One element of the community quilt I felt strongly about was the inclusion of people who aren’t perhaps members of a sewing group but live locally and would like to take have a go at hand sewing.
I received a call from Ginny, the Head Librarian at the library in Alton, our closest town at only a ten minute drive from the museum, whose enthusiasm and passion is infectious, and with whom we agreed to run a morning drop-in session at Alton library. As libraries are free, safe places for anyone to go, as well as hubs of the local community, it was perfect.
The Austen coverlet used the technique of English paper piecing, where paper templates are cut out, and used to hold the fabric shapes in place. The Austen family would have used old scraps of paper and letters for templates as paper was expensive, and I wonder if potential drafts of stories may have been cut up and used when quilting.
We obviously can’t cut up original Austen letters, but we wanted to give a sense of the connection between Austen’s writing and sewing, so we printed copies of the letters and these were cut to create templates.
Over the course of the morning 17 people turned up and had a go at stitching their own block, many lived in Alton and some were so eager they attended despite having got back from holidays at 1am the night before!
Ginny and her team laid out a scrumptious selection of biscuits, tea and cake, carefully thought about with a lace cover for the trolley and the usual mugs were abandoned in favour of teacups and saucers, a hint towards Regency society.
Everyone was given a small envelope of templates carefully cut up and prepared by our volunteer Pippa, a quilting expert, who demonstrated the process to visitors. Despite being a keen crafter myself, I have never worked with patchwork, so after pretending to be busy and insisting on visiting the local Costa for coffee, I was sat down with fabric, needle and thread and talked through the instructions. The silence for the next hour was a clear sign that I became quickly absorbed. The pace is gentle and peaceful compared to the constant hum of a sewing machine.
It was a pleasure to be able to deliver our second community workshop in Winchester Discovery Centre café, beneath Alice Kettle’s tremendous tapestry hanging above us. The tapestry was beautiful but at 16.5m x 3m, it made our community quilt (3m x 1.5m) look extremely small!
Many of the participants had quilted before or had some craft knowledge and it was wonderful to learn about the Wessex Quilters project who have created a series of minature quilts inspired by Jane Austen. The more I learn, the more I realise how strong the link between Austen, needlework and quilting seems to be.
It seemed appropriate to be in Winchester the weekend of 15th July, as four days later marked the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s death. She died in Winchester at the age of 41, having travelled to the city to seek assistance from a doctor, a few months before.
Jane Austen was the last lay person to be buried in the cathedral, before her name became well-known.