The Quilt Scout

by Mary Fons

Taking the Castle: Levens Hall Quilt, Here I Come

Column #90


Faithful readers of this column will recall a several months-long virtual spring break trip to visit quilts around the world. Even less-than faithful Quilt Scout readers will remember this, since we finished the globe-trotting series last month. Traveling to quilts in faraway places filled me with inspiration and piqued my curiosity —and it made me appreciate how many quilt shops I have within a 10-mile radius of my home. We American quilters are spoiled in the best possible way.

After the tour was over, I flung my metaphorical knapsack on the metaphorical hallway chair, sunk into my metaphorical couch and figured I’d “scout” out quilts closer to home for a while.

Then my husband suggested we go to England for a few weeks this summer for something called “a vacation.” Have you heard of these? Apparently, a “vacation” is a magical scenario where you can order mimosas at breakfast without shame and you don’t have to read even one single email! Maybe even for a week! This “vacation” thing sounded great, but every bit as exciting as that was the possibility of going to a different country and seeing a quilt I have been curious about for a long time—except this time, I’d get to see it for real.


The quilt is typically referred to as “The Levens Hall Quilt” it’s said to be the oldest surviving example of patchwork in England. Dated to 1708, this is probably true, though if you do a google search for “oldest surviving patchwork in England,” you’ll get a few different answers; people like to say that this or that museum object is “the oldest known” of its kind and it may or may not be. But the Levens Hall patchwork is certainly a contender, and it’s on view for all to see if you can get over to Levens Hall.


My husband, who has been to England a number of times, is helping me understand how to get to Levens Hall, because—and I’m sorry that I sound like such a rube—I don’t have a grasp on how to discern locations in England. There are always so many layers! For example: Levens Hall is located in the South Lakes District, in Cambria, England, but is often described in relation to Kendal, which was formerly Kirkby in Kendal. My husband has a map.


Levens Hall itself is very old, built ca. 1350. If you can’t really picture how old that is, consider that the bubonic plague, affectionately referred to as The Black Death, reached England around 1348. This Tudor-style house has been through a lot.


The pictures I’ve looked at show incredible topiary all over the grounds, and the pictures from the Levens Hall website show interiors that are even better. There are fancy tooled leather wallcoverings, which sounds awfully groovy for the 12th century, and there’s all kinds of gilt and ornate furnishings. And, among the chambers past the Great Hall, you’ll find paintings by the likes of paintings by Van Dyck, Brueghel the Elder, and Rubens, and decorative objects that were given by various Dukes and Countesses and those sorts of fancy people.


And then—I can almost see it now—there’s the Levens Hall patchwork. Said to be made by the original lady of the house and her stepdaughters in 1708, a muslin and chintz quilt, which I really hope is under glass. The chintz would have been important from India, and this means that the Levens folks were rich (not that we needed more proof). Bird motifs, flowers, vines; all the usual chintz motifs are in there, but the quilt isn’t just appliqué, like so many quilts from this period. This one has that patchwork element, and that’s why it’s extra special.


I’ve seen old English quilts at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and I’ve seen old quilts at American museums that were imported from England; most of our really old quilts were. I’m excited to see the Levens Hall quilt, though. Really excited. We all know every quilt has a story, and we know other cultures around the world have been working with patchwork long before the 12th century. But this piece has an origin story, one that directly affects the quilts I make and the quilts you make today, 10 centuries later.


Laying eyes on that quilt artifact is worth getting off the metaphorical couch for, even if I’m tired from my globe-trotting quilt tour, even if I have to leave a mimosa on the table to get to Levens Hall this summer.