The Signature Quilt
A National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame Project made by Jan Millington assisted by Julie Heller, Curator Pauline Cockrill, assisted by honorary secretary Val Mitchell.
Made in a variety of inks (signatures), cotton, printed cotton and polycotton, wool/polyester batting
3150 mm h x 2550 mm w x 7 mm d
Quilts represent an old traditional women’s craft. Quilts in Australia have a two-fold heritage – the patchwork animal skin rugs created by Aboriginal women prior to European settlement; and the quilts made by convict women on board ship from Britain to Australia in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The concept of a “Signature” Quilt is also an old tradition which dates back to the late 1800s but one that actually historically commemorates men, although created by women.
Our Signature Quilt, like the women who signed it, takes over this former male domain. It is made by women to commemorate women. The 342 women who signed our Signature Quilt are all first in their field in some way. Our Signature Quilt is literally a “Patchwork of Empowerment”.
How our Quilt was made
NPWHF committee member and experienced quilter, Jan Millington first initiated this innovative undertaking at the end of 2000. NPWHF Curator at the time Pauline Cockrill researched the names and addresses of the women to be approached and then Honorary Secretary Val Mitchell handled the bulk of the correspondence. Jan Millington and fellow quilter Julie Heller spent many hours putting the quilts together and searching for appropriate fabric to match the achievements of each of the women signatories.
A complete set of the signed patches was reserved to form the Signature Quilt with the second set used to make two quilts which were raffled to raise money for the NPWHF. The response was overwhelming hence the very big size of the Quilt.
The first signature was received in August 2000, the last on 1 March 2003. Chief Minister Clare Martin, herself a first (first Australian Labor Party (ALP) and first female Chief Minister of the Northern Territory in the 2001 election) did the official launch at the Old Courthouse on 7 March 2003 and all signatories were invited. The launch was actually the launch of the two raffle quilts - each measuring 2.2 m x 1.9 m (7’3 x 6’3), one had a red border, the other a yellow. Jan Millington made up one of the “raffle quilts” and Julie Heller the other.
The main quilt was first hung on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2004 at the old Alice Springs Court House, and was displayed along with a ring binder of information about each of the signatories.
The Quilt moved with the women’s museum to the Old Alice Springs Gaol in 2007 and was on permanent display in the Old Gaol Kitchen until March 2018.
Over time, we became concerned with the condition of the Signature Quilt. Light and ultra-violet (UV) radiation are the greatest enemies of textiles. They cause photochemical deterioration: the colours fade and fabrics become fragile and split readily. Exposure to light can multiply the adverse effects of poor environmental conditions, and damage caused by light is often accelerated by high relative humidity and temperature.
Conservator Carolyn McLennan assessed the condition of the Quilt in 2017 and concluded that while the structure of the Quilt was good, materials were robust and the Quilt remained complete, the signatures, the key component of the Signature Quilt were in an extremely poor condition. Some 83% of the signatures had obvious light damage, with 1% of those completely gone and 22% of those so faded they were illegible at a standard display distance. This was due to a combination of the poor quality inks used to sign the fabric and the light damage from the long term display as light damage is always cumulative and irreversible. Carolyn also noted that the front edges of the Quilt were soiled from handling.
Below are some examples of signatures then and now.
Along with Carolyn’s condition report and conservation work on the Quilt, we were given extensive assistance and advice from Sandra Yee (conservator, Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory) and Kate Fennell (designer, MAGNT).
We then set about raising funds, applying for grants and developing new concepts and designs for the Signature Quilt.
The Signature Quilt is now displayed:
The Quilt is folded in three, so that one third of the Quilt is on display at any one time and two-thirds of the Quilt are rested from display. Each year, we change the third which is on display.
In this way, we can continue having the Quilt on display while ensuring that we care for it properly.
Which part of the Quilt is currently on display?
The new display of the Signature Quilt was launched in April 2019 and shows the lower third of the Quilt. This is the area that has least light damage, having been furthest away from the ceiling lights when the Quilt was formerly hung. In April 2020, we will change the third on display to the middle section of the Quilt.
The making and conservation of the Signature Quilt has been made possible thanks to the support of many organisations and people who appreciate the value of the Quilt and want to help care for it. We would like to acknowledge the following supporters: