool areboth key indigenous fibres of the British Isles and both were produced for domestic and commercial use for centuries before cotton began to be imported into the United Kingdom.  Linen and wool quilts belonged to everyday people and were used until they were worn out, so, as with so many everyday textile items made and used before the nineteenth century, few examples remain.

I like to work with local indigenous fibres, they are another link, alongside tools and techniques, to the textile workers of the past and the future.  The South Cumbria region in which I live is well known for wool production, indeed the Kendal motto is: ‘wool is my bread’ and I will come back to consider wool again later in this blog.  Less well known is the importance of linen production and use in the area, however, John Sommervell (2) writes of several flax mills sited on the River Bela, the river that flows through Milnthorpe, the village in which I currently live, and many more flax mills sited on the other local rivers.   Linen must, therefore, have been produced locally in sufficient quantities to keep all of those flax mills in business.  Research undertaken by Margaret Robinson (3) found that between 1750 and 1830 there were commercial flax dressers and weavers working in Milnthorpe, Kendal and many other south Cumbria villages and towns as well as the many other domestic dressers, spinners and weavers of linen.  As I weave my long linen cloths for this quilt it is good to feel part of the local textile heritage.

The heritage of linen is, therefore, the reason that this quilt will be made from hand woven linen cloth.  Unfortunately it is now impossible to find locally grown and dressed linen fibre or yarn and I have to source my linen from Ireland or even further afield. I still find the natural strength and sheen of bleached linen fibre and yarn, one of the indigenous British fibres, perfect for my purpose and a line of continuous thread linking the textiles of past, present and future. 

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Northumberland – Banners, Quilts and Knitted Lace

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It is good to be back in Northumberland again, it is truly a meeting point of work on the land, work on the sea and work in heavy industry. All work that has a very masculine identity and history but all work supported by women and women’s industry, though the women’s role is often hidden or forgotten.  It is interesting to consider the how essential textiles are in much of the women’s support and industry, sewing and knitting to keep their own family warm and protected whilst also making quilts to supplement the family income. or as was quite often the case, the only income in times of hardship.

Today I met a fascinating lady who is one of the last Northumberland lace knitters and she used to do this for a living with a pittance of a wage – textile work, women ‘s work, never seems to be highly valued.

This same lady comes from a strong mining heritage and had some very interesting stories to tell of the day to day hardships endured by mining families during the miners’ strikes.  Her stories, along with others that I have heard over the last few days, from mining families, non-mining families, police families and others caught up in the dispute, reveal a human story full of grey areas that has been blotted out by the black and white ‘conflicts’ presented by government and press.

The variety of miners’ banners, full of colour and vigour in the face of adversity, made by women to support their men, also bear testament to the importance of textile as a means of peaceful protest.

Banners, knitted lace and quilts – textile work, women’s work, work that keeps and tells stories.

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A Beginning

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Many good stories start at the beginning, and the beginning of any good textile story has to be the point that Peter Dormer speaks of as “below the line” – ‘the making which begins with the production of the raw material … that which is hidden from sight and which the consumer takes for granted.’ (1)

This first piece for ‘The Story of a Quilt’ project, however, doesn’t start right at the beginning, with the growing, preparing and spinning of the raw fibre. These elements of the story will not be ignored as the story progresses, but for now we will begin with the weaving.

Yesterday I finished setting up my loom to weave the thirteen and a half metre long and ten inch wide strip of linen cloth that will become the top fabric of the first quilt.  Setting up a warp can be a therapeutic process as an apparent tangle of yarn, chained from the warping board, gradually begins to come under control.  An age-old sequence of sorting ‘ends’ has to be followed, firstly through a ‘raddle’ to wind onto the back beam, and then, after winding, through the ‘heddles’ that will lift the threads alternately as the weaving takes place, and lastly through the ‘reed’ that will ‘beat’ the weft yarns into place, creating an ordered framework of warp into which the weft can be woven.

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The repetitive processes involved in setting up my loom link my actions to those of other weavers and reveals the repeating cycles of textile making.  I feel part of a continued heritage of textile production knowing that these actions have been performed millions of times before and will continue to be performed every time a woven textile is to be created.

As I set up my loom I could also see a connection to the process of creating stop-motion animation, as small movements are repeated, photographed and a chaotic collection of stills gradually become an ordered piece of film when they are placed into a timeline during editing. Whilst working I have noted the opportunities for recording making in this way when I next set up the loom to weave the backing cloth.

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