Exhibit of the Week: Star quilt

The star quilt with the corner turned up to show the material underneath.
The star quilt with the corner turned up to show the material underneath.

This beautiful patchwork quilt was lovingly made by a young woman called Hannah Vasey in either the 1870s or 1880s, and many years later donated to the Scarborough Collections by her great-great niece.

Hannah was an apprentice seamstress at Marshall and Snelgrove at the time – older readers will remember the department store on the East side of St Nicholas Street – and this was probably part of her training.

Marshall and Snelgrove was a beautiful and very upmarket department store, its goods packed in distinctive black boxes with garlands of ribbons and flowers in colours not dissimilar to the front of the quilt – perhaps young Hannah was influenced by a hatbox.

The shop had been founded in London’s Vere Street, just off Oxford Street, by Yorkshireman James Marshall and his partner, a Mr Wilson, in 1837. They were soon joined by a third partner, Mr Stinton. After his retirement in 1848, a staff member called John Snelgrove joined the partnership and the famous name came into being.

By the mid-19th century, Marshall and Snelgrove had premises on Oxford Street itself, and by the mid-20th century had established branches in Scarborough, York, Harrogate, Birmingham, Manchester, Southport, Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford.

The hardships caused by the First World War – during which Hannah may well have still been working at the store – had an impact on high-end department stores such as Marshall and Snelgrove. It established a relationship with Debenhams to help see it through these difficult times, and the two merged formally in 1919.

The Scarborough store, which stretched along St Nicholas Street where a series of bars are now, closed in 1972, the premises being sold to a local property developer for £100,000.

Quilting has been a hugely popular pastime for centuries – until very recently, the craft had its own national museum in York. It involves stitching together several layers of fabric (usually three) to make a thicker material whose layers trap the air to make it very effective insulation.

As in our example today, the reverse layer is often a single piece of fabric; in the middle is the insulating material, or batting; and the front is made from smaller pieces of fabric stitched together, allowing for endless creativity from the maker. It’s also, of course, an effective method of recycling, using up bits and pieces of leftover fabric to create something both functional and beautiful.

Our seamstress has stayed within the realms of her experience and chosen a fairly simple star pattern – others might choose considerably more complex versions, including rings. And quilters don’t always stick to geometric patterns – so-called improvisational quilts see the stitcher working with whatever pieces of fabric they have to hand, creating random riots of colour and pattern.

The techniques of quilting may date back as far as ancient Egypt, but today we’re more likely to associate the process with the culture of the United States, particularly in the north. Quilts had particular resonance just before and during the American Civil War – they were often made to raise funds for the war effort and to support the abolition of slavery, with quilters sometimes working anti-slavery slogans into the fabric.

Quilts may also have carried a potent message – it’s believed that runaway slaves could identify a ‘safe house’ by a ‘log cabin’ quilt hanging outside, the pattern being a simple arrangement of blocks and strips of fabric.

Quilting has its social side, too: quilting circles, where a group of (usually) women gather to create a communal quilt, are popular in the States – many will have read Whitney Otto’s novel based around such a group, How to Make an American Quilt, which was made into a film in the mid-90s.

The star quilt is part of the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and artwork acquired by the borough over the years, and now in the care of Scarborough Museums Trust. For further information, please contact Collections Manager Jennifer Dunne on Jennifer.dunne@smtrust.uk.com or 01723 384510.