Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Ancestral Gifts - Kaffe Fassett at The Quilt Museum and Gallery

Last Wednesday, we went to York to see Kaffe Fassett's exhibition 'Ancestral Gifts' at the Quilt Museum.  There will be only one more round of exhibitions at the museum before it closes at the end of October and the Kaffe Fassett exhibition will probably be the last one we'll see there.

St Anthony's Guildhall has just proved too expensive to run given the actual number of visitors, much lower than the consultant's projections, so it is ironic that this exhibition has had 8,000 visitors since it opened in the spring.  It is a shame that Kaffe Fassett, who is Patron of the Quilters' Guild, didn't manage to have an exhibition sooner.  It might have helped to put the museum on the map.

Resources like the Library will still be available to Guild members once the Guild offices move out, but presumably not like this.

St Anthony's Guildhall was always going to be restrictive on space, with one main gallery and the smaller Bailey Gallery to the side.  One of the problems with the building, being a medieval guildhall, was always going to be a limit on the available space.  In the main gallery, the exhibition made the most of what was available, with Kaffe's modern interpretations of various quilts from the Guild's collection hung like banners, with the original quilts displayed on the walls. Of course, the old quilts are the ones where I would have really liked to be able to see the backs...

Several quilts were displayed on plinths, including the Mrs Fitz-Herbert ribbon quilt.  While the date given for this is 1800 - 1850, I wonder if the purple might be Perkin's mauve (1856) and the magenta also looks like an early chemical dye - it was patented in 1859.  It is the most incredible collection of ribbons.  I wish we could buy ribbons like these today.

I was really more interested in seeing a number of my favourite antique quilts one last time before the museum closes.  Although the plan is to send exhibitions out to other museums, it might be a few years before I can see some of these again.  Usually, exhibitions are the museum are strictly 'no photography', but I had heard that this exhibition allowed photos, apparently on Kaffe's request - an opportunity I didn't want to miss. 

You can look through the Guild's collection online for more information about all these antique quilts, like this 1930s patchwork below, made from 1in squares.

Log Cabin was represented by the Elderton Log Cabin.  I wish we could have seen the back, as it is a strippy.


We got to see the back on Kaffe's version, which was rather wild too.

This diamond medallion top is amazing.  Kaffe had simplified the idea into consecutive borders of large scale prints.


The higgledy piggledy arrangement of stripes in these diamonds is so lively.  Conservation net, to protect the edges, could be seen on this patchwork.

I like the way the corner was turned, with a skinny triangle.

There are some very early prints in this patchwork, including the brown background chintz below.

I can't remember the title of this quilt and I can't find it in the collection online, although I think I've seen a photo of it before.  UPDATE - Liz sent me the link in one of the comments below.  It is the Cartwright Hexagon Coverlet. It has a great selection of fabrics, spanning a long time period.  I think the outer diamond border must have been a later addition, as the prints don't appear elsewhere in the quilt and one looks rather like a cretonne from around 1910 - I think the date given was nineteenth century. Now I've got the museum's collection page link up, I can see that they also think the border is later.

There is some fabulous fussy cutting of the prints in this top, such as the teal blue floral above, which is actually a weave effect print with floral squares, as you can see below.   The green and peach print appears in both the diamond border and the hexagon centre.  The print used for the 'shirting' fabric in the band between the purple print hexagons above has also been fussy cut, to remove the small teal blue and pink flower sprigs and only use the geometric pattern in the background.

The floral chintz with the brown background (above the two red prints) looks like one of the oldest prints in this quilt, along with the multicoloured large floral used for the triangle at the bottom left, which is also used for the long kite quadrilaterals that turn the diamond border corners.

This was the quilt I was most interested in seeing at the exhibition - the Sidmouth Quilt.  I am making my own version, which I'm calling 'Sidmouth Revisited', using the chintz panel reprint available from the museum shop.  This is the centre of my version (below).

 Kaffe's version.

The exhibition was an excellent opportunity to see the quilting and fabrics used in more detail.

