Ask the curator: behind the scenes at The Quilters Guild
Heather Audin gives us some insight into The Guild’s Collection
What do you enjoy most about being a curator?
Being a curator is great fun! There is so much variety every day as there are lots of different elements to the role. I get to look at and research the history of the objects in our collection; write down the stories of the people who made them; help people to learn about their own family heirlooms; and when it comes to exhibition time – climb up ladders and hang the quilts up so that people can visit and see the beautiful textiles on display. My favourite part is that I am always learning new facts and interesting stories – and I love to pass the knowledge on, and make other people as interested and enthusiastic about history as I am.
Do you have a favourite quilt in the collection?
I have lots of favourites – it changes all the time! Some quilts I love because of their beautiful printed fabrics, colours and designs. For others, the pieces themselves are actually quite plain, but the story about the person who made it makes the quilt itself spring to life – like a character from a story book.
We have a beautiful crazy patchwork jacket from the 1940s that I would love to wear now. It was made just after the Second World War, when materials were scarce and times were difficult – yet this colourful piece is cheerful and optimistic. The style is fitted in at the waist and has a flared section at the back called a peplum, which would fit beautifully over a late 1940s, early 1950s skirt. It was made by a mother for her eldest daughter to wear to a tennis club dinner dance in 1948. She wore it with a white polka dot net dress. Her younger sister was very jealous – but it had taken her mother so long to create this jacket that she was very clear that she was never making another!
Another piece I absolutely love is this patchwork pocket, dating from the 1840s, made from squares of printed cottons. Nowadays we are so used to having our pockets incorporated into our clothing, but in the Early Victorian period and before, pockets were separate items – a bit like tie-on handbags. They were usually this teardrop shape, and would tie around your waist with a long piece of cotton tape. Just like today, pockets were a safe place to keep all your valuables – any coins, keys, trinkets or treasures. But you had to be careful to tie them on securely. Otherwise, like Lucy Locket from the nursery rhyme, you could lose your pocket and with it all your treasured items.
Can you give us some insight into the process you go through when curating an exhibition?
There are lots of things to consider when planning an exhibition, and it can be quite a long process from start to finish. Firstly you need a suitable venue that can display your collection items safely and securely, and make sure that nothing is damaged. Textiles are very fragile and require certain conditions. So we have to make sure they are kept away from people touching them, and also kept away from direct sunshine, which can fade the colours and damage the fabrics.
Exhibitions usually have a theme or story that links all the objects together. This can look at how things are made (such as sewing techniques) or examine the people who made them and their individual stories and lives, something we call social history. When picking the quilts going into the display, we make sure they fit the theme, but also that they are in good enough condition to be displayed. It’s no good trying to display a piece that is already falling apart, as we could do further damage.
We need to do lots of checking when preparing an exhibition, such as checking the items will fit into the spaces and that they are sturdy enough to hang up on display. This is called ‘Condition Checking’. We look at the whole quilt or object, and draw it on a piece of paper, marking any areas which are torn, faded or marked.
Once the objects have been picked and are considered well enough to be on display, we write the labels and the text. This can sometimes take a long time if extra research needs to be done. Labels usually explain facts and stories about each individual object, whereas the exhibition text acts like chapter summaries of the main parts of the overall exhibition story.
The text gets printed, the objects get packed and sent to the exhibition venue, and the exhibition itself is installed – ready for the public to view.
How do you care for the collection and keep it safe?
We look after the collection by keeping all of our quilts in special conditions. Each object is wrapped in acid free tissue paper and folded into archival quality storage boxes, or rolled around long tubes. These boxes and tubes are clearly labelled and put in a secure temperature and humidity controlled store room, to protect them from any changes in the environment. They are checked regularly for pests, such as clothes moths, that feed on textile materials. We also make sure we don’t handle the items too frequently, as excessive handling can cause damage to fragile textiles.
What’s the most unusual quilt/story you’ve come across?
I like this piece (right) by James Burt. He made it for his friend, Wilfrid McSloy when they were both patients in a special hospital for those recovering from tuberculosis in the 1930s. It took James a year to sew this piece by hand, and it contains 12,264 square patches! It is rare that items are made by men, so this piece is more unusual.
What top tip would you give to an aspiring curator?
Visit lots of museums, enjoy learning about the past, and let your enthusiasm and passion shine through. There are lots of ways to get involved in museums – curatorial posts, community engagement, education officers, and even digital and media roles. Be prepared to volunteer and work your way up – but mainly enjoy history and making it accessible to future generations. It is a very rewarding sector to work in!