The Art of Quilting

We first met Abigail Booth and Max Bainbridge in 2015 when we were featured in a series filmed for the BBC called ‘Money for Nothing’. A visit to their London workspace was a real treat, hidden away at the bottom of a lovely London garden, you would never have known it existed but once there it was hard not to be a little jealous of this idyllic studio filled with creativity. Max & Abigail set up Forest and Found after leaving Chelsea College of Art. Passionate about creating products that can be passed from generation to generation they work with natural materials using traditional techniques but in a modern context.

While Max works with wood, Abigail has been mastering the art of quilting. We went to photograph Abigail in her studio for our Such & Such magazine and our piece on the old craft of quilting, in the process we got an insight into the natural dyeing techniques she uses and we put some questions to Abigail to find out exactly what is involved in the craft of quilting.

What did you study at Chelsea College of Art and Design?

I studied Fine Art at Chelsea where my practice was predominantly sculpture/installation. I worked a lot with different materials and have always been interested in the way materials can hold cultural significance to us as individuals as well as collectively within society.

Can you tell us a little about how you got into quilt making? 

Max bought me a tiny book on patchwork and quilting from a charity shop in late 2013. I’d never previously worked with textiles but being in Walthamstow and surrounded by fabric shops I began to think about what I could make with this resource that was on our doorstep. On reading this book I was drawn to the Amish quilts and their bold geometric patterns. The Amish were forbidden from owning anything that did not have a function, so quilts (being a necessity to keep warm), became one of their only outlets for creative expression. I became interested in this dual nature of a quilt needing to function as well as it being an object that could be so heavily laden with cultural and personal meaning. From the moment I begin working on a quilt it takes on a part of me as the maker and when it leaves it retains that as well as going forward to become an object that will most likely be handed down through generations of a family.

Why is it important to you to make the quilt by hand and use natural dyes?

I choose to make each quilt by hand as it gives them an integrity I can’t otherwise achieve. It feels as if they have been around for years, like they have already lived. I think this comes from being hand-quilted and hand dyed. I know that I have felt every piece of it from start to finish. Each piece of fabric has been rinsed and passed through my hands and each stitch has been considered. From the very start it has been important that the quilts are made with natural materials. I came across natural dyes when I could not find the colours I wanted in fabric shops. Synthetic dyes seemed to be flat and harsh and I couldn’t achieve the depth or subtlety of colour I was after. I used to paint in oils and after the luxury of being able to mix the precise colour I needed when painting, I became frustrated that I couldn’t do the same with textiles. Natural dyeing offers that ability to play and work hard to achieve a precise colour though understanding the reactions at play in my dye vats.

The natural dyeing process is really fascinating, can you tell us a little more and expand on some of the natural materials you use? 

I use a variety of plants to dye fabric with. Some are one-offs that I have foraged such as gorse flowers, lichen, nettles, mahonia berries and oak galls. I also use kitchen waste such as onion skins, avocado skins, tea and coffee grounds. I buy in madder root and indigo from a natural dye specialist, but I hope to be growing my own on our allotment this next Spring. Wood chippings are all the waste from Max’s woodwork. I don’t have a prescribed set of things I dye with, rather I like to pick something on a walk and experiment and see what I get. If it’s a good result I will go back for more 🙂 I have used everything from onion skins, oak galls, wood chippings to avocado skins and roots of madder plants.

Can you give me an overview of the process you go through, to extract the dye from the natural materials and then to dye the cotton for the quilt?  

The first stage in dyeing is to prepare the fabric. Cotton has natural oils in left over from the plant itself which need to be removed before you can dye it. This part of the process is called scouring. I boil the fabric with a natural soap and a tablespoon of wash soda for several hours. The water is left yellow from all the starch and oils that are released. After this the fabric is rinsed of excess soap and is ready to be mordanted. A mordant is a metallic salt and is what helps the dye to fix to the fabric and become wash-fast and light-fast. I simmer the fabric in water with the added mordant for an hour and leave it to cool overnight, After a few days airing the fabric is ready to dye with. Most dye stuff I work with I soak in water for several days prior to dyeing. I then heat it to a simmer and strain the liquid from the plant matter which is now full of pigment. I add the fabric to the dye bath and keep it on the heat at a very gentle temperature until the depth of colour I’m looking for is achieved. After that the fabric is rinsed of any excess dye and is ready to be used.

You mention that you use Sashiko thread, why is this?

I have a prolonged interest in Japanese textiles and have been researching a form of Japanese patchwork called Boro. It is a tradition that was born in poor, rural communities in Japan where every scrap of fabric was used to mend and fix textiles in a patchwork sewn together using Sashiko thread. It is a thick, white cotton thread that was used for its strength and practicality. I choose to work with it for the same reasons as it forms strong, regular stitches that I know help strengthen my quilts. I am also drawn to its graphic nature, as being white and thicker than regular quilting thread it stands out on the patchwork background.

What kind of stitching technique do you use and why? Running stitch or back stitch…

I use a straight running stitch for all my quilts. It is an effect that can’t be replicated on a sewing machine which is why I choose to hand quilt.

Do you use a specific type of cotton in the quilts? If so, what and why?

I made a decision to use only calico which is the most basic plain weave cotton you can buy. Traditionally calico is a working textile, it is used by fashion designers to mock up patterns for garments and painters use it to stretch their canvases. I like the simplicity of the material and the fact it doesn’t go through many processes such as bleaching, shrinking or dyeing before I buy it. It comes in it’s natural colour of the cotton; an off-white with flecks of black and brown from the husks of the cotton boll that escaped being removed.

Roughly how long does it take to make each quilt?

The making of a quilt tends to take around a week and sometimes two if it is a particularly large one. The dyeing of fabric is unquantifiable as it is an ongoing process. I tend to treat the natural dyeing as an ongoing body of research that informs the making of the quilts.

What is you favourite part of the making process?

I swing between loving the frenzy of dyeing fabric and then the tranquil calm of hand-quilting. Quilting by hand takes patience and concentration. It is my thinking time when I can mull over new ideas and gather my thoughts.

What is the most painstaking part of the process?

Every part of making a quilt requires focus as there are so many elements, each of which can go wrong. The part I never underestimate and always take my time with is cutting pieces of fabric to make up a patchwork. It takes a really long time for a design on paper to be worked through until this point. If your cutting isn’t accurate at this stage it can cause a lot of problems when piecing a patchwork together. I’ve learnt the hard way to put the time and energy in at the beginning! I am also very conscious that my naturally dyed fabric is very precious so I don’t like to waste even an inch.

To see Abigail’s Utility Quilt available through Such & Such, click here.

To see Max’s handcrafted wooden utensils and chopping board, click here

All Photography by Lulu Ash.