I think it was quilted from the back.  The prints on the front are much too busy to be able to see any kind of marking for quilting.  Because it had been hanging for so long in the exhibition, the quilt had started to curl away from the wall at the sides, so I could use the camera to get some images of the quilting at the edges.  It definitely looks like the stitches were made from the back, not the front.

I have seen the Wheels quilt in an earlier exhibition and was struck then by the use of stripes within the wheels, which makes the patchwork so much more interesting.  The maker must have taken a lot of care to use them like this.

I thought Kaffe might have used some of his lovely woven stripe fabrics in his version, but he had focused on polka dots instead.  The change of fabric print gives his quilt a very different feeling from the original.

The Hearts and Crosses Coverlet is one of my all time favourites from the Guild collection and I have developed the strip idea into my workshop quilt, Super Strips, which I've been teaching since 2009.  I first saw it at the Guild AGM in Eastbourne and could only make a sketch.  It was shown at Hartlepool in 2012, where I managed to get some other photos of it.  I remember when I saw it in 2012, I was surprised to find that the strips weren't all the same width, which is how I had remembered them!  Like my workshop version, Kaffe's quilt used strips of equal width.

The applique is stitched with tiny herringbone stitches, rather than being needleturned or blanket stitched, as we might do it today. The same applique technique is used on the Red Manor House applique coverlet.

The Ridehalgh quilt was displayed at the start of the exhibition. I thought this was a coverlet rather than a quilt? The long stitches in gold thread used to outline the silk patchwork add to the overall rich effect.  You can see a tiny bit of Kaffe's quilt on the left.

This Purple Frame quilt has such a great collection of purples, plums and blues in the prints.  I've been collecting similar prints for a few years and plan to make my own version of it soon.  The irregularity of the pieces with the symmetry of the fabric placement is very appealing for me.

This Canadian Red Cross quilt was Glyn's favourite.  It was made from suiting samples and tied rather than quilted.  Kaffe's version in blues and purples was probably the quilt I liked most from his selection - and it was the simplest.  It doesn't have the same impact as the original, perhaps because the strips were turned through ninety degrees and the play of light and dark, which makes the original quilt seem like an abstract painting, isn't as defined.

The use of stripes and directional fabrics in this Church Window Hexagon variation quilt is wonderful.  I love the way the maker has matched up the stripes so they seem to frame the inner squares.


Kaffe's quilt didn't have many stripes and they were arranged in a way that suggested a twist rather than a frame, although they weren't perfectly matched to really complete the illusion.


The irregularity of this Chevron Strippy makes it so lively to look at.  It contains quite a variety of Turkey Red prints in the strips, which I hadn't spotted when I saw it in photos.

Like most of his other quilts, Kaffe's interpretation of this design was heavily simplified.  The striped fabrics in this reminded me of a range of striped prints Michael James designed about fifteen years ago, which were in turn based on his use of stripes in quilts.

I enjoyed being able to see (and photograph) the quilts from the Guild's collection but the Kaffe Fassett quilts weren't all that interesting for me.  I know many of the antique quilts he chose for his inspirations were very complex quilts, but I felt that he had over simplified the designs in his versions.  The approach Kaffe has taken to quilting has never seemed as through as his approach to knitting or needlepoint.  I'm sure he has said/written many times that he felt he had to learn the process to be able to design but he doesn't make his own quilts, which has always seemed rather disappointing.  Certainly, I was expecting more exciting quilts than the ones he has designed for this exhibition. There is a book of his patterns available, also called 'Ancestral Gifts'.

UPDATE - have a look at the comments section too. 

This exhibition will be going to the USA soon - the Michener Art Museum.


Susie Q said...

I want to go back and reread what you have posted....there is a lot of information here but soon it is "dog" time.

You bring up an interesting point about detail of Kaffe's knitting, needlepoint and quilts. He does the knitting and needlepoint himself and I doubt that few ever have "done" his patterns.... there will not be dozens of objects for show in the generations to come.

