Missing Piece: Jen Jones Welsh Quilts

Jen Jones Welsh Quilts

Flannel quilts suffer the irony of being more vulnerable to wear and ageing than their cotton counterparts, but historically have also been considered of lesser value. For this reason many have languished, unnoticed, for decades. When seen in person it is difficult to comprehend just how such a vibrant piece of textile history could have ever gone unnoticed.

Drawn from the private collection of Welsh quilt authority Jen Jones, the current exhibition at the Oriel Myddrin Gallery in Carmarthen showcases the saturated vibrancy of the very best flannel quilts Jones has unearthed and collected in Wales. An American, born in South Africa, Jen Jones has called West Wales home for more than thirty years. Her frustration not only over the fact that Welsh quilting has been overlooked in the past, but how it continues to be neglected in the wider field of quilting, is quietly evident in her conversation. But it would be no underestimation to say that she has – single-handedly – rescued the history of Welsh quilting from its own neglect.

Flannel quilts are in Jen Jones’ own words, “the only completely indigenous quilts to Wales.” Made professionally from the 1850s up until the Second World War they represent the only quilts sewn from fabric that was harvested, carded, spun and woven in Wales. The patterned cotton quilts that she has also collected and preserved over the years are equally a part of Welsh quilting history, but fashioned from imported fabric produced beyond the Welsh boarders. In the cotton quilts the quilting, but not the cloth, can stake a claim to being Welsh. Perhaps because the now rare flannel quilts represented all that was not exotic their value was not considered to be as great as their print patterned counterparts. This, coupled with the vulnerability of wool to moth damage and damp, meant that flannel quilts often became threadbare from use long before they could be preserved.

Jen Jones own private collection of two hundred and thirty quilts includes only fifty flannel quilts amassed over the past thirty-five years. Similar to the quilts of Gees Bend in Alabama, which have been likened by critics to the intuitive compositions of the African American jazz, Jen Jones’ asserts the “unselfconscious” manner in which these Welsh quilts were made. There was “nothing precious about it” she explains of the quilts making. The quality of stitch work can be explained in part by the fact that the quilts were sewn by professional itinerant quilters; women who travelled the country and took work in large country homes for as long as their skills were required and fabric available. But in spite of their heavy burden of function (quite literally, they weight a considerable amount) these designs convey a feeling of spontaneity.

Almost all are simple, bright two-tone compositions, often backed in different colours than those found on the front. For the sake of ease, flannel was predominantly dyed in primary colours and this simplicity is reflected in the quilts today. Pattern is explored in shifting scales, with the same pattern often reappearing with a change of scale such as seen in “Little Pinwheel” and “Big Pinwheel” currently on display at the Oriel Myrddin Gallery. Pieces of fabric were used right up to the selvedge, even including the text or numbers that would have been used to mark the bolt of cloth. Even a century after their creation these quilts throb with an unexpected saturation and intensity that belies the mild landscape and grey skies of Wales.

In a converted cottage next to her own home in Llanybydder, West Wales, Jones has amassed a treasure trove of quilts for sale. Alongside whole and pieced quilts are increasingly popular (and rare) woven wool bed covers in an eclectic range of colours from sweet pastels to the electric turquoise, avocado and burnt orange of the 1970s. Woven on 19th century narrow looms, these woollen bed covers and throws are yet another product of the vibrant woollen industry that harnessed the power of Welsh river water (always in ample supply) in years gone by. Visitors to Jen Jones’ shop search head high stacks, testing what they find for size on the beds in the cottage. Appointments are encouraged and the journey through the Welsh countryside, still dotted today with the sheep that once provided the wool for these quilts, certainly sets the stage for viewing. But if West Wales is a bit too much of a stretch for a day trip, many quilts are also available for sale online. Thanks to careful descriptions, photographs and a no-questions-asked return policy, Jen Jones has found herself a healthy and loyal base of collectors through the Internet.

With a shop to stock and countless other Welsh quilts to track down and save before the damp sets in, Jen Jones devotes herself fully to the preservation of Welsh quilts. Nothing, she explains, excites her more than rattling her car down yet another farmhouse lane in the hope that a quilted treasure may lay at the end. She has published two books on the topic, Welsh Quilts: A Towy Guide and Les Quilts Gallois/Welsh Quilts. The future Quilt Study Centre (now under construction) aims not only a showcase for her own private collection, but to be a place where others can learn the craft of quilting, study the collection, and gather for workshops and seminars. The time to buy – and quilt – is now. Consider it the new stock market, but prettier.

Selvedge magazine (issue 10: 32-33)