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The V&A has quilts all stitched up

The V&A's new quilts show is already causing a stir, with international enthusiasts block-booking hotels in west London. Viv Groskop finds out what all the fuss is about

As you step through the heavy wooden doors into the V&A's new quilts exhibition, the first thing you see is a four-poster bed, draped with bed hangings from 1730; these are made up of 6,500 individual pieces in shades of red, brown, green and blue. The lighting is low, the walls are baby pink, there are weird, echoing noises. I don't want to say it's womb-like, but it is.

Quilts is a strange, fascinating show, six years in the making and the first the V&A has ever devoted to the subject. It provides a window on to a world – a predominantly female world – that feels private and somewhat undiscovered. Already, it is one of the museum's most successful exhibitions, with 8,000 advance ticket sales; quilting groups from the US, Australia and Japan have made block-bookings with local hotels.

Curator Sue Prichard thinks this enthusiasm is partly due to the global downturn. "I started on this project in 2004. Now there is a huge revival of interest in traditional crafts. There are a lot of women out there who are really keen to learn new skills and step away from their computer and their Blackberry." She thinks many people will come not so much to marvel, but to gain inspiration for their own handiwork.

Not just a female pursuit

Personally, I think the exhibition's appeal is much simpler than this: quilts are comforting, intriguing, intimate and heavy with history. To enjoy them, you don't have to want to make one (and I really, really don't). But the air in the first room of the exhibition, which houses the oldest quilts, has a wonderfully musty tang to it, like breathing in the past – it's a transporting experience.

There are 71 pieces here, mostly displayed as intended: on beds or as wall hangings. Many give an insight into family life of their period; several are exhibited alongside letters and diaries. There are quilted cushions from the 18th century, when a mother was expected to "lie in" after childbirth, embroidered with mottoes such as Health to the Little Stranger and the slightly less sinister Welcome Dear Babe. (These gifts were given after birth; it was thought that receiving them before labour would make it more painful. If only a cushion could make a difference.) Every quilt tells a story: one depicting Aesop's Fables, dated 1780–1830, clearly shows evidence of two hands – one detailed and precious, the other slapdash. You start to form stories about who these people might have been.

Is this a women's exhibition? Yes and no. It showcases the ways in which women have used quilts to document the big events in their lives – love, marriage, birth, death, even their thoughts on politics and patriotism. But it is not an exclusively female art. One of the star exhibits is Grayson Perry's wonderfully disturbing Right to Life (1993), which depicts embroidered pink foetuses against a background of red, white and black velvet. And there are several military quilts, one thought to have been made by a private serving in India in the 1860s (soldiers were encouraged to take up embroidery to stop them drinking and gambling).

Some of the pieces are unexpectedly satirical. A cover depicting the A-Z of Love (1875-1885) shows a young couple cringing next to a moustachioed man, who represents G for Guardian. Other quilts are overtly political: one takes a fabric template of "Her Most Gracious Majesty Caroline, Queen of England" as its centrepiece. Caroline was never Queen; when she was divorced by the future George IV, many women were disgusted. (Jane Austen wrote: "Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, and because I hate her Husband.")

Impatience is a modern vice

What struck me most was how intricate the 300-year-old work was compared with the contemporary quilts. Perhaps this is an unkind thought. I'm sure a lot of work went into Tracey Emin's To Meet My Past, despite the self-consciously faux-naif stitching. Equally, Jo Budd's Winter/Male and Summer/Female (2010) is strikingly beautiful; but it is a quilt made of giant slabs of colour, not tiny woven pieces. Quilting has moved further towards the grand statement, and there is a kind of impatience to the more modern pieces. There is another tension here, too: the earlier works were never intended as art, or to be exhibited. It made me want to see more examples of modern domestic quilting, rather than the professional art work of Emin and Perry.

Above all, a theme of confinement pervades this exhibition – literal confinement (labour and childbirth); and domestic: these pieces required hundreds of hours of homework. Later, the theme resurfaces in another form. One of the most striking quilts here is by prisoners at HMP Wandsworth. The slogans are funny and poignant: "I miss my family"; "I will go home"; "I didn't do it, guv, honest". Having time on your hands can feed an extraordinary creative focus, whether you are an 18th-century woman, or a 21st-century inmate.

Quilts 1700-2010 is at the V&A from 20 March until 4 July. Details:

Sew simple: How to make a quilt

Where to start

The V&A's Patchwork for Beginners by Sue Prichard is excellent, as are a number of free online tutorials. is a good place to start, or eHow's videos ( Save your cash for pattern books – Kaffe Fassett is worth a look, or for modern stuff try the Material Obsession set by Kathy Doughty and Sarah Fielke. There are lots of workshops: I learned at Liberty (, but London's Make Lounge ( and Brighton's Just Sew ( come highly recommended, too. The Quilter's Guild can help find a course (

What to buy

Basics – a rotary cutter, cutting mat and a decent ruler – start at about £30. (Omnigrip rulers and Olfa cutters outshine any other products.) If you don't want to fork out just yet, though, get a decent pair of fabric scissors and cut each piece out with a cardboard template.

Stick to cotton, and mix expensive, patterned stuff with cheap, plain fabric to keep costs down. Liberty have a new range of material tied into the V&A show; if you're after something bright and contemporary, Amy Bulter quilting fabrics (at John Lewis) are your best bet. Or design your own – see UK-based – or recycle dresses or table cloths.

Seeking inspiration

Flickr's quilt group should give you a few ideas (, as will blogs such as See what contemporary quilters such as Laura Kemshall ( are up to; I also like the picture-heavy book Quilting, Patchwork & Appliqué: A World Guide by Caroline Crabtree and Christine Shaw. If it's real-life inspiration you want, take a trip to the Quilt museum in York ( or join the hardcore quilters who fly in from all over the world for Birmingham's four-day Festival of Quilts in August (

Perri Lewis © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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