History in the Making

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The Borders Modern Quilt Guild’s Block of the Month Project

We have a long tradition of textiles in our little corner of the world here in the Scottish Borders. Over 1000 years ago, and just a few miles from the headquarters of the Borders Modern Quilt Guild, Melrose Abbey was at the heart of a thriving wool industry. People skilled in weaving and textile production migrated to the area and so began the region’s long association with textiles. The Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, who made his home in the Borders in the 19th century, became the fashion influencer of his time when he sported the local grey and white checked woollen fabric known as ‘Shepherd’s Plaid’. Add into the mix members of the royal family swathed in tartan and the fashion for Tweed suits—the local weavers soon saw their order books burgeoning. Fast forward to the industrial revolution and the Borders region was booming as a mass producer of Tweed and knitwear. 


Scottish Borders inspiration: Melrose Abbey. All photos by Jane Rae.

 

This beautiful area of southern Scotland is home to the Borders Modern Quilt Guild, which was formed in 2016, by myself and my friend Lesley Maw. Back then we were lamenting the fact that our nearest guild was over sixty miles away and while we would literally travel across the world in the name of quilting, we didn’t relish long winter drives in snowy conditions. We had one of those eureka moments when we realised that the perfect solution was to set up a guild of our own. 


Borders Scenes by Linda Ralley.

 

Our group has always been small, but we’re not short of creative interests. Our backgrounds are varied—among us are quilters, sewists, dressmakers, embroiderers, knitters, felters, and more. The journey into modern quilting was new to all of us, but we all felt ready for something different, and the energy and excitement surrounding the modern quilt movement was enticing. Exploring techniques such as improv piecing, alternative grids and negative space was uncharted territory. We pored over webinars, expanded our libraries, discussed fabric choices endlessly, and even invited our friend Jo Avery, the then owner of My Bearpaw, to guide us through the use of colour in modern quilting. Our first Block of the Month was from Tula Pink’s City Sampler: 100 Modern Quilt Blocks. We loved that the blocks were manageable and swooned every time show’n’tell came around and we could hold up our blocks and marvel at all the variations we’d created. No two were ever the same.


Blocks by Jane Rae.

 

As our confidence grew, so did our vocabulary and our conversations started to embrace terms like—low volume, matchstick quilting, hashtag, and EPP.  After the tour de force of Tula’s 100 blocks, we moved on to the MQG’s own block of the month challenge, making quilts from just one block and trying out each new block as they were published. We made mini quilts, runners, and lap quilts until finally graduating to full-size bed quilts. We had so much fun. 


From L to R: Joan McKay’s quilt, ‘Beautiful Borders’ by Margaret Rowley, Jane Peers’ quilt.

 

In 2019, Lesley had another eureka moment when we were putting together the programme for the forthcoming year. She floated the idea of creating our very own Block of the Month series inspired by the Scottish Borders. Swiftly approved, we set about agreeing on the criteria. Those who wanted to take part each picked a month and designed a 10½ unfinished block inspired by an aspect of local history, or the natural landscape. The blocks had to be original and created using EPP, FPP, appliqué, or simple piecing. Instructions were sent out just before our monthly meetings and those taking part could make the blocks in any colourway they wanted. When January 2020 arrived, we’d completed 12 original, fabulous blocks. Some have made up all the blocks into a quilt, some have chosen to make mini quilts, and some have a lovely stash of blocks for their quilting library. We weren’t prescriptive about the final outcome, appreciating that the journey was more important to us than the final destination.


Marjory Bald Meeting Pool Block.

 

We all agree that the experience of designing a block with a modern approach was slightly terrifying, exciting, exasperating at times, but ultimately very rewarding. “Designing blocks was new to most of us and very scary, but the group members were so supportive and so open to new ideas and techniques that even the most reluctant designer had a go,” recalled Gill Cooper, who designed a block inspired by the geology of the landscape. It pushed us outside our comfort zones, but more importantly, it reminded us that we have so much to enjoy and to be inspired by on our doorsteps. The knowledge that we are continuing the tradition of textiles that was started all those years ago—in the company of such a friendly and supportive group—is the icing on the cake. 


Charlie Rutherford's 3 Brethren Block.

 

We hope that our experience might inspire other guilds to give it a go. 


Lesley Maw’s Scottish Borders Quilt. Top Row L to R: Mill Wheel Block inspired by the water wheels that powered the textile mills; the Meeting Pool inspired by the life of a ‘ghillie’ on the River Tweed; Salmon and Sand Martins who populate the River Tweed. Middle Upper Row L to R: Silhouettes of the town of Melrose featuring its 12th century abbey, the home of ‘Sevens’ Rugby and The River Tweed; an interesting perspective on the Melrose Chain Bridge dating (1826); an improv representation of the natural landscape. Middle Lower Row L to R: The majestic River Tweed; Leaderfoot Viaduct (1863), which looms high over the River Tweed. If you stand in just the right spot you can see the original Drygrange Road Bridge (1780) and the new A68 roadway (1973); The Three Brethren are large cairns which mark the meeting of three estates of Yair, Philiphaugh, and Selkirk. Bottom Row L to R: Salmon leaping by the fish ladder by the water wheel in the town of Selkirk; The Southern Uplands landscape and the geology of the area; the historic Peel Towers (defensive towers) built along the border between Scotland and England.

If you’d like to get in touch with BMQG, Joint Coordinators, Joan McKay and Gill Cooper would love to hear from you!

joanmc1@hotmail.com

cooper.gill20@gmail.com

#bordersmqg