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Patchwork in Australia: Then and Now

Updated on January 1, 2017
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Quilter, author, tutor, and columnist, Jan T Urquhart Baillie has been sharing her passion for quilting for more than 30 years.

A very long history

Patchwork has been around in Australia for more than 40,000 years. Yes! 40,000. The Aboriginals made patchwork cloaks from animal skins.

The first documented traditional patchwork was that made by the female convicts sent out in the transports from England in the latter part of the 1700s.

Do You Leave Tracks?

Quilt by Jan T, made with fabrics designed by an Aboriginal artist

Aboriginal Cloaks - made with patched together possum skins decorated inside

The first inhabitants of Australia used to join possum skins together

to make cloaks to keep out the cold.

Important cloaks like this one were for special corroborees.

Picture from Wikipedia

The Rajah Quilt

made by convict women

Quote from The National Gallery of Australia

The Rajah quilt is one of Australia's most important early textiles. The quilt was made by women convicts on board the ship Rajah while being transported from England to Van Diemen's Land. While it is a compelling document of convict life, it is also an extraordinary work of art — a product of beauty from the hands of many women who, while in the most abject circumstances, were able to work together to produce an object of hope.

3 Things You Should Know

about Aussie quilters

1.They are gregarious

2.They do their own thing

3.They are innovative

Why do Aussie quilters make quilts?

all sorts of reasons

Australians who make quilts, make them for:

  • a new baby's cot
  • for a child's bed
  • for their own bed
  • as a gift to cheer a sick friend
  • art quilts to sell
  • art quilts for their walls
  • to celebrate a birth
  • just for fun
  • to commemorate an event
  • for public buildings...

In short, they make them for the same reason as quiltmakers all over the world make quilts.

Australian quilt milestone book

Quilts 2000 - Australia Celebrates
Quilts 2000 - Australia Celebrates
This project, of which I was a part, raised AUD$250,000 for the Paralympians in 2000, by inviting Australian quilters to send in quilts for auction. 600+ quilts are featured in this beautiful coffee table book I designed and laid out the book

What style of quilts do they make?

All types, from utility to art quilts.

Aussie patchworkers make quilts that are:

  • traditional, block-based
  • free-style art
  • whole-cloth
  • medallion
  • crazy-patch
  • embroidered
  • appliqued
  • pieced
  • string quilts
  • strip pieced
  • hand or machine worked
  • any kind...

How many Aussie quilters are there?

Nobody really knows!

Recent findings put quilters in Australia at around 30,000.

The figure is not substantiated, because many patchworkers work on their own and do not belong to organised guilds.

  • Some join together in what are known as cottage groups, or friendship groups.
  • Others belong to large, more formal groups, with several members.
  • Still others are members of their state quilting guilds.
  • Nowadays they join online quilting guilds and groups.

Australian patchworkers who join a group, belong to all four types of groups or

a combination of these.

What is a cottage group?

a bunch of cottages?

A cottage group — also called a friendship group — is a small group of quilters who meet in someone's home (the cottage) to sew and share.

The reason they are small is because people's homes are limited in space.

Groups are often closed because there are no more spaces left to fit anyone else.

The bonds that exist in a patchwork cottage group are very special, like an extended family.

Members of cottage groups forge life-long friendships with each other, supporting one another in times of trial or triumph.

What is a quilt guild?

Should you join one?

A guild is a membership consisting of like minded individuals who meet to further their patchwork and quilting interests.

In the case of a quilter's guild, this is usually in the form of:

  • educating quilters and others about quilts
  • collecting information about the history of quilting
  • providing avenues for study
  • exhibiting members' quilts to the public
  • grant applications to further the interests of the members
  • maintaining libraries of books and other information.

These guilds are often state-based umbrella bodies that can advise smaller affiliated groups on their operations. A guild can have individual members, or group members.

That means that if a group become affiliated with the state guild, then all the members of the group are able to use the guild facilities as though they were individual members. (There may be limitations to this, though.)

What is a quilt group?

What do large, more formal groups do?

These groups meet monthly on average, and conduct their own exhibitions, workshops, retreats, and fund-raising.

Because the membership is large, the intimicay level seen in a cottage group is not so prevalent, but friendships are still forged.

If a group is affiliated with a state guild, then members are expected to volunteer for duty at state level activities on behalf of their group.

In most cases, these large groups are incorporated associations, governed by the rules and regulations of same with regard to office bearers, treasury and insurances.

The resources available to incorporated groups are much greater than anything a cottage group would have access to.

For this reason, many quilters belong at all three levels.

Photo: A few of Eastern Suburbs (Sydney) Quilters at Jan T's Utopia in 2001.

What is an online group?

Many things to many people

Southern Cross quilters, known affectionately as SCQuilters, is a large active online group of Australian and New Zealand quilters living in those two countries and overseas.

When I joined in 1995, I was number 100. The current membership of SCQ is around 2000 quilters. Several spin-off groups have formed, where areas of special interest are discussed, including art quilts, crazy quilting, charity quilts and more.

SCQuilters are actively involved in helping others. Read how they helped me...

Contact Information - Australian Quilt Guilds and Organisations

The aims and objectives of each group varies slightly, but usually similar to those listed above.

Websites of a few Australian quilters - by no means a complete list

Just a taster for you to see what Aussie quilters are currently making.

Quilters are caring, generous people

Read about their gifts to others

Quilts for Keeps - Quilters help others by making quilts

Students in my classes made this quilt for the Quilts for Keeps Project.

Quilts for sick children and their siblings

The project was planned so that each child diagnosed with cancer at The Children's' Hospital, Westmead would have the opportunity to choose and keep a quilt

3 Things You Should Know About Quilts

1.They are valuable

2.They have moved off the beds and onto the walls

3.They warm the heart as well as the body

Or do you know something I don't?

© 2009 Jan T Urquhart Baillie


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