Camden Country Quilters Guild Cowpastures Heritage Quilt
Hanging on the wall in the Camden Library is a quilt, but no ordinary quilt. It is a hand-made quilt that had previously hung in the foyer of the Camden Civic Centre for many years. The quilt celebrated the Cowpastures Bicentenary (1995) and was made by members of the Camden Country Quilters Guild.
The Cowpastures Quilt is a fascinating historical document and artefact and tells an interesting story of the district.
The Cowpastures Review stated:
The Cowpastures Heritage Quilt, which is featured on the front page, is unique. It is a product of the Camden Country Quilters Guild. It was unveiled by His Excellency, The Governor of New South Wales, Rear Admiral Peter Sinclair on the 19th of February 1995, as part of the opening of the Cowpastures Bicentennial. It was given by the Guild to the Camden Council, which has it displayed in the Camden Civic Centre.
The Cowpastures Bicentennial Committee created postcards and notepaper featuring the quilt that was sold at Gledswood Homestead and the Camden Library.
Quilts were practical items with social value
Quilts have sentimental or commemorative value and are examples of needlework skills and techniques, and the use of specific fabrics used in their designs.
The Victoria and Albert Museum in London states on its website:
As a technique, quilting has been used for a diverse range of objects, from clothing to intricate objects such as pincushions. Along with patchwork, quilting is most often associated with its use for bedding.
Quilting first appeared in England in the 13th century, reached a peak in the 17th century and can be traced back to 3000BCE. The word quilt means a ‘bolster or cushion’.
According to the V&A museum, a quilt is usually a bedcover of two layers of fabric with padding or wadding in between held together by lines of stitching based on a pattern or design. Very fine decorative quilts often become family heirlooms and are passed down through generations. In a domestic situation, women made quilts to celebrate ‘life occasions’ like births and weddings.
The V&A states that quilts are often quite large and associated with social events where people share the sewing. In North America quilting was a popular craft amongst Dutch and English settlers and quilts were made as part of marriage dowry for a young woman.
Quilting is often associated with patchwork where the quilt was made of scraps of fabric or ‘extending the life of working clothing’.
Convict women and quilting – The Rajah Quilt
In the National Gallery of Australia is a quilt made in 1841 by convict women transported on the Rajah from Woolwich to Hobart. According to blogger Bernadette, a descendant of one of the women who made the quilt, it is one of the most important textiles in Australia and world history.
The textile is called the Rajah Quilt and was organised as part of the scheme organised by prison reformer Elizabeth Fry’s British Ladies Society for promoting the reformation of female prisoners. The quilt is made up of over 2000 pieces of fabric and it has been described as
a patchwork and appliquéd bed cover or coverlet. It is in pieced medallion or framed style: a popular design style for quilts in the British Isles in the mid 1800’s. There is a central field of white cotton decorated with appliquéd (in broderie perse) chintz birds and floral motifs. This central field is framed by 12 bands or strips of patchwork printed cotton. The quilt is finished at the outer edge by white cotton decorated with appliquéd daisies on three sides and inscription in cross stitch surrounded by floral chintz attached with broderie perse on the fourth…
On the Rajah’s arrival in Hobart, the quilt was presented to the governor’s wife Lady Jane Franklin by the 29 women who sewed it on the voyage to Van Dieman’s Land. Lady Franklin sent the quilt back to England to Elizabeth Fry and then it was lost. It was rediscovered in a Scottish attic and returned to Australia in 1989 and placed in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia.
The quilt’s story is one of hope at a time of despair and disempowerment from a group of women hidden in the shadows of history. A type of radical history.
Cowpastures Quilt tells a story
Quilts often told a story and in the V&A collection, there are a number of significant quilts telling Biblical stories, scenes from world events and the 1851 Great Exhibition.
The Cowpasture Quilt tells the story of the Cowpastures on its Bicentenary. The story was represented in the different panels in the quilt created by the Guild members who were part of the project. The quilt’s construction was a community effort and each sewer has their name sewn into the quilt.
The significance of the individual panels in the quilt was explained by the Cowpastures Review and it stated:
The central pane – the discovery of the Hottentot cow. The left pane – The Aboriginal influence, mining, the map of the ‘Cow Pastures’, representing flora and fauna and the Stonequarry Bridge at Picton. The right panel – St John’s Church, John and Elizabeth Macarthur, Camden Park Estates, Belgenny Farm, Gledswood Homestead and merino sheep and vineyards. The bottom panel – John Street, Camden, including ‘Macaria’ and representations of horticulture venture in the area. Not visible in the photograph in the names of the ‘quilters’ and some surprise ‘first family’ names.
According to the V&A quilting fell into decline in the early 20th century under the influence of modernism. It found a revival in the 1960s as part of the hippie culture and the art community and is firmly part of the art space.
Quiltmaking as art
Quilts’ inherent associations with warmth, nostalgia, and community make them particularly appealing now, in the midst of the pandemic and widespread division and inequity. Perhaps this fraught reality can account for, at least in part, why contemporary artists are drawn to quilting as a means to express themselves. The tactility of quilted fabric inevitability conjures domesticity, and every stitch—every precisely placed patchwork—brings us back to that feeling of the comfort and safety of home
Davis-Marks writes that contemporary American artists are engaging with the craft of quilting and building on the ‘enduring and complex history of quiltmaking’. In the US context quilting was practised by slaves, Indigenous Americans and other marginalised peoples as a form of expression and craftwork for the everyday.
Davis-Marks writes that the ancient craft of quiltmaking has resonance for contemporary artists in the age of social media and illustrates a broader appeal of working with traditional mediums of textiles, ceramics, knitting and other crafts.
In a January 2020 article for Artsy, writer and curator Glenn Adamson reflected “At a time when our collective attention is dangerously adrift,” Adamson wrote, “trapped in the freefall of our social-media feeds and snared in a pit of fake facts, handwork provides a firm anchor. It cannot be spun. It gives us something to believe in.”
Artists are using quilts as a lens to look into the dark history of the past. Sometimes these are called ‘story quilts’ where they tell a story in a narrative and figures. Artist Faith Ringgold‘s work often explores notions of ‘community and ancestry’ and said that she bonded through the experience of jointly sewing quilts with her mother.
The Cowpastures Quilt is a ‘story quilt’ and tells the story of our past as part of a settler society and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples. The quilt uses figures and narrative to examine the past through the lens of the women who constructed the quilt in 1995. More than this the Cowpasture quilt is a public statement and an affirmation of community through the collective efforts of local women who undertook the sewing project. The collaborative efforts of the Camden Quilters created a significant piece of public art and a narrative statement of who we are through the use of history.
Updated 26 August 2022; originally posted 16 August 2022