Abigail's Orchard - a tribute quilt and a story (a revisit)

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 I originally posted about this quilt several years ago, but after taking part in the instagram challenge #greatbritishquilter (which is very inspirational), I was prompted by one of the challenges - Longest WIP to revisit one of my most epic projects and I decided to repost about it. The original blog entry was before I switched over to ‘Squarespace’ and it’s always difficult when you try to move stuff over and never quite looks the same. This quilt though, is one of my most prized possessions, a family heirloom and perhaps one of the most challenging quilts I have ever undertaken. It is made entirely on a domestic sewing machine and by hand and although I have added in a few new photos and text, it is a difficult quilt to appreciate in photographs and words - somehow when you can run your fingers over the tactile surface it sweeps you back to another time… the time of conquering heroes and heroines and Abigail Adams…..

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A few years ago now, there was a wonderful TV series about the second president of the US - John Adams, starring Laura Linney and Paul Giamatti. The story was it seemed, largely lost in history before this - the orchestrator and much revered author David McCullough, brought Mr Adams to life again in a fascinating book and subsequent period drama, which tells the story of the struggle for American Independence. I knew almost nothing about this subject before (being British does not excuse this!) and yet it is both momentous and inspiring.  These founding fathers were 'Statesmen' in the true sense of the word.  Starting with a blank canvas, they had the opportunity to found a nation, draw up the rules and set in place a constitution, with the hindsight of all the mistakes of the Old World and all the promise of the New World.   In my opinion, it is one of the best TV productions of recent years and even Hilary Mantel (author of Wolf Hall) cites it as TV worth watching.   Afterwards, I cast around for some more reading on the subject matter and enjoyed biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, but it was Abigail Adams, John's wife, who really captured my imagination.  A well known advocate of women's issues of the time, her correspondence with friends and family is still preserved today in the archives.  There is a book available that provides some insight into these and it makes heart warming reading.  I think what really fascinated me about her, was that she travelled to Europe to be with her husband at a time when crossing the Atlantic was perilous and almost unheard of.  She was the original trailing wife, I suppose - but her spirit and observations on life in the 'old' and somewhat 'haggard' world were insightful and entertaining.   Infact, her musings on life in Paris in the 1790's was not so very different from my own almost 220 years later, when we also lived for several years in the french capital.   She was a kindred spirit.  The more I read and researched, the more I liked her.

The idea of a quilt for Abigail started because I felt that in my own little way, I should like to document the story of this amazing woman, who, it seemed to me, understood entirely how society worked and how women's lives at that time, were confined by the boundaries set by the men.  Perhaps she is most famous for her entreaty to her husband to 'remember the ladies' in writing the constitution.  Her desire to see women educated and equality amongst all were strong themes throughout her life.  She was a woman ahead of her time in many ways.  She had a sharp eye and a thirst for new and progressive ideas,  but always believed decency and a happy family life were at heart of everything.   Her journey across the Atlantic afforded her the opportunity to see life in the 'old world' and oh boy, did she have something to say....it is great reading.

The main design of the quilt needed to be something traditional and I chose a 'tree' block, with the idea that I was creating Abigail's Orchard, in which I could plant some of the elements of her life.  I used muted colours and wanted it to have the feeling of the period.   I decided to have a go at hand quilting as well, which was new to me, but seemed wholly appropriate for the project.  I did use some free motion machine quilting too and created four central blocks which told the story of her life, along with some acorn blocks for England and some Fleur-de-lys motifs for France.  The quotations around the edge of the quilt were stitched by machine and although I am not a great fan of this kind of lettering - it did work well in this case, giving it a uniform look, which would have taken literally hours by hand.

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This was my first attempt at hand quilting feathers, but they they seemed an appropriate choice as women often wore feathers in their elaborate hairstyles, especially in the court of France. They also gave me the chance to add some small embroidered details for the viewer to discover.

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It was an epic project that took many months of hard work and the resulting quilt was something totally unique and special to me. I finally finished this quilt in 2012 and thought that it was the end of the whole 'Abigail thing'. But in 2015, incredibly, I got to go to Abigail's house in Quincy. I never imagined in my life to have this opportunity and now I realise that this is the real end to a story and a retrospective acquaintance with a lady, I should have loved to call my friend.

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Actually we got to go to several houses - the birthplace of John Adams..

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the neighbouring salt box house where he lived with Abigail after their marriage....

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and Peacefield - the home they bought for their return from europe. 

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They were a good match - he was clever and dedicated to the cause, sometimes needing counsel on the subtleties of life; she was sensible and practical and supportive, but always her own person.   There was a puritan air about their lifestyle - determined to be untainted by the ceremony and grandeur of europe (although perhaps she had to pull him down by the seat of his pants sometimes) and the old class hierarchies that divided society, driven by the idea of a meritocracy in which everyone had a fair chance.  I think Abigail had grace and gentility, without the need for gilding or show.  She was exactly the sort of person who should have been an orchestrator of a New world and in her own way, perhaps she was.

 'Peacefield' was beautifully preserved, largely because the family stayed there and changed very little for several generations.  It was  a lovely example of 'Georgian' style - a real family home and with whispers of their european adventures sprinkled around in the form of small things they had brought home.  I was thrilled to be there.  The addition of the 'Stone Library' to the side of the house, meant that all their books and papers could be preserved and it is wonderful to see.

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In todays modern crazy world.... perhaps we should sometimes take moments to reflect on people like John and Abigail Adams - the things they believed in, should still hold true today and we might do well to look to simplicity sometimes to find peace.


Later on in the day, we found the church in Quincy where John and Abigail and their son John Quincy, who also became president and his wife Louisa Catherine, were buried. We were the only ones in there and a guide offered to take us to the crypt. We went down a narrow stone staircase and she ushered us into a small white washed room with a low ceiling that contained four sarcophagi. Before I had time to realise, I found myself standing in-between John and Abigail Adams, my elbows resting on both. It made me jump - this was not a space for outsiders. These two amazing characters should not be divided by the likes of me. I felt like an intruder in a sacred space. They lived in an entirely different world to the one I find myself in and it seemed as if this patch was from another time, their time. They were truly a union of the most admirable and timeless kind... I wished I had brought flowers.....

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When my quilt was completed, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. It was the most enormous undertaking and actually turned out better than I could have imagined when I started, considering I had no real pattern or plan. When I had been to visit Abigail house, it took on another meaning altogether. It is difficult to photograph this quilt as it is so large and to really appreciate without being up close, but it hangs on a wall in our home and is part of our daily lives and serves to remind us of history, heroines, travel and the search for a better way to live our lives.

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