Heirlooms stitched with precious stories

A community craft and a true labour of love, Deborah McGuire of The Quilters’ Guild shares the history and legacy of quilting.


Since Seasalt began, we’ve been celebrating creativity and craft. In the run-up to Christmas we wanted to bring people together with a series of workshops centred around community making, to meet likeminded creators and learn new skills.

The Quilter Guild, Marketing Director, Deb McGuire, @plainstitchdeb

Deb McGuire, @plainstitchdeb

This month, we’ll be holding gatherings to stitch together our fabric remnants to create exclusively-designed quilts that combine our rich colours and signature prints. Once completed, these quilts will be donated to St Petrocs who are working to end street homelessness in Cornwall. We asked Deborah McGuire of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles to tell us more about the history of this homespun craft.

People have often sought to reuse treasured pieces of cloth. Recycling, patching and repurposing are words that have been associated with textile use for as long as people have woven yarn.

The roots of patchwork and quilting lie tangled in these threads back in the mists of time. Born of thrift and necessity and the desire to celebrate the value of textiles, the inclusion of treasured pieces of cloth created intricate quilts imbued with personal memories.

Quilts are heirlooms, designed to be passed on

The Challans Coverlet, Made 1811 by S Challans 215cm x 230cm ©The Quilters' Guild Museum Collection

The Challans Coverlet, Made 1811 by S Challans 215cm x 230cm ©The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection

Cloth has a unique tactile place amongst the things we own – lying next to the skin, covering us in sleep, and indelibly wrapped up in ideas of comfort, warmth and safety.

We have also celebrated beautiful cloth by buying new materials for special quilted bed coverings and reusing precious scraps. Warm wadded layers are stitched together with love to make beds cosier, to wrap up those we love, making heirlooms to pass on through our families.

These are timeless impulses, and we have a wide, varied and vibrant community of makers in the UK today who still make quilts driven by these desires.

Britain has such a rich history of this craft

Walks Around St. Ives, each panel of Triptych 41cm x 60cm, made by Susan Denton in 1995 in Saltash, Cornwall. ©The Quilters' Guild Museum Collection

Walks Around St. Ives, each panel of Triptych 41cm x 60cm, made by Susan Denton in 1995 in Saltash, Cornwall. ©The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection

It was exported across the Atlantic, from Europe to the US as the country was settled. Quilts and patchwork tell important, often hidden stories about domestic life, about women’s lives in the past, about private emotions, and about the rural communities in the countryside and formal drawing rooms in towns where quilts were made.

These glimpses into everyday lives often don’t make it into the formal history records, but precious stories are stitched into these much-loved items, for families to pass on to the generations that come after them. In the past, quilts weren’t hung on walls in museums, but their very domesticity at the heart of the home gives us unique insights into the lives of the ordinary and extraordinary people who made them, loved them, slept under them and bequeathed them.

We hear these voices now when we look at the items they made with such love and care.

Making a quilt is a job better shared

Mariners Compass Coverlet. Made 1820’s by Mary Dennis in Devonshire ©The Quilters' Guild Museum Collection

Mariners Compass Coverlet. Made 1820’s by Mary Dennis in Devonshire ©The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection

Quilts have often been made together, in community gatherings and within families, often between generations. There is inherent sociability, the sharing of patterns and ideas, working shoulder to shoulder to piece up a large job into a task for many hands.

Today, involvement in patchwork and quilting can be important in helping people to reconnect with making with their hands, to make friends and networks, and to develop creative skills. A mindful occupation also has many benefits for mental health and wellbeing.

Quilts are truly gifts of love

Working with Seasalt, bringing makers together to work on quilts, using beautiful fabric to recycle into something both precious and practical has totally captured the spirit of making, community, patchwork and quilting, and indeed Christmas.

Quilts have always been gifted; to family and friends, via churches and benevolent organisations, and donated to charities. We’re delighted to have supported Seasalt Cornwall on the charitable gift of their quilts to St Petrocs this Christmas.

The Quilters’ Guild

The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles has regional groups all over the country and always welcomes visitors. Find an event near you.

The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection ­­is a unique archive of British quilting and social history, with over 850 items from the 17th century to items being made today. You can see it at Quiltmuseum.org.uk.

You can also read about some of our special items and their makers in our book Forty: The Evolution of a Collection.

Follow our vibrant community on Instagram @thequiltersguild or search the hashtag #imintheguild

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