Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | July 15, 2019
Welsh Quilted Costume: Looking One’s Best in Life and Death
Unlike Welsh quilts, the tradition of Welsh quilted costume is not well publicised. Jen Jones, who is known for having the world's largest collection of Welsh quilts, also has exquisite pieces of Welsh quilted costume carefully housed in her textile store. Below I recount stories from Jen about day, night and burial wear from her collection to highlight a few varied reasons that quilted costume was produced in Wales during the 19th and 20th centuries (1).
In the 1990s Jen received a call from a volunteer in the costume department at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. In trunks of costume that had been donated to The Arts Centre’s theatre the volunteer had spotted a quilted skirt that looked expertly crafted. Jen viewed the item and immediately recognised its importance and purchased it for her collection. She was delighted as it was a high quality late 19th century underskirt made from very fine wool, filled with lambswool. It incorporated motifs frequently found in Welsh quilting; spirals, diamonds, flowers and leaves. Because of the precision of the quilting Jen was convinced that it was made by a professional quilter. Quilting was a cottage industry in Wales from the middle of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th, providing a vocation for women, particularly in Mid, West and South Wales (see image of blue quilted underskirt).
Jen has several more late 19th century quilted skirts in her collection. Perhaps the most intriguing are a pair made as burial skirts. She purchased them for the collection from a woman who found them in her aunt’s attic. Jen states that, ‘during the late 19th century in Wales one of the funereal customs for better-off women was to be buried in black quilted skirts.’ The skirts are made from black silk filled with lambswool and are quilted in simple geometric patterns. In a slightly morbid twist Jen learned from the niece that the items were quilted by her aunts who intended to be buried in them when they died. However, the sisters moved out of Wales, leaving the burial skirts in the attic. They lived for many more years by which point the fashion for being buried in such items had passed! Consequently these are rare surviving examples of such dress (see images of burial skirt).
The crème-de-la-crème of Welsh quilted costume in Jen’s collection are pieces produced by women who were working for the Rural Industries Bureau (RIB). This was a government funded scheme created to keep traditional skills alive and provide employment in deprived areas of the UK. It existed from 1928 until the outbreak of the Second World War. The RIB recruited groups of quilters from South Wales and the North of England. The women were paid to produce exquisitely quilted costume, quilts and smaller items such as nightdress and hot water bottle cases. These items were placed by the RIB in commercial galleries in London and Cardiff and sold by direct order to a wealthy clientele. The quality of the stitching is extremely fine, as it was closely monitored. Many dressing gowns, theatre coats and bed jackets were produced during this period. The quilters provided the lambswool filling and cotton thread and the RIB supplied the quilters with a range of different fabrics (2). Patterns and designs were supplied by the RIB but the quilters were given a degree of freedom to develop new patterns themselves (3) (see image of pink and blue dressing gown).
Here are a sumptuous pair of RIB dressing gowns from Jen’s collection. The man’s blue satin cotton dressing gown displays a full fan in the stitching on both the front and the back. The woman’s pink dressing gown has beautifully quilted floral details on the front and the back and Jen thinks that it is made from Rayon. Both dressing gowns have been filled with lambswool and date from the 1930s (see image of reverse of blue dressing gown).
In closing, the varied examples of Welsh quilted costume from Jen’s collection that I have talked about briefly touch upon the quilted costume tradition which existed in Wales. While preparing this blog I found that not much has been written about this subject (especially about quilted costume in Wales before the RIB), so the tradition definitely needs to be celebrated, documented and researched further!
1. Unless otherwise indicted the information about quilted costume in this blog is based on information supplied by Jen Jones during a phone conversation between her and Kate Clive-Powell on June 29th 2019.
2. ‘The Rural Industries Bureau in Wales’ essay written by Clare Claridge in 2011. Published in The Welsh Quilt Centre’s 2017 exhibition catalogue As Good As It Gets, p.3.
3. ibid, p.6
- Late 19th Century Welsh Quilted Underskirt. Image Courtesy of The Jen Jones Welsh Quilt Collection.
- Late 19th Century Welsh Quilted Burial Skirt. Image Courtesy of The Jen Jones Welsh Quilt Collection.
- Detail of Stitching on Late 19th Century Welsh Quilted Burial Skirt. Image Courtesy of The Jen Jones Welsh Quilt Collection.
- 1930s Pink and Blue Dressing Gowns &1930s Quilt. All Made Through the RIB Scheme by Quilters from South Wales. Image Courtesy Jen Jones
- Reverse of RIB Blue Dressing Gown &1930s Quilt. Both Made Through the RIB Scheme by Quilters from South Wales. Image Courtesy Jen Jones