The Fabric of Life

on Tuesday, 03 April 2018. Posted in History Centre, Wiltshire People, Wiltshire Tales

V & A Museum T.23-2007

Sometimes here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, a researcher turns up with an enquiry that really captures your imagination. This happened to me last year when Cathy Fitzgerald arrived to research material for Moving Pictures, a BBC Radio 4 production inviting you to discover new details in old masterpieces:-
This link will allow you to listen to the programme produced and review the image of this wonderful coverlet that the V & A hold in their textile collections.

The coverlet was acquired from Kerry Taylor Auctions with the support of the Contributing and Life Members of the Friends of the V & A and was made in Wiltshire in 1820 by a lady called Ann West.
Kerry Taylor of Kerry Taylor Auctions, specialists in textiles,  describes the moment of arrival when a gentleman delivered it covered and wrapped in a large flannelette sheet, which when unpacked revealed this large 2.5m square bed cover; a real ‘tour de force’, colourful, vibrant and packed with pictorial images that draw you in and begin to tell a story.

It is wool appliqué and patchwork, with embroidery worked into the surface and is a valuable primary source in a pictorial sense giving a snapshot of life in Wiltshire around 1820, focusing on the everyday and depicting various trades, professions and social events that were part of day to day life.

The images and especially the centre panel depict biblical references, such as the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath and Moses being hidden in the bulrushes. The outer images give a taste of rural Wiltshire life, so have a closer look to see what you can find.

The reason for Cathy’s visit to the history centre was to research Ann West herself. There is a possibility that she may have come from Chippenham as a Milliner’s and Drapers is listed in Pigot’s Directory of 1830 and 1842 in the name of Ann West, but this connection cannot be confirmed. There is also a possibility that she came from the Warminster area, but again, nothing has yet been confirmed. However, the cloth she chose to use is absolutely typical of West of England textiles and lends itself perfectly to this type of appliqué work.
We hold some good examples of cloth pattern books from the Collier family and Crosby and White of Bitham Mill, Westbury, and these show exactly the types of fabric used in the coverlet; strong woollen cloths, typical of the West of England and produced in a wide selection of colours. These would have been dyed with natural materials as chemical dyestuffs were not in use until synthetic dyes were developed in the mid-19th century, specifically William Perkin’s mauveine in 1856. The coverlet is also hand sewn; sewing machines c1820 were still in the early stages of development and not generally in domestic use until mid-19th century. You can begin to imagine the time it would have taken to produce such a piece.

WSHC 719/1 Collier cloth book 1774-1787

What can the quilt tell us about life at this time in Wiltshire?

There are 71 squares and 136 tiny people. The following image is an agricultural scene, a woman and a man stacking stooks of corn, just harvested, bending in their work, with the farmer being shown a nest of birds just found; detailed clothing showing a frock coat with buttons, pocket flaps and stand up high collar, work clothes, linen shirts and hats for protection when working in the fields. Many of our family researchers find ‘ag labs’ as occupations, so this is what they looked like back in 1820.

And what of other activities and occupations?

You will find soldiers in red wool jackets and the actors in ‘a play’, see below.


If you look carefully you will find many more characters; an auctioneer, a gentleman with his servant, an older couple greeeting each other, boys flying a kite. This is a brilliant snapshot of a period in time, observed and recorded by Ann West  almost in Jane Austen fashion. She observes the minutiae with a certain humour, so enjoy dioscovering it for yourself and viewing this period in time.

And what of the wedding? Is this Ann’s wedding? Look at the white muslin high waisted gowns with ‘pelisse’ over and feather trimmed hats; look at the vicar with open book and the stitched detail in the whiskers and hair of the groom and witness, and two speech bubbles; one saying ‘love her’ and the other saying ‘I will’

The research here did not lead to an exact identification of the Ann West who completed the work.  There are a few possibles; perhaps a ‘tayloress’ who lived in North Bradley, wife of a ‘taylor’ and showing on a census of 1851; or perhaps the milliner of Chippenham, showing on the 1841 census. And we do not know the purpose of the work; was it a piece intended for teaching, perhaps in a church or school? Was it simply a labour of love of everything that was familiar to Ann, reflecting her love of her community?

I am fascinated by it and each time I return to look I find something fresh to consider; the significance of this piece as a primary source is hugely important and I am so proud that it was ‘Made in Wiltshire’. Enjoy looking and listening to the programme to find out more, and if you have any information about our Ann West from c1820, please let us know.

Joy Bloomfield, Community History Advisor


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