With the quilts he does work with Liza Lucy but more important he is selling fabric as well as patterns. (There is a FB group - Kaffe Fasset Collective for eye candy) An abundance of detail work may not sell well. Which could lead to the fabric company not wanting to continue to produce his and his collective's designs. So I am thinking it is not the same business model. For years I bought the new quilt book each year and have a special place for my Kaffe fabric. I no longer buy the book of the year.

Your write up of the quilts - from Kaffe to Original is wonderful, detailed and appreciated. I am a tad surprised that I have not noted this show before. I read A LOT of blogs and usually catch shows from several writers. Always sad when a venue is closing.... my town has had two shops close this summer - shops and museums are not the same but still fewer places to kibitz. Thank You

Liz said...

Hi Susan, Thanks for a very interesting blog, I've been twice to this exhibition and like you wasn't keen on Kaffe Fassett's quilts the first time as I was more interested in the old quilts and his didn't quite match up to the work in them. I did enjoy the second visit more though, presumably as I had different expectations to the first visit and looked at them in a different way. The name of the quilt that you couldn't remember is 'Cartwright Hexagon Coverlet' and is dated at 1865 the page is here

Susan Briscoe said...

Susie Q - Yes, I follow the Kaffe Fassett Collective on Facebook. I've used a lot of Kaffe's fabrics, including a lot of his shot cottons, woven strips and ikats, in my quilts too. For a long time, in the 1980s and 1990s, he was my textile hero. I loved his knits and needlepoint, and his use of colour, but once he started doing quilts I felt very let down that he didn't seem to approach making the quilts in the same way. I think there were a few quilts he had sewn himself when we saw the exhibition at Aberdeen last year - In the 1980s, I remember him saying several times that he had to learn how to knit to know how to design for knitwear etc. and he used to stitch the originals for he needlepoint pieces as well. He just seemed to have a more 'hands on' approach.

Liz - I felt the same way about Kaffe's quilts on this visit. Unfortunately, I only had one chance to go.

I didn't feel so much that the simplification of some designs was about making the quilts more accessible to beginner makers, but as though Kaffe just hadn't gone the extra step with his interpretations that he could have done. Like using more stripes, when he has designed such great stripe collections in the past and many of the original quilts made a play with striped and directional designs. Although I haven't seen his V & A quilt collection in real life (only in the book), I think he made better quilts inspired by those than the Quilt Museum's collection. Not because the Quilt Museum's quilt's aren't equally inspiring, it just feels like he could have done a little bit more with his versions. LOL, it must be the quilt teacher in me coming out!

Nifty Quilts said...

Thank you for all of these photos! It looks like a fantastic show, especially the old quilts.

Ailsa (Cape Pincushion) said...

Thank you very much for all the detailed photos of the show, its such a treat when one lives so far away from UK to be able to still enjoy it. As a huge Kaffe Fassett fan, I do love his wild colours and yet harmonious compositions. The old quilts are much more skilled and detailed, and the faded fabric colours are often so peaceful. But perhaps the old quilts were more vivid and wild originally?

Susan Briscoe said...

Quite a lot of the antique quilts in the exhibition are pre 1850, and these would be all vegetable dyes. I don't think there's a lot of fading in any of the quilts that were on show, it is just that the original colours were more perhaps more subtle than we are used to. Where fabrics have faded or disappeared from old quilts, it tends to be colours like pinks, black and brown that have gone, due to unstable dyes and mordants that have rotted the fabrics (black and brown).

Certainly the kind of rich, saturated chemical colours we are used to today were not possible with C19th dyeing techniques, nor were their screenprinted combinations. Some of the C19th colours could only be created with overdyeing (there aren't many natural dyed greens). I think the C19th patchworkers would have liked Kaffe's fabrics very much, especially the wilder colour combinations (magenta, purple, red and rich blue would have gone down well) and would have made some fabulously detailed quilts with them too.

The tonal balance in the 'Wheels' patchwork looks like something has changed in the colours but most of the others are in pretty good condition colourwise.