Clothworkers Centre - V&A - a Regency quilt

#fashion #museum #heritage #regency

The Regency piece I knew I wanted to see even before I started to look at what else there might be of relevance in the V&A collection, was the Ann West quilt pictured below. I'd heard a radio 4 documentary about it in 2018 and my imagination had been sparked. That documentary can still be heard on: and the experts featured on it talking about the quilt describe it much better than I could so I will only briefly describe my impression of the piece, and of how it's described, here, mixed in with the V&A catalogue description for detail.

In the BBC documentary, presented and produced by the journalist Cathy FitzGerald, novelist Tracey Chevalier (author of Girl with a Pearl Earring) talks of the story-telling potential with which the coverlet is imbued. It was produced by a Regency woman, Ann West in 1820 and is signed by her; a fact which by itself adds personalised life to the piece and invites imaginative leaps, conjuring up the woman herself, imagining how this creation came to be. It's V&A catalogue entry describes her as the authoress of a "needlework masterpiece" and says that she: "...may have owned a millinery and dressmaking shop in Chippenham, Wiltshire. To make the coverlet, she used brightly coloured woollen material from coats and uniforms, a type of cloth made in the West Country". The quilt is much larger than I was expecting and the Clothworkers' staff have to show it to us in two halves despite their being a very large table available.

It's the areas of Biblical subject matter where story is most apparent and recognisable, where the particulars are most obvious, straightforward and clear. The catalogue entry describes the central square where Adam is shown "...naming the animals in the Garden of Eden" but in total there are 64 brightly coloured woollen panels..." and whilst many more, across the centre of the quilt show other "...vivid scenes from Bible stories..." the rest, in the top and bottom third respectively portray "...lively depictions of everyday characters and occupations..." and pose many questions to the imaginative mind. The picture of Jesus' dress (above) shows just one example of how skilful Ann West was with needle, thread and fabric, to the ends of giving life to flat characters and adding relief to flat surfaces.

The beautiful detailing she incorporates mixes long and short stitches, padding and crumpling fabric to add character, personalisation and feeling.

Its' suggested in the documentary that, given its scale this piece might have been made to hang on the wall of a Sunday school or church, rather than to cover a bed. But the piece is a full throated mixture of the religious and the everyday. These are the people and animals that Ann saw from her window out on the street, or came across on country walks or interacted with whilst going about her business, or observed surreptitiously as they went about theirs. 200 years later to our eyes they are yet vivid and human and lively and real.

A tiny area of darning, where perhaps she ran out of red fabric pieces that were quite large enough not to need to be pieced together makes Ann West all the more human and relatable.

The catalogue entry describes how: "...Captions are embroidered over the appliqué pictures, adding humorous and personal touches".

Certain aspects of the images and the professions described tell us more of the period as for example it had then become fashionable to have potted plants inside ones house.

Whilst soldiers would have been a regular sight on the streets of Regency towns "...each panel acts as a window onto early nineteenth century life...they include a depiction of a double wedding, a 'Poor Sailor', and a '...servant and Master'.

The coverlet is indeed covered in stories of real lives, most of which we can only imagine. For more information please see:

These two sites are informative as regards how mixed race Britain was during the Regency and how wide spread slavery was still internationally just previous to its being abolished in 1833.