Stitches in time: Quilt-making as contemporary art

Quilt-making is a serious pursuit for big-name contemporary artists – and as four of them explain, it's no soft option.
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If the thought of quilts makes you want to yawn and dive underneath one – then think again. Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry are just two of the contemporary artists whose quilts go on show this weekend at the V&A, along with other quilts dating from 1700. And for aspiring quilt-makers, there will be a series of workshops at the exhibition.

"Quilts stimulate memories of warmth, security and home, yet their layers can also conceal hidden histories and untold stories," says the curator, Sue Prichard. "Quilts 1700-2010 showcases over 300 years of British quilt-making; from the sumptuous silk velvet patchwork quilts created for affluent bedrooms in the 18th century, to the simplest of hexagon coverlets made by Girl Guides interned in Changi Prison."

The pièce de résistance is Emin's installation To Meet My Past (2002), a brass bed and sprung mattress with stitched blankets, curtains and a duvet.

The quilt itself is inscribed with "TO MEET MY PAST", and the cushion has the appliquéd text "I CRY IN A WORLD OF SLEEP". This hotbed of personal intrigue is complete with bodily stains, embroidered in red thread across the cotton sheets.

As the exhibition prepares to open its doors, we asked Emin and Perry, as well as Natasha Kerr, a photographic textile artist to the stars who has done commissions for Dawn French, Gary Kemp and others, and the multi-media artist, Susan Stockwell, whose drawings and collages of giant maps recently took over two rooms of the V&A, to describe what inspired them.

Quilts 1700-2010, V&A Museum, London SW7 (Vam.ac.uk) 20 March to 4 July

Natasha Kerr: 'At the End of the Day'

"At the End of the Day tells a story. It depicts my great grandmother and my grandfather looking exhausted in the garden after a hard day's work. The family had recently moved to the Wirral from London. Otto, as he was Viennese and German-speaking, had been interned, but was then released to resume his life as a medic.

This photograph was taken in one of several houses that the family rented during the war, houses that British families had evacuated. It struck me how poignant this image is: the landscape is barren, nothing is growing in the garden, the people are exhausted. The garden, devoid of vegetation, accentuated the fact that this was not home and no roots had been established.

On creating the surround I was following the angles in the photograph. When I had finished I was amazed to see that what was before me resembled a Union flag. It was, however, not a Union flag or a flag from any nation; it looked familiar, but wasn't quite right. I thought that given the context of the photograph it was quite fitting and called it a 'displacement flag'."

Grayson Perry: 'Right to Life'

"We are born and we die and we make love under a quilt. Right to Life is only the second ever quilt I've made, and a commentary on the American abortion debate of the 1990s. Years later, I still like this quilt, apart from the dazzling turquoise colour of the border. Now I'm much more careful about how I use colour, particularly with fabric things.

At the time I was interested in the whole quilt phenomenon. Quilt culture is very popular in America, particularly in the Bible Belt states, as a traditional down- home pastime for the good women.

It is a category of traditional object that also looks like a painting, so it translates very well into the art gallery context, in the same way as the pottery does. It is a real object; you could sleep under it if you wanted to, in the same way that you could put flowers in my vase.

At the time the debate around abortion was starting to gather momentum, people were getting killed because they were abortionists. It had become this trigger issue for the whole political scene around the Christian right. I was interested in making an object that dealt with that issue, at the same time as making a traditional object.

I made my first quilt, Tree of Death, in 1997, which was about AIDS. Now I have access to digital tapestry technology, and as I still get the same thrill out of making a tapestry I'm more likely to use that in the future."

Tracey Emin: 'To Meet My Past'

"By 1993 I had done a fair bit of sewing. Jay Jopling offered me an exhibition at White Cube, but I didn't really know what I was going to do. Nor did Jay. In fact, at the time of him offering me the show, he didn't even know I had been to art school; he just liked my ideas and writing. I then raided my clothes cupboard. Anything that had sentimental value that I didn't wear anymore was cut up and became my basis for patches.

And so it began, my first quilt. I have never called them quilts. I have always called them blankets. They were most definitely blankets at the beginning because they were made with the intention of going on a bed. I sold the first blanket, Hotel International (1993), in 1994 in New York. It was displayed on my bed at the Gramercy Park Hotel with me inside the bed. I never dreamt that anybody would want to buy it because it was so personal. When it sold, I curled up in bed with it tucked around me and cried at the idea of it going away. A lot of love had gone into it, and on the final days of getting it completed in time for the White Cube show, different friends had helped me complete the patches and sew them on.

Quilt-making has always been considered a craft. It's never been held up in the realms of high art. But I hope, I feel, that my practice has managed to change some of these conceptions. I have always treated my blanket-making more like a painting in terms of building up layers and textures.

Quilt-making involves a lot of thought and love. Just the time involved in the process means many things are discussed and considered concerning life."

Susan Stockwell: 'A Chinese Dream'

"While working in China and Taiwan between 2006-2008, I became fascinated by the incredible energy generated by the rapid rate of change. The quilt A Chinese Dream is a result of my experiences, especially in China. I've stitched and crafted almost 1000 Chinese money notes into a patterned, quilted map of the world. Like most of my work, the piece refers to trade, ecology, the present economic crisis and the shifting global economy.

For me personally it's a beautiful, hand-made quilt stemming from a tradition of women recycling old clothes, passing on keepsakes and sharing in a familial process that transcends generations. Ironically, the ritual processes involved in making a quilt seem to counter the crassness of money and consumerism. Money by its very nature is recycled; it's covered with the residue of many hands, pockets and purses – what I call the Stains of Existence."

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