Averil Colby: Old-Fashioned Manners and a Thoroughly Modern Technique

March 10, 2021 tqhf1 No comments exist
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This week’s Honoree, Averil Colby, would fit right in with the contemporary taste for English Paper Piecing. Yes, she herself was English, and little hexagons were her preferred method of creating, as we’ll see in a moment. But first, a short introduction; for a fuller bio, see the link below.

Colby was Chairman of the Handicraft Committee of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and was instrumental in organizing courses, classes, and exhibitions to promote and preserve the quilting crafts. Her first book came out in the late 1950s when quilting in Britain was as dormant as it was in the States. According to the Hall of Fame record, “Batsford, a London publishing firm, asked her to write a book on patchwork, as up to then nothing had been published in such depth on the subject in England.” As an aside, this statement makes me wonder how the connections came about, but that’s a research project for someone else.  At any rate, Colby produced four quilt-related books and one book on pincushions, all of which are still available.

The quilt books earned Colby a reputation as a quilt historian, and she is still cited today as an authority on Welsh and North Country quilts.  Her documentation of British quilts is well-respected and is a source of patterning for quilters looking for a reproduction project.  Here’s one of the quilts she found, a 1790 “Marriage Coverlet” along with a modern version called “Love Entwined” (A pattern for the full quilt or a simplified –they say;  it would still be too much for me—instructions for the center only are available at the link below):

Of course, when dealing with quilt history, there are many blanks to fill in.  Colby, like her US counterparts, often speculated, and (not to detract from her reputation but to put her in a mortal/human light) there is a noted instance when her imagination took a wrong turn.  Here’s the quilt in question and a detail of the section that caused Colby to go astray:

Colby looked at this quilt and imagined it had been made by a farmer’s wife because of the presence of so many domesticated animals. She also noted the picket fence enclosure. This theory didn’t explain the anchors or the exotic animals, and completely left the two largest figures on the quilt unaccounted for, but her view was accepted until recently. That’s when a researcher at the Victoria and Albert made the connection to a statue which was well-known around the time the quilt had been made. (There’s some good non-quilt background information about the statue, so I’ve included two interesting links below.)

The Greek Slave. 1843/1846. Hiram Powers

The original statue was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it became popular in ballads, satires, journalism, prints and engravings. Miniature copies were also popular for the rest of the century, and Powers applied for a patent to prevent wholesale copying and profiteering. But his statue is probably the true inspiration for the main figures on the coverlet, despite Colby’s focus on the agricultural connections. Maybe I shouldn’t have said she was wrong;  a farmer’s wife (or the wife of a local landed squire) could have made the quilt, but Colby sure missed the big point.

Well, now let’s talk about Colby’s own needlework. Take a look at these sweet examples from the Collection of the Guild Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles. (All of the descriptive text below the photos is from the Guild Museum.)

Averil Colby Samples. Various Averil Colby samples of hexagons and clusters from printed and plain cotton fabrics. The image also shows some of the samples with examples from the (museum’s) Averil Colby Fabric Collection, which dates from the end of the 18th Century to the 20th Century.

And here’s another shot from the Quilters’ Guild Museum to give you some sense of scale. If that purple pincushion has such small sides—I presume the gauge is metric, but even in inches the measure is impressive– imagine how tiny the little red pieces are! (Right foreground of the above photo)

Hexagon Rosette Pin Cushions. Two hexagon rosette pin cushions made by Averil Colby. One has striped fabric with a central blue rose and a mauve central hexagon, and the other with plain mauve hexagons and a central purple hexagon, decorated with a circle of sequins and beads.

Colby was a prodigious maker of pincushions.  It’s reported that she worked while she had callers and often sent a completed pincushion home with them when the visit was over. Not all of Colby’s work was Lilliputian.  Here are two more items from the Quilters’ Guild Museum that are larger than the little pincushions.

