Sunday, 13 November 2016

Somme Commemoration Quilt


Children looking at the unfurled quilt, 11th November 2016
(Photo from Cumbria's Museum of Military Life)

Earlier in the year I was commissioned by Cumbria's Museum of Military Life to make a simple crochet and knitting pattern for a poppy for an installation they were planning as part of their commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The poppies have been displayed from the windows of the museum building, each month more poppies have been added to the display, corresponding with the number of men who died each month in the Somme 100 years ago.


Somme Poppy banners, Cumbria's Museum of Military Life 2016

Another aspect of the museums commemorations has been to commission Prism Arts to create a community quilt. The aim was to work with schools and community groups from areas that recruited for the Border Regiment (which Cumbria's Museum of Military Life represents.) Making a community quilt is often a good way to work with multiple groups as it lends itself to being made in sections (if you make a patchwork or pieced quilt, obviously.) 


Participants ranged in age from 3 to those in their 80's

Patches from summer drop in workshop

Patches from summer drop in workshop

The museum did originally suggest that perhaps a patch for each fallen soldier from the Border Regiment could be made, as that would have been in the region of 1700 patches (and I knew I'd be the one sewing it together) I said maybe that wasn't the best way! The other issue with having a set number of patches is that, especially with community groups, you never know how many participants you will get. My feeling was that this project was about remembrance rather than numbers so I wanted to come up with a concept that prioritised this aspect.


Patches from Helena Thompson Museum Craft Group

Patches from Helena Thompson Museum Craft Group

Patches from Helena Thompson Museum Craft Group

During the First World War there was a 'recruitment line' from Carlisle to the West which more or less follows the route of the A595. The schools and groups we've worked with are all roughly along this route and I thought that rather than making a traditional blanket shaped quilt it would be interesting to do something different. I was also thinking about lists of names and roll calls and came up with the idea of making the quilt in a long thin strip that could be rolled and indeed unrolled. 


Patch from Prism Arts Studio Arts group

My patch

The next issue was imagery for the patches. As the museum had already done a poppy installation I didn't really want to go down that route so after discussion with the other Prism artists we decided that anything to do with the Somme could form the imagery. We put together a set of images (animals, comforts for the troops, insignia) avoiding weaponry and decided to limit the palette to the colours of the Border Regiment so that the finished patches would have some coherence. 



Patches from Tullie Textiles

Patches from Tullie Textiles

Whilst researching for this project I cam across the 'Christmas tins' that Princess Mary had sent out to each of the troops. Carlisle has a history of metal box making and I thought the tins would be an ideal size for each patch (12.5 x 8.5 cm.) As it turned out this was a bit small so after the first workshop we made the patches bigger (15 x 10 cm.) Although this size lacked the conceptual link it was much more practical! 


St. Catherine's RC School, Penrith


St. Catherine's RC School, Penrith

St. Catherine's RC School, Penrith

We worked with five schools, two community craft groups, two of Prism Art's groups and we ran a drop-in session at the museum. I thoroughly enjoyed the workshops, I was so impressed with how much thought, care and effort every participant put in. One of the wonderful things about textiles is that they are familiar and non-threatening, this means that whilst working with them people feel relaxed and comfortable and are able to talk about really quite difficult topics. We found this time and again on the workshops, alongside comments such as "this is so relaxing" we were able to talk about conflict, loss and sacrifice. I think we also inspired several of the children to take up sewing, I heard more than one of the students saying they were going to ask for a sewing kit for Christmas!

Brook Street School, Carlisle

Brook Street School, Carlisle

Brook Street School, Carlisle

The schools workshops were really interesting, we were working with Year 6 students mostly (and some Year 5's in the smaller schools) and it was heartening to see how thoughtful they were about the whole project. We had deliberately not included any weaponry in the image packs but even so I was pleased at how little emphasis there was on the mechanics of war. Discussion focused much more on the soldiers and the animals! For the school workshops parents were invited to join their children and when this happened it was lovely to see them working alongside each other. The Somme still looms large in our collective consciousness and I found it interesting how everyone reacted to the project with great respect.

Victoria Juniors School, Workington

Victoria Juniors School, Workington

Victoria Juniors School, Workington

Once all the workshops had taken place it was time to construct the quilt. I had asked each artist to sew the patches from each workshop together so that I would have several strips of patches to work with. I backed the strips of patches with khaki felt to represent the uniforms of the soldiers and to tie it in with the soldier puppet that lead artist at Prism Arts Ali McCaw  had also been commissioned to make.


Original embroidered postcards from WWI, from the collection of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery

Original embroidered postcards from WWI, from the collection of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery

Original embroidered postcards from WWI, from the collection of Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery
We had 353 patches, which when all sewn together created a strip 46 metres long. It was very hard physical work manipulating all that fabric, we tend to think of textiles as a very gentle art but actually it can be very physical and demanding. I couldn't lift my arms above my head for two days after making this piece! I constructed the piece roughly along the route of the A595, so that the patches from Carlisle workshops were at one end followed by Penrith, followed by Keswick, then Cockermouth, Workington and Distington at the far end. As I was rolling up the piece it struck me that not only was it like a roll call but also a bedding roll which was a connection I hadn't thought of before but that worked well.

Making the quilt

Making the quilt

Making the quilt

As part of the Remembrance Day events at Cumbria's Museum of Military Life the quilt was unfurled. All the schools were there performing songs they'd written with Prism Arts artist Mark Newport and Prism Arts Studio Theatre company performed part of their 'Tales of a Long Conflict' production. After the performances they were able to walk the length of the quilt, searching out their patches. The quilt will now tour each of the schools before coming to live at Cumbria's Museum of Military Life. This has been a very demanding project to work on but has also been very rewarding. The time, effort and thought that participants have put into their patches has been inspiring and I feel proud to have been part of this project. I think it is a very fitting way to remember the men who fought in the Somme 100 years ago.

The quilt rolled up

To see more pictures you can look at my Flickr album, Somme 100.

2 comments:

  1. Amazing piece - can't wait to see it 'in person'. Well done to all who took part.

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    1. Thanks Gill, I will update you when it returns to Cumbria's Museum of Military Life.

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