Quilting is often seen as women’s work, but as the book Wartime Quilts makes clear, military men – soldiers, sailors and tailors – also have a long stitching tradition. Annette Gero’s lushly illustrated book features a stunning array of quilts made by both men and women. In the extract below Gero reflects on her own collection and begins to outline the history of quilts made with military fabrics, or made to commemorate conflicts. Readers in Adelaide can see many of these military quilts in the exhibition War and Pieced at the David Roche Foundation in Adelaide until 19 December 2020.
by Annette Gero
The sources of these quilts have been as fascinating as the quilts themselves. From the Crimean war quilt that was purchased at a jumble sale in England for 30p (US 50c), the intarsia dated 1719, which was found in a secondhand bookshop in Vienna, to those more recently sold at elegant auction houses. And quilts which were given the wrong names and sent me on wrong searches around the world to England and Europe.
Two of the most exciting quilts in this book from my own collection, which I have owned for fifteen years, have finally got back together with their correct histories. Every piece of the jigsaw involved so much excitement. These quilts even ended up in my exhibition in the textile museum Musée de l’Impression sur Etoffes, in Mulhouse, France, because my research suggested they were French. But now they have the proper place in history and indeed need to sit in a museum to be preserved for posterity.
The first intarsia [an inlaid textile technique with no seam allowances] I bought perhaps fifteen years ago, I expected to bid against every museum in the world, however, I was the only bidder. At that time no one really understood what these intarsias were. Even now I suspect there are many still in basements of museums or barracks of military museums, particularly in what was the eastern bloc, where most of these originated, and also the countryside of England and Australia.
My first exposure to intarsias was a phone call from a girl in Queensland. She said ‘I’m just peeling my beans over a newspaper and noticed there is a photo in the newspaper of a quilt with a double headed eagle.’ A few months later I was in Berlin involved in the first ever exhibition of intarsias, ‘Tuchintarsien in Europa von 1500 bis heute’ held at the Museum Europäischer Kulturen. At that stage there were only thirty-seven intarsias known in the world and Australia had seven of them. The Germans were overawed that second-highest collection of these quilts was in Australia.
We had fewer Silesians immigrants to Australia in the 1850s than America, and yet these quilts don’t seem to have survived in the USA. The majority of the American Silesians settled in Panna Maria, Texas in December 1854. However my contact with the quilting groups there revealed that, yes they made quilts, of course, but none remained from the old homeland. It is also interesting though, that except for the ‘found over peeling beans,’ most of the intarsias have lost their maker. Perhaps this is not unexpected as many of them are 200-300 years old.
The same seems to be true of the quilts made from military fabrics by soldiers in the Crimean War and those thereafter. This suggests that, perhaps, they were mainly made by military tailors, rendering no emotional significance to the quilt. These extraordinary geometric quilts made by the British from military fabrics during the mid to late 19th century have been found in England, Canada, Australia and the USA. Again only one or two seem to have remained with the descendants of the quilt’s maker, and there does not seem to be two quilts with the same pattern.
Why were so many made? What were these quilts used for? Even the collection of so many quilts into this book does not present a clear answer.
When we get to World War I and World War II it is a different story. Many of these quilts are still with the descendants of the makers or the maker is still alive. Instead of ploughing through the history of Europe and England these Australian stories are the real documentation from the family.
Annette Gero, Wartime Quilts: Appliqués and Geometric Masterpieces from Military Fabrics from 300 BC to WWII, is published by Beagle Press and is available at the David Roche Foundation.