Small is beautiful’ or the ‘the best things come in small packages’ so the old sayings go. And this is very true of Sarum quilters, based in the cathedral city of Salisbury in Wiltshire
 
Aspects of Silk (detail)
Aspects of Silk (detail)
 
It was started twenty one years ago from a group of ladies who had taken classes together, taught by Frances Kemble. Sarum Quilters formed in order to continue meeting after their course had finished. They are a small group, with only eleven or twelve members at any one time and membership is by invitation only. This is not being stuffy - in such a small group, the dynamics of everyone getting along and the mix of individual personalities is vitally important. Once ‘in the group’ however, members seem to stay a long time! Annabelle Downing and Sue Goodridge are original members, Elizabeth and Millie joined “about fifteen years ago” and a quick estimate of the total membership years is more than one hundred. The most recent recruit, Heather, already has five years membership under her belt.
 
Aspects of Silk (detail)
Aspects of Silk (detail)
 

Back to the drawing board

Sarum Quilters are possibly best known for seven quilts which hang in various parts of Odstock Hospital on the outskirts of Salisbury. Textiles have played an important part of this new hospital right from the start and now five quilts are on display in the waiting rooms in the Rheumatology Department and the Pathology /Genetics Department. There is another one in a stairwell and the latest quilt is in the Genetics Seminar Room.
 
Nine members of the Sarum Quilters
admire The Fluorescent Quilt at its unveiling in the
Genetics Department
Nine members of the Sarum Quilters admire The Fluorescent Quilt at its unveiling in the Genetics Department
 
All the ‘medical quilts’ have been designed by Janet McCallum, a professional graphic designer as well as a quilter and textile artist. A member of the By Design group of art quilters based in the south of England, Janet’s designs for Sarum Quilters combine not only the scientific requirements of the clients, but also the individual skills of the makers. For example, in some quilts, Janet has included a variety of elements such as hexagons and stained glass appliqué because they were techniques particularly enjoyed by certain members of the group.
 
First Panel from Aspects of Silk
First Panel from Aspects of Silk
 
For their commissioned quilts, the group has always had a very wide brief from the hospital and it is encouraging to come across a health trust which has such an enlightened view as to the importance of textiles in public places. On occasions the design brief has been no more specific than “Can you fill that wall?”
 
Second Panel from Aspects of Silk
Second Panel from Aspects of Silk
 
The first two quilts were sewn for the hospital in 1991 - one with a pathology theme and one with a genetics theme. The group was given the challenge of a blank wall which was seventeen feet long! Janet took immense care ensuring that these quilts were scientifically correct in their depiction of chromosomes, parasites and viruses and submitted initial designs to the commissioning department for approval. In fact the appliquéd blocks proved to be so accurate that the Head of the Genetics department said that the quilts could be used for explaining medical and genetic problems in layman’s terms to patients. These two pieces were followed by three quilts entitled Aspects of Silk and were originally commissioned for the General waiting room. As this space had no external windows, Janet designed the triptych to depict three ‘windows’ showing sunrise, midday and sunset.
 
The Fluorescent Quilt,
1998, showing the double stranded
helix of DNA, chromosomes,
lively sperm and even a test for
Huntington’s Chorea, a genetically
transmitted disease
The Fluorescent Quilt, 1998, showing the double stranded helix of DNA, chromosomes, lively sperm and even a test for Huntington’s Chorea, a genetically transmitted disease
 
The quilts were created using fabrics supplied by the international fashion designer Georgina Von Etzdorf, who is based in Odstock. The group created three abstract quilts containing plenty of texture and uplifting colour schemes. The three quilts have since been moved and can now be enjoyed by patients in the Rheumatology Department.

Testing, testing

Because of the enthusiasm with which these earlier quilts were received, in early 1997, Professor Jacobs, director of the Wessex Regional Genetics Library commissioned the group to make a further piece for the Genetics Seminar Room at the hospital. The group have excelled themselves with The Fluorescent Quilt. Janet researched the subject by studying photographs and other material that was pinned up within the genetics department and the resulting quilt illustrates various genetics testing techniques. The title of the quilt was chosen, because as Professor Jacobs explains “We colour a molecule with the fluorescent dye and look at it with the appropriate techniques and this lets us see so many things"(1).
 
The Jacobs Quilt sewn in 2000
and much appreciated by Pat Jacobs
The Jacobs Quilt sewn in 2000 and much appreciated by Pat Jacobs
 
In addition to the public commissions, the group has also sewn a small quilt for Professor Jacobs, when she left the hospital. This piece, The Jacobs Quilt, involved plenty of skulduggery as it was being planned, plus secret meetings in car parks between Janet McCallum, its designer and Tony Herbert, number two in the Genetics Department. This close collaboration was entirely necessary to ensure the scientific accuracy of the quilt. Well that’s their story which they’re sticking to!

Public and private

However, there is more to this group than the beautiful commissions for the hospital. They are also busy with their own group and round robin quilts and three were on display at the National Quilt Championships at Ascot in 2001. The previous year the group had put on display an exhibition of their work at the local art centre.
 
So much interest was generated that two further groups, The Blackadder Quilters and The Eclipse Quilters, were started, both organised by Sarum member, Sharon Garrick.
 
The original group is already planning its next group exhibition in 2005, to coincide with a major textile exhibition at Salisbury Museum. The group jokes that it will take them that long to make enough new items to display. Seeing the prodigious output of these quilters I think that they are setting themselves a very generous time limit!

Initial research by Jayne Hill Photographs courtesy of Photoshades, Salisbury Healthcare NHS Trust and Salisbury Newspapers Ltd. (1) Quotation from The Salisbury Journal 12 November 1998

First published in Popular Patchwork May 2002