Design: In bed with Robert Rauschenberg

The ancient craft of quilt-making has turned to modern art for inspiration.
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The Independent Culture
QUILTING SEEMS the cosiest of crafts. All those cheerful colours and that hand-stitching warm the heart as well as the bed with the promise of domestic comfort. But that has only ever been part of the story. Since the 18th century quilts have reflected more than the happy side of home life. They were made for marriages but also for mourning. In America, especially, the earliest patterns had didactic religious themes - the Path of Thorns and the Tree of Life. Even political events, such as William Penn's treaty with the Indians, found their way into patchwork.

Despite this, the humble bedspread was unregarded by the world of fine art until the 1950s, when suddenly the geometric blocks of colour in patchwork, especially in the quilts made by the Amish community, looked like Abstract Expressionism avant la lettre. Robert Rauschenberg incorporated a piece of patchwork into one of his works and, since then, artists have continued to look from time to time at quilts and quilt-makers have looked, increasingly, at art.

The modern quilt has found, or maybe rediscovered, ways of being more than decorative. It lends itself with ease to themes that have preoccupied post-war art - feminism, the value of home life, the personal as political. And quilts have the advantage of accessibility. They have always been made from domestic flotsam, scraps of old dusters, ancient fabrics and outgrown clothes.

Waste Not Want Not, by Michele Walker, in the exhibition now at the Castle Museum & Art Gallery in Nottingham, might be the quilters' manifesto. As carefully composed as any Victorian piece, it shows a table laid for eight but is patched together from the leavings of the modern home - frozen food packaging, plastic bags and photocopies.

The themes of modern-art quilts reflect the makers' lives, as quilts have always done. Those lives now usually include an art school training (as in the case of Dinah Prentice and Jo Budd, who both trained as painters) and access to more than biblical texts, although the view from the sitting-room window is still full of possibilities.

Michele Walker's Retread series takes the pattern of its quilting lines from the fields and woods near her home on the South Downs - a nice, snug idea, you might think. But the landscape she maps is eroded, scarred and criss-crossed with roads, and each one is beautifully stitched.

There are advantages to taking up an unregarded art. Quilters can say things about ecology and women's lives without giving it the self- importance of "political art".

Their work is often witty, and sometimes it can disturb. Dinah Prentice has a quote from Combat Handgun magazine running round the edge of a quilt where once there might have been a homily. The text is about "soft tissue disruption" - a euphemism for bullet wounds - its setting in quilted silk making a dark little play on words.

Since the 1970s many craft forms have tried to reinvent themselves as art. If quilters have succeeded where others failed, it is because they have kept faith with traditional craft skills. They are not trying to paint in cloth but are making use of dyes and stitching and the various surfaces of textiles and plastic.

Many, like Pauline Burbidge, have no point to make beyond the pleasure to be had in pattern and colour. She has for years composed sophisticated quilts based on the nine-block grid of traditional designs. Within the squares motifs repeat, some geometric and historic, others flowing and irregular, building up like variations on a musical theme. Her work belongs at a point where art and craft cross. It owed something originally to op art and something to Victorian patchwork patterns such as "tumbling blocks" but now, like any good quilt, it is more than the sum of its parts.

`Take 4: New Perspectives on the British Art Quilt' is at the Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Nottingham, 28 November-24 January 1999; Aberdeen Art Gallery 27 February-10 April 1999; Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, 15 May-11 July 1999; Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery, Carlisle, 23 July- 26 September 1999. For further information, telephone 0115 9153651