Old Irish patchwork quilts and traditions
by Roselind Shaw, quilt historian,
Belfast, Northern Ireland
A roughly constructed cot cover hanging
over a cupboard door. Red and white patterns were very traditional
in Ulster. © Fabrications Magazine. Click to enlarge.
During the 18th Century, patchwork and quilting were introduced
to Ireland by the English gentry. These ladies of high society,
living on their Irish country estates, were known to have taught
many needlework skills, including patchwork and quilting, to those
working in service. In time this craft spread to the surrounding
cottages, villages and towns. Ireland's tradition of patchwork
and quilting thrived and grew rapidly out of thrift and necessity.
Traditionally, Irish patchwork quilts consisted of two layers,
the top and the backing, quilted together with wave or chevron
patterns. The very early patchwork quilts made in England, and
those originally introduced in Ireland, also had wave or chevron
patterns holding two layers together. It is often commented upon
that the Irish did not do interesting quilting. The significance
of this is that the tradition never changed - but was simply handed
down from one generation to the next. The Irish lived in villages
and small communities, with little opportunity for travel, little
money and no chance of leaving the island except for emigration.
These factors helped to keep the tradition as it was.
In later years when sewing machines became available, patchworks
were often found to be hand pieced with machine quilting on top.
As very few owned a machine, it was prestigious to show off machine
stitching, pretending there was a machine hidden in the cupboard.
To others it was labour saving for the busy mothers and hastened
the completion of the quilt. These quilts were taken to dressmakers
or a local clothes factory to be machine quilted. Early Irish
quilts sometimes had criss-cross hand stitching in a one-inch
grid across them. On the introduction of the sewing machine, this
criss-cross was common on the tops as though it was still being
copied from the early quilts.
In mountainous, bleak and cold damp areas of Ireland, an old
worn blanket or sheet or red flannel would be sandwiched between
the two layers to provide extra weight for warmth. These patchwork
quilts looked very rough and primitive made up from hand woven
fabrics, tweeds and old suiting materials, possibly from suits
belonging to a male member of the family who had passed away.
The layers in these quilts were usually tie-quilted with sheep's
wool. These heavier patchworks were often made into log cabin
patterns. Log cabin was though to have originated in the Celtic
countries. It was a common pattern in Ireland and in the Isle
of Man where Irish farming families often settled.
Covering the table, a typical Ulster pattern
resembling patterns later seen in America. This coverlet
was not a 'thrift' cover but one which was planned for style
and good appearance in red and green applique on a white
sheet. © Fabrications Magazine. Click to enlarge.
Turkey red and white patchwork quilts featured very strongly
in Ulster, looking cheerful and much more presentable than an
army blanket covering the bed - a common practice. The red and
white patchwork was often referred to as the 'best quilt' and
would have been kept carefully and brought out only when visitors
came to the house or the doctor was visiting an ill patient. Since
not every home had a 'best quilt', when the need arose, neighbours
would lend one another a patchwork quilt to help create a good
impression. In the case of a family not having a patchwork or
even a blanket, coats were used. Old people from large families
recount the disadvantages of using coats as they were not large
enough to cover the occupants of the bed. Sleeves and pockets
were pulled out in the effort to keep covered and warm. To these
families to have a patchwork made from recycled material was a
step up in the world, from possessing almost nothing.
Many houses kept rag-bags for making patchworks. A piece of fabric
never hit the ground - it went straight into the rag-bag along
with with worn out clothing. In the case of families who were
too poor to use their clothes for patchwork, they would acquire
scraps from dressmakers, travellers or shop samples and factory
cut-offs. There were a number of shirt factories in Northern Ireland,
especially in Belfast and Londonderry. Off-cuts were given to
workers for making patchworks and as a result patchworks can often
be found with a wonderful selection of striped fabrics. Some linen
merchants had a day in the week when they sold off pieces of linen
to their workers for the purpose of making patchwork. These linen
pieces were usually made into frame quilts, which were very fashionable
in Ireland - yet another example of the early quilt tradition
being repeated. The linen pieces were also made into squares,
stripes and rectangles to form a patchwork, these being easier
methods for handling and stitching linen.
Flour bags were saved, washed and bleached to use as a back to
a patchwork. Four flour bags joined together covered the back
of a patchwork. Other types of patchwork made were mosaic and
crazy patchwork. Appliqué was also a very popular technique
in Ireland with turkey red shapes along with other colours (sometimes
green) sewn onto a white sheet creating many interesting quilts
and coverlets. These patterns were very similar to patterns we
see in American quilts. The Irish took their traditions with them
when they emigrated and over the years the Irish American connection
was kept alive with patchwork quilt patterns being exchanged between
the two countries.
Mosaic or diamond field. Hand quilted wave
pattern. This quilt came from a house in Londonderry. It
had been in a trunk for many years. © Fabrications
magazine. Click to enlarge.
Drunkards Path as most people know this
pattern. The lady who owned it called it Soldiers Wreath.
Machine pieced and machine quilted diamonds. Circa 1920.
© Fabrications magazine. Click to enlarge.
Irish patchwork scraps salvaged by Roselind
including a Victorian Crazy made into a folded lavender
bag. © Fabrications magazine. Click to enlarge.
Quiltin Parties - the Irish drop their g's - were a big social
occasion in Ireland. Starting with plenty of work preparing food,
griddle bread, soda farls and potato bread and the provision of
some beverage. The quiltin took place in a variety of places -
farms, church halls and even in barns - anywhere where a number
of people could congregate and make merry. Younger children were
usually at hand to thread needles for those ladies with poor eyesight.
If a young girl from the area was planning to get married, this
was a special event for all the relatives and neighbours. So a
quiltin party was organised to provide a quilt for her bottom
drawer (the drawer at the bottom of the family chest or cupboard
where the bride collected items for her forthcoming marriage).
The menfolk came to the quiltin party, staying in the background,
some drinking and smoking clay pipes, watching the ladies quiltin
whilst listening to story telling, singing and music. Someone
played a fiddle or an accordian to accompany the songs at the
end of the quiltin when the frame was put away and a ceilidhe
and a dance took place. These activities helped to fill the long
cold winter evenings, especially in the country.
Email the author Roselind
This article first appeared in Fabrications
Magazine (email: email@example.com),
February/March 2001. Republished with kind permission. ©