16 OCTOBER 1953, Page 18


ByJACQUETTA HAWKES IHAVE recently bought a patchwork quilt. It is one of the kind composed of hexagons, which can be built up, crystal fashion, into larger and larger six-sided figures. As they are very small hexagons and it is a large quilt, the total number of patches must run into thousands. Some patchwork bedcovers are sumptuous affairs of silk, satin and velvet, but mine is a humble one, most of the fabrics being printed cottons taken, evidently, from garments intended for the country or quiet mornings at. home. It is not grand at all, but the blended colours are deliciously subtle, and it is older than is common : well over a century old.

It was, in fact, made at a time when leisure filled the lives of middletclass English ladies with the vast deserts of time that, stretch in the background of Jane Austen's novels. Leisure of an amplitude to allow the dextrous and unhurried exercise of the needle, even as it allowed the most conscientious embroidery of tender affairs of the heart.

The time and care demanded by fine pat6hwork is very great. Each piece before it can be fitted into place has to be tacked over an accurately cut hexagon of paper. The paper patterns should be teased out when the stitching is complete, but sometimes this task is neglected. In the shop where I bought my quilt they had recently found one in which the papers remained, and had extracted snippings from letters written in feminine hands, and even some penny blacks from their envelopes. Handwriting and stamps that had lain hiddp for so long in their little cells brought the seamstresses and their age very close, and as soon as I had my quilt home and spread on my bed 1 began to examine it as an historical document of private lives. It assumed some of the charm and poignancy of a stereoscope, its patches representing past moments of time stitched and held for later corners.

To my eye, admittedly inexpert, among the hundreds of designs spread before me it seemed easy to distinguish between a collection of elegant stripes, spots and sprigs, all of which might have come from discarded wardrobes of Regency tradition, and others, far fewer in number, crowded, strongly coloured floral patterns that already presaged the rising billows of Victorian fashion.

The sprigs and spots on many of the fabrics are exquisite miniatures, tiny compositions of leaves, flowers and fruits, corals, shells and a variety of the neatest, most fetching abstract motifs. Surely this soft cotton with wavy lilac stripes powdered with minute chevrons must have been the favourite of a young girl, worn perhaps when in the arbour she received her first proposal of marriage; this entrancing powder blue with sprigs of willow leaves and catkins in dark purple would be perfect for a young wife; some of the rich deep blues patterned in white may have-been added by the older matrons of the family, while the red netted with white- violets has a look of the nursery. These austere open checks and stripes appear to have come from aprons and petticoats, and the soft white cambric hexagons forming the background for bolder creations may ha've been cut in the privacy of the bedroom from even more intimate garments. I doubt if the menfolk have contributed anything to the needlework which they must so - often have seen in the hands of, wives and daughters—unless, conceivably, the ribbed 'yellow scattered with shamrocks was snipped from an outworn waistcoat. Among the few patches of imminent Victorianism, this jungle of blue leaves and purple fruits and this really peculiar thing of profusely foliating Corinthian columns and urns stand conspicuously apart. Perhaps they alone were never intended to be worn but to be used for what are now known as soft furnish- ings. If my guess is right, these particular pieces represent cuttings from new materials bought when, looking round their drawing room, the ladies of the house suddenly saw the tried elegance Of an earlier age to be intolerably old-fashioned. All the patterns I have singled out are no more than a very small sample from the entries in the wordless document of my quilt. There .are hundreds of fabrics in it, every piece carefully chosen by a woman and every piece worn or handled by her, a witness of her days. Many have been stirred by a beating heart, have come into contact with the thicker stuff of a man's sleeve or have been streaked and spotted with tears; some may have been adjusted to bodies falling into decline or swelling with new life. Now "these little rags endure while the ladies themselves have vanished.

They have vanished, but looking at the quilt I can see it as a patchwork of lives and living moments. The everydays of our-ordinary great-grandmothers were humdrum, undis- tinguished, relieved only by a few patches of joy and tragedy; nobody used words or pigments, history or art, to secure them for us in the flow of time as the ladies' own needles fixed these scraps of cotton. Yet they are still there, a part of the fabric supporting our present lives, for these days of theirs were patched together to make the stuff of the future world. Nothing that has ever been can vanish quite without result; nothing wholly new can ever come into being. Perhaps I am becoming pretentious, writing in a manner which these ladies whose lives I am celebrating might not have been able to achieve, but would rightly have disapproved. I will only add that my pleasure, in their handiwork is not diminishing with time. The corner of the room where the quilt covers my bed is filled with a pleasant harmony, emanating from its many soft dyes and its innumerable yet cunningly blended designs. -It is soothing, pretty and interesting all together, and my only complaint against it is admittedly an unfair one : too often I find myself gazing at it when I should be concentrating on my own work.