As a patchwork tutor living in Dorset, I was of course aware of different quilting styles and regional differences. Like many, I had read all about Durham quilts and Amy Emms was as near a quilting saint as I felt you could get. However two years ago I moved to Wales and at the first country auction I went to, I fell in love with Welsh quilts. Not the museum quality pristine ones of which there are many in local museums, but with the loved to destruction ones. With the odd thinly rubbed area, stained and often threadbare, they spoke of practicality and cold winters and were made to be used.

I have become a regular at local auctions and there are always quilts coming up, as well as Welsh woven blankets that have a huge following. But it's the quilts that grab me. The fact that if you bid and win they throw the quilt to you so for the rest of the auction in a drafty barn of a place you're nice and warm is just an added bonus!

Chris' first Welsh quilt bought at auction

So what is the charm? Pictured here is the first quilt that I bid for and won. It's a gorgeous raspberry cotton on one side and a soft pink on the other; the quilting is all by hand. I love the harp shape in the central areas. I have not seen this shape before so clearly defined.  The quilting stitches to today's 'quilt police' may seem a little on the large side but they are even and well spaced.

Of course buying quilts at auction means that you know nothing of the history or provenance of the quilt. You can, after a little research, make an informed guess at age by looking at the fabric and the wadding material. Now I could write a whole book on wadding! Like many I knew that today we are lucky to have a choice, and like most I had started out with good old 4oz polyester (boy, was that thick to quilt), and found 2oz, a bit better. Then I progressed to the luxury of cottons and the dense soft handle it gave. I have even dabbled a little with silk and once had a passionate couple of weeks with a cashmere blend (it was doomed, my purse could not take it). However it was not till I started buying old quilts did I really appreciate our good fortune. Yes, I have some that use a thick blanket; some use a couple where they were clearly getting thin and a bit threadbare in places. I have one old one that is clearly stuffed with sheep's fleece. This is rather flat in places and the quilt needed to be stored in the deep freeze for a week to get rid of the moths. I must point out that this deep freeze only holds quilts likely to have insect residents; it is the ideal way to get rid of them without nasty sprays. It also holds a rather nice mohair sweater that loves the chill and keeps fluffy this way! Back to the wadding; I once bid for a box of quilts. It was a big box and after a quick rummage, I knew they were tatty but could be of interest. As I am the only person who bids for these, I triumphantly brought it home only to discover a marvellous old quilt at the bottom of the box. You can see it is beyond repair and possible help, but the wadding is a joy. It consists of old socks and jumpers, all hand knitted in various shades of grass stain and mud. All are heavily darned often in tones of a rather natty orange, once these could not be darned any more they have been unpicked and SEWN together in a rough cobbled way to create a heavy and probably very warm wadding, now which of us would do that now?

Chris discovers old jumpers and socks have been used for wadding

The fabric tops of the quilts vary as much as the waddings. The quilt featured is a recent acquisition. Both back and front are wool serge. I like to think in my own way that this was an early form of birth control; after all once you slid into bed under this quilt there was no way you were every going to move about! It's beautifully quilted and one wonders about the poor quilter's fingers, as the cloth is so thick and resistant. This was ideal for the Welsh winters: you were more than snug under it, you possibly could not breathe, but you were warm.

A recent acquisition made from wool serge

Cotton quilt tops are the most common and here I am looking at quilts from the 1900s. Often the fact they are made for necessity stands out. As you can see from the quilt here, the quilter has used the pretty blue fabric but it is not big enough. Where you or I would nip out to the nearest patchwork shop, or click on the internet, she has taken an aged but still usable sheet. It does not even pretend to match/blend or even go with. I love this quilt: it says everything about the origins. Of course, real subsistence crossing the prairies and the like would have been even scrappier.

An aged but usable sheet has been used to complete this quilt top

Another auction box gave another find recently. I love these boxes; it suggests the auctioneers think the stuff inside would not sell alone. In the same vein, I always check skips for the vain hope of finding gold amongst the coal. Anyway back to this box; a rather drab little blanket on the top and something heavy underneath. Of course I bid, is it my fancy or does my local auctioneer look my way now if it is something textile and threadbare? I took it home and the heavy thing appeared to be a plain whole cloth, but when I unfolded it... a paisley shawl one!! Now these do crop up some times, where a paisley shawl, the sort no self respecting Welsh woman would have be seen without, is used as the quilt top in its entirety, on point, just squared with plain fabric. I feel this is an idea waiting for resurgence; remember in the 1980s, we all had those square shawls we wore over coats (strange fashion)?

Left: Paisley shawl design. Right: Shabby chic is nothing new!

Now I cannot be the only one to have a few tucked away at the bottom of the wardrobe, wouldn't they make great knee rugs for chilly evenings? By the way, I love the American name for paisley, Persian Pickle; very cute!

The quilting does vary enormously, just as you would find in a group of quilters. Some rely on the big stitches to cover the area quicker, and some even work in a thread that resembles string to make it even quicker to cover the area. Others use fine threads and small stitches and all use a range of patterns to cover the quilt top.  The quilt featured here shows some neat piecing and the now gently faded fabrics are quilted with a softly curving stitch design. The idea of 'shabby chic' is nothing new to these quilters! The heart motif that crops up on many quilts is often very freely drawn and in a pattern will vary in size. If the quilt has a rather squashed heart in a corner, it just makes it more personal and 'real'. You only have to see the Welsh love spoons to know that here we have a race that not only wears its heart on its sleeve but just about every other place as well!

Quilting detail from one of Chris' acquisitions

First published in Popular Patchwork April 2009