What's in a war-time quilt?

  • Huswiff WWI military sewing case


    Huswiff WWI military sewing case

  • Soldier’s patchwork quilt with many stars c. 1860-80


    Soldier’s patchwork with many stars c. 1860-80.

    Maker unknown. Made in India from military uniform wool and beading. Hand sewn, 211 × 208 cm.

  • Beaded soldier's quilt, c.1860-70


    Beaded soldier's quilt, c.1860-70.

    Maker unknown. Made in India using military uniform wool and beading. Hand sewn. 160 × 160 cm.

  • War-time Quilts exhibition at Manly Art Gallery & Museum


    War-time Quilts exhibition.

    Manly Art Gallery & Museum.

  • Intarsia with Soldier's quilt, c.1760-1780


    Intarsia with Soldier's quilt detail, c.1760-1780

    Prussia, initials 'J S J’, maker unknown. 140 × 110 cm.

  • Quilt with cigarette silks, England c.1920


    Quilt with cigarette silks, England c.1920.

    Maker unknown. Silk with cotton back, hand stitched. 147 × 25.5 cm.

  • War-time Quilts exhibition at Manly Art Gallery & Museum


    War-time Quilts exhibition.

    Manly Art Gallery & Museum.

Quilting is broadly pegged as the crafty by-practice born from frugal ‘mend and make do’ domestic culture when making clothes at home was a regular necessity. It is also almost exclusively considered the domain of women.

The exhibition War-time Quilts, however, casts a different spin on the role and production of quilts over war eras, and shows how the hands of men turned to quilting as a past-time in the midst of some of the most extreme conditions.

Derived from the Annette Gero collection and on display at Manly Art Gallery & Museum, the exhibition includes quilts and historical paraphernalia drawn from military combat as early as the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), the Crimean War (1853-56), and World Wars I and II.

One of Australia's leading quilt historians, Gero has been collecting and documenting historical quilts since 1982, and is the author of The Fabric of Society, a publication on the rich and diverse heritage in Australian patchwork quilts from our colonial beginnings.

“Many quilts related to war exist in Australia,” says Gero. These came to Australia with Prussian and other German settlers in the 1850s and through British migration.

This very rare collection of ‘war quilts’ are made by soldiers and prisoners of war using rugged and difficult textiles such as thick felt, heavy woollen serge or worsted twill; all scoured from disused uniforms, army blankets and other discarded military fabrics.

“Ordinary soldiers on active duty endured long stretches of boredom coupled with intense moments of terror overlaid with extremes of cold and heat, seeming endless toil and long separation from family and loved ones,” explains Gero.

“As a form of ‘Trench Art’, these rare and surprisingly beautiful artefacts were made by soldiers during protracted lulls in the fighting, while recuperating from war wounds or else when interred in prisoner-of-war camps.”

In contrast to the roughed khaki and worn camouflage fabrics you expect to see from war-time and depression era textile work, this exhibition shows a vibrant palette that military uniforms were made from prior to becoming more instrumental in concealment and attack tactics. The fine detail shows the depth and aptitude of skill that came from the makers of these war-time quilts, sometimes by dedicated regimental tailors.

Quilts such as the Soldier’s patchwork with many stars c. 1860-80, were likely made by an orderly for a high ranking officer and uses the colourful regimental dress uniform fabrics and finely cut fringing to create its flamboyant starburst design. Other examples such as the Beaded Soldier’s quilt from the same era have heavy beading detail layered on small circles of fabric which were the by-product offcuts from button-hole machines showing how frugal ingenuity and the hand-made were continuing to source from industrial production methods.

Other highlights include the Prussian Intarsia with Soldiers quilt from the period of Frederick the Great which is approaching 300 years old, or the Quilt with cigarette silks for covering the mantel sill made from printed silk cards, mostly of many admired World War I leaders and flag motifs. These cigarette cards were distributed by tobacco manufacturers as some of the first promotional collectable cards and also helped to stiffen packaging in the Edwardian era until World War II.

War-Time Quilts: Quilts from Military Fabrics from the Annette Gero Collection is on now until 22 November 2015 at Manly Art Gallery & Museum.

For more visit: mgnsw.org.au/events/war-time-quilts-quilts

Planning a visit? Don't miss Stars + Stripes also on now at Manly Art Gallery & Museum: mgnsw.org.au/events/stars-stripes

In this article

Museums & Galleries of NSW helps small-medium museums, galleries and Aboriginal cultural centres create exciting experiences for visitors and, through this, thriving local NSW communities. We don't run museums, galleries and cultural centres but we care about those who do. We develop their skills, connect them with others in the industry, provide funding, point visitors their way, and give them access to ground-breaking exhibitions.

Museums & Galleries of NSW is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW.

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