Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Festival of Quilts


Festival of Quilts, Birmingham

Mix of Aesthetics Mingles at British Quilt Festival

The annual Festival of Quilts in Birmingham, England, presented by Creative Exhibitions of London, is an enormous event, attracting vendors, hobbyists, professionals, and eager onlookers to an array of workshops, lectures, exhibitions, and competitions. At this year’s festival, held August 18–21, 2005, it became apparent that there exists not only a diverse range of approaches to the making of quilts but also a diverse range of aspirations for the future of contemporary quilting.

The main competition of this event was Quilt 2005, a juried show won by Diana Harrison’s beautifully subtle abstract monochrome quilt Turmoil and Change. One might have expected the works included in the Quilt 2005 competition to be representative of the interests and energies of the entire event, but such was not the case: in the Gala Dinner speech, American transplant Kaffe Fassett called for quilters to return to and embrace the vibrant patterns and colors of traditional quilts. His point seemed to be to remind quilters that they should view the rich history to which they contribute as a source of inspiration and joy rather than a burden. Although Fassett was a member of the jury that selected Harrison’s quilt, the unfortunate timing of his comments seemed to leave Harrison’s work standing as the antithesis of his cry for a return to color and pattern. This entirely unintended moment encapsulates many of the tensions in the air at an event that brought together individuals who share a love of quilting, but for vastly different reasons and from a gamut of experience, taste, and skill.

The American quilter Joan Schulze exhibited a substantial retrospective, taught a weeklong workshop, and gave several lectures. When someone in the audience asked her how to raise the profile of art quilts, she encouraged those who want their work to be viewed in a different context to secure other venues for their work. “It is not enough to only enter quilt shows,” she explained. “We must also exhibit in other galleries.” Rachel Howard, whose Faces was selected for the Quilt 2005 competition but who also exhibits her work in galleries such as Lesley Craze in London, is one artist who exemplifies this call.

The sheer volume of inspired attendees at this event has led to plans for an even larger space to be used in 2006. But from a critical standpoint, some shockingly mediocre work was also on display, and a younger generation of quilt enthusiasts was almost totally absent. “Nobody involved in the organization of The Festival of Quilts,” explains Managing Director of Creative Exhibitions Andrew Salmon, “decries the work of the keen hobbyist. Indeed, we delight in celebrating that very enthusiasm which is the bedrock for the event as a whole.” However, broadening and raising the caliber of work on exhibit seem to be vital steps in educating the public and ensuring the future prosperity of such events.

FiberArts Magazine (Jan./Feb. 2006: 12)