Monday, 18 March 2013

The group dynamic 2: Red Cross quilts

By somewhat of a coincidence, another group quilt crosses my path today, one of the many thousands of quilts made by the Canadian Red Cross and sent to Britain as part of the war effort. This one comes with a story that has not been lost over time: the owner remembers her mother going to a relief centre, having been bombed out of their home, clutching her coupons for household necessities and choosing this quilt, along with a blue one that has since been worn out and lost. She even records that it was last washed in 1991.
This example still has the official Canadian Red Cross label, but there are no other clues, as the makers were required to remain anonymous - a rule that was sometimes broken, with fascinating possibilities for today's researchers.
As a group quilt, it reveals its personality in the fact that some of the blocks are hand sewn and some done by machine; although could this simply mean that the maker got tired of handstitching half way through? The individual block design,  best seen at the top in the one that has orange squares in each corner, is transformed in each variation according to the placement of fabrics. And it is this element of patchwork that first captivated me many years ago. But in this quilt, there is no attempt to balance the design across the quilt, a reminder that in harsher times necessity and thrift trumped aesthetic considerations, resulting in an urgency and spontaneity that are impossible to reproduce but are perhaps hankered after in our more privileged, leisured and introspective lives.
Many of the Red Cross quilts that have survived have had hard-working, hard-washing histories not only on the beds of children and grandchildren, but wrapping up bikes in the garage, insulating the loft or consigned to the dog basket. There are probably hundreds - thousands? - still out there, and they are a piece of social history that is, at last, being recognised and recorded.

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