How the peaceful art of quilting got a very millennial makeover

Quilting is the latest in a line of bygone pastimes making a comeback
Quilting is the latest in a line of bygone pastimes making a comeback Credit: 0/YES

“I’m going to start quilting,” a friend announces casually, as if she has just decided to make a cup of tea. 

“You’re what?” I ask, faintly horrified by even the notion of quilts in this weather. “I’m going to make a quilt. I’ve found this template on the internet of a map of London which you embroider onto a huge quilt, and you put little stars by the places which mean something to you.” 

I should point out that this particular friend has never before been known to sew so much as a loose button, nor darn a sock. But sure enough, she has ordered the materials online (as a millennial, the concept of actually going into a haberdashery shop is perhaps a step too far), and resolved to spend her remaining summer evenings sewing. 

Frankly, the design looks so complicated I feel sure she’ll be at it until Christmas. The 2018 heatwave, I can only conclude, has claimed another victim — she has clearly lost her mind.

A few years ago, it was knitting. Just as Women’s Institutes began to get a boost from a new generation of girls intrigued by the simpler things in life, and the idea of being part of a gang of women, so too did these old-fashioned crafts.

Television programmes like the Great British Bake Off, Great British Sewing Bee and Great Pottery Throw Down followed, bringing families together across the generations with their wholesome feel, gentle humour and ability to transport you to a different time; when Sunday afternoons were for Victoria sandwiches and cross stitch.

Quilting is the latest, then, in a line of bygone pastimes making a comeback. They conjure up images of rickety old beds in Little House on The Prairie, piled high with soft throws and crocheted blankets in burnt orange and mustard yellow — warm, cosy, and whimsical in that oldy-worldy American way. 

They always seem reassuringly hefty and indestructible, and yet not nearly as thick or suffocating as a modern duvet. And with the weather finally on the turn (lows of as little as 10°C are predicted in some parts of the country over the weekend), a quilt could be the very thing you need to transition back to normality after these weeks of interminably hot nights, when even the thinnest sheet felt like it was made of fleece.

So where in 2018 would one source a quilt?

The best way, of course, is to make one. Quilting classes are becoming more and more widespread, with sewing cafes — like the wonderfully named Sew Over It in Clapham, London, where you can take a Log Cabin Quilt Class — popping up all over the capital.

The Shoreditch Sisters (an East London WI group) hold a regular sewing bee, which covers a whole range of skills, including quilting. The group even took on a project a couple of years ago with department store Liberty, making a beautiful quilt to commemorate the store’s 175th birthday and the centenary of the WI

Meanwhile, online company Haptic Lab allows you to download templates of city maps, constellations, and coastlines and use them to embroider your own quilt — ideal for those of us whose attempts to keep their home as Scandi-chic as possible would render a traditional floral patchwork number out of the question.

It’s a form of mindfulness, says Chloe Fox, who runs Shoreditch Sisters. “In a fast paced world where we live attached to screens, it’s refreshing to step away and focus on something like quilting. It takes precision and focus, which can sometimes be just what’s needed to take yourself away from modern day hectic life.”

There has been a surge in people taking up the hobby, she adds, as we become increasingly keen to keep alive traditional skills.

“I think there’s a desire to return to the traditional crafts our grandparents did and to enjoy taking the time to craft something, like a quilt, as a unique gift, rather than something off the peg, which anyone could buy, “says Fox. 

“We always seem to have a lot of people making baby quilts.”

Wedding quilts are also becoming popular, with many couples dispensing with gifts in favour of asking each guest to bring a patch of material - some embroidered with messages, others in a meaningful colour, pattern, or shape - which can be sewn together to make a memento of the day.

And for many, quilts aren’t just dusty, grandmotherly mementos, or something to snuggle under on a cold winter’s night, rather they are a work of art; to be hung on the wall and admired like a tapestry

'Quilts aren’t just dusty, grandmotherly mementos, or something to snuggle under on a cold winter’s night, rather they are a work of art' Credit: Hero Images

Anna Baptiste, who runs the Festival of Quilts, on at the NEC in Birmingham this weekend, says that there is a great deal of artistic skill involved in this simple pleasure: “People think of quilts as being things that go on your bed, but they are an art form and often breathtaking. The skill, vibrancy and creativity is extraordinary,” she explains.

This year is particularly special, I’m told, because the UK’s earliest known patchwork will be on display. The 1718 silk coverlet will be exhibited in a specially built enclosed gallery, with one of the prizes at the competition a private viewing (these quilters sure know how to live). 

The festival showcases craftsmanship from around the world, with hundreds of quilts flown in from South Korea, Japan, America and all over Europe to compete for “best in show”.

It’s rather like the Chelsea Flower Show but for quilts, and while the demographic among visitors has historically been similar (50-something, predominantly female), the festival is becoming popular with a younger audience. “In 2003, when we started, we had visitor numbers of about 12,000. Sixteen years on we’re expecting about 25,000,” says Baptiste. 

“There is a trend towards newcomers to quilting. There are people from different backgrounds and all over the country.”

So, take up quilting now and by next summer you could find yourself in a position to compete. Then again, you could just pop to Zara Home and buy one for £80. But where would the mindfulness be in that?

The Festival of Quilts is on at the NEC in Birmingham until August 12th. thefestivalofquilts.co.uk