by Suzanne Labry
Crimean War Military Uniform Quilts
The tradition of those in the military making quilts out of their uniforms has been documented as far back as the Napoleonic Wars in Europe.
Dr. Annette Gero, the noted Australian quilt historian, author, and lecturer, whose book, War Quilts and Charming Appliqués from Military Fabrics, includes military quilts from her own collection, is perhaps the foremost authority on quilts made by those in the military. A number of the most intricate military uniform quilts were made during the Crimean War (1853-1856), which was fought between Russia and the British, French, and the Ottoman Empire on the Crimean Peninsula.
A painting by Thomas Wood depicts a British soldier, Private Thomas Walker, making a quilt while convalescing after surgery to repair a wound he received during the that war when a shell exploded over his head.In that conflict, British soldiers were encouraged to make quilts as a more wholesome leisure activity than some of the others available to them, and—perhaps more realistically—as post-traumatic stress therapy while recuperating from injuries.
A painting by Thomas Wood depicts a British soldier, Private Thomas Walker, making a quilt while convalescing after surgery to repair a wound he received during the that war when a shell exploded over his head. Walker’s quilt was given to Queen Victoria after she visited him during his recuperation. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1855, and is now in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in London, England.
Military uniforms used to be much more colorful than those of today because camouflage was not considered all that important until after the start of the 20th century. This was due to the fact that weaponry was less advanced and commanders watching battles from afar needed to be able to recognize and distinguish their troops from those of the
Military quilt, possibly made Francis Brayley, 1864-1877. Victoria and Albert Museum no. T.58-2007
During the Crimean War, for example, military uniforms were commonly made of black, red, yellow, blue, and white wool serge or woven worsted twill. When cut into pieces, these brightly colored uniforms also made for some strikingly graphic quilts. Some of the quilts in Dr. Gero’s collection are intarsia or felt-inlaid patchwork, in which non-fraying wool fabric pieces were abutted and joined by tiny stitches on the reverse side. Other conventionally sewn quilts feature complicated designs and display a sophisticated color sense.
All soldiers would have been issued a sewing kit as part of their basic equipment, but how some of them acquired the skills to produce such stitched marvels is not known. Perhaps a regiment might have included a tailor who schooled the military quilters.
Also unclear is what the quilts were to be used for. "We don't know whether they
were meant to be put over coffins, hung on the walls, or maybe they were sent home
to their loved ones,” Dr. Gero says. “We don't know why they were made, but they were incredibly complex."
Detail of Francis Brayley's quilt.Dr. Gero is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts (London), a member of the Advisory Board of the International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, Nebraska, an Associate Fellow, Founder and Patron of the Sydney Quilt Study Group, and Past President of the Quilt Study Group of Australia. Her Australian quilt collection has been called a National Treasure. The quilts in her wartime quilt collection, most of which were made by male soldiers between 1800 and 1940, will be on display at the Australasian Quilt Convention in Melbourne in April 2017.