Averil Colby Samples (mounted)
Banner. Made from 81 hexagons of silk and satin stars joined together by brown velvet lozenges, mounted on a pole with a silk cord for hanging. The hexagons are hand-pieced and the papers are still intact. The banner is finished on the back with a coarse netting. The maker and date of the hexagons is unknown but thought to date to the late 19th/early 20th century. The loose hexagons were assembled together by Miss Averil Colby in 1960

Colby amassed a collection of fabrics spanning the late 1700s to the middle of the 20th century. And she used what she collected.

Averil Colby Fabric. Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles
Unfinished pieces by Averil Colby. Collection of LittleWelshQuiltsandothertraditions.com
G. Spiller’s Quilt, 1839. Repaired by Averil Colby using fabrics from her collection. Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

Although she obviously could handle a needle and thread, Colby didn’t do much actual quilt-making; she didn’t think she was “good enough.”  But she pieced what the Brits call mosaics. This last piece brings us to the modern connection: hexies. 

Black Frost Cushion. 1953. Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by the Needlework Development Scheme

Hexies took off in the mid-to-late 2000s, and I made a quilt using the EPP (English Paper Piecing) method. It was easy, accurate and relaxing to do in front of the wood fire one winter, so I understand the attraction for Colby. For me, it was a “one and done”, and I wondered if the trend is still alive.

Answer: Oh YES! Hexagons of all sizes (the larger they are, the more modern the quilt, but many updated Grandmother’s Flower Gardens can also be seen on Pinterest). And the technique is now applied to shapes beyond the hexagon, so there are Caesar’s Crowns and Castle Wall quilts too. Tula Pink has this fun pillow which is so different from Colby’s.

Tula Nova pattern. www.fatquartershop.com

I’ve included some links below if you are interested in a tutorial on EPP.

That covers the modern, but you may remember my initial reference to old-fashioned manners. I always feel fortunate when my reading about an Honoree turns up something that shows a human-interest side of her or him. The quilt-related facts show the public persona, but sometimes I find something a little more private (well, not exactly private because it’s on the internet; maybe lesser-known or tangential is a better description). And that’s when I know I would have liked to be friends with the person I’m writing about. Here’s what I found about Averil Colby.

This is a sample of her editing of the galleys for her first book.  How many authors would use the phrase “be kind enough to…”? She could have used a simple proofreader’s mark (a squashed-down “C” super-imposed on a double slash).  Or she could have just written a directive.  But instead she asked, as if the printer would be doing her a favor. She elevated and equalized the transaction.  That’s old-fashioned manners, and I very much would have enjoyed knowing a person who could bring such grace to a business transaction.

Your quilting friend,

Anna

Bio info. https://quiltershalloffame.net/averil-colby/

Love Entwined. https://www.estheraliu.com/love-entwined-pattern-shop You might also be interested in the designer’s comments on her making of the pattern.

http://www.esthersquiltblog.com/2013/06/introducing-love-entwined-1790-marriage.html

The Greek Slave statue. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/scandalous-story-behind-provocative-sculpture-greek-slave-19th-century-audiences-180956029/ Also:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greek_Slave

Tula Pink pattern. https://www.fatquartershop.com/tula-nova-quilt-pattern-and-complete-piece-pack

Missouri Star tutorial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN7dZJ-R4E8

More on paper piecing, http://www.aqsblog.com/english-paper-piecing-isnt-just-for-hexagons

I’m Anna Harkins, and I volunteer on the Collections Committee at The Quilters Hall of Fame. What else would you like to know about me? Married, no kids; one old horse, retired, and live in a western suburb of Chicago. I’ve been quilting for about 20 years (I wish I could say I learned from my grandmother, but some of us come to this later than others), and I’m a quilt history dilettante, “a person who cultivates an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.”  There are real scholars among you, and I have no pretensions to that level—hats off to you! But I am interested, especially in the people who have made up the quilt world here in the US, which is why I’ve agreed to blog for The Quilters Hall of Fame. I plan to write every week, and I hope you’ll join the discussions.

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