TALKING QUILTS with... Patrick J Finn, author, photographer and Indian quilt expert

Talking Quilts with Patrick J Finn

Patrick J Finn is a much-admired photographer and independent scholar based in Jaipur. His passion for textiles led him to quilts and to India, where he spent four years travelling from bustling cities to remote villages documenting the subcontinent’s rich quilting tradition, discovering previously undocumented styles and re-discovering techniques thought long forgotten. The results can be found in his fascinating books, including ‘Timeless Textiles of India’ and ‘Quilt Story, The Cultural Heritage, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan’, which is out soon.

We sat down with him in cyberspace to find out more about his passion for Indian quilts

ECT: Tell us about your very first quilt encounter

PF: It was at my grandmother’s farmhouse in America. I was around eight years old. My parents and I had gone to stay, and my grandmother had made a bedroom for me up in the attic. There was a ‘crazy’ quilt on bed quilt made from multiple patches all sewn together at random. I'd never seen anything like it before – we had blankets at home – and I remember being mesmerised by this thing.

ECT: And when did your fascination with Indian quilts begin?

PF: Years after that childhood encounter, I was dealing antique textiles between India and the US and one of my clients asked me if I could source some Kantha quilts – those are the quilts from West Bengal and Bangladesh – for the International Quilt Museum at the University of Nabraska-Lincoln. I said yes straight away but I knew I needed to learn more about what I'd be buying because they had to be really good quality.

Kantha India QuiltKantha from West Bengal, photo by Patrick J Finn
Kantha Quilt IndiaKantha from Bangladesh, photo by Patrick J Finn 

ECT: There are over 30 styles of quilt on the Indian subcontinent – does any other country in the world have a comparable quilting tradition?

PF: I am going to go out on a limb and say no. The Harappan civilisation [the oldest known urban culture of the Indian subcontinent] is pre-Egyptian and it is highly likely that they were making quilts. People have found spindles and needles from that era so we know they made cloth and that takes a lot of energy - the cotton has to be grown, then spun, then woven - so they wouldn’t have thrown anything away. And there have been finds that point directly to quilt making too, including a small bed with an imprint of what seems likely have been a quilt on it.

ECT: Do the styles vary according to region and state?

PF: Yes. The styles are usually community-driven – for example, the Hindus in Gujarat may use only a certain palette, while the Muslims in the area will use a different one. And different communities use different motifs. In Karnataka in the south west, they use these very abstracted motifs made from blocks that designate day to day things such as a well, or piece of architecture found in the home. They are very particular and if you don’t know what you’re looking for, you won’t find them. In Gujarat, the motifs become a little more literal – you can see a peacock or a woman churning butter embroidered on the quilts, for example. Often these motifs are the tradition of the community and are passed on from one generation to another. Occasionally you can tell something of the cultural heritage of the region too - like with the Kantha. A lot of these quilts show bits and pieces from the life of the woman who made it, or you’ll find motifs marking significant events like an aeroplane marking the time when ‘planes were first introduced for the postal service, or a circus master in a top hat from when the British brought circuses to India. There’s a lot of religious iconography too – some quilts depict a mosque or a mandir [Hindu temple].

Narrative Quilt IndiaGujarat quilt depicting churning butter, photo by Patrick J Finn
Peacock quilt IndiaGujarat Peacock quilt, photo by Patrick J Finn

ECT: You've been researching Indian quilts for many years, are you still discovering new things?

PF: I am pretty well travelled, but I still come across new genres I've never seen before like the white-on-white wedding quilts from Manipur. That’s always a thrill. And a couple of months ago, I met the quilt artist Mahamaya Sikdar who is making the most impeccable Kantha quilts. She has a remarkable skill set, technically and aesthetically, and what she's doing is as good, if not better, than the ones made when Kantha quilting was at its height.

Pontha quilt India whitePontha, Manipur by Meitei Woman, photo by Patrick J Finn
Mahamaya Sikdar quilt india
Quilt by Mahamaya Sikdar, photo  Mahamaya Sikdar

ECT: Quilting has a long history in India, but does it have an economic role in India today?

PF: The textile industry is the second most important economic factor in India after agriculture. Most Indian women know how to make quilts, but it’s a long way, both metaphorically and physically, from the village to the marketplace so they need help to learn how to make their quilts more marketable, at home and overseas. I've visited with numerous NGOs [non-profit government organisations] and many of them include quilt making as part of their economic development programmes. I wouldn’t guess on anything economically for the future at the moment of course, but even during the last year people have been working to continue the revival of quilting and help people who, now more than ever, need this type of work.

Woman quilting sewing craft IndiaA quilter in Uttar Pradesh, photo Patrick J Finn 

ECT: The India Quilt Festival launched in 2019. That’s an exciting development…

PF: Yes, it was time India had a major quilt festival of its own because it brings more legitimacy to quilt making. The breadth of aesthetic is very interesting - it’s one of the few to show ‘modern’ quilting and art quilts alongside traditional ones. This year’s was on-line, but I’m looking forward to the next one in 2023.

We have a fascinating tour programme to the India Quilt Festival in 2023. Find out more here