Ann West's patchwork

This vibrant example of 19th-century patchwork depicts a mixture of biblical stories and scenes of ordinary people going about their daily business, revealing a glimpse of life in rural England. It is made from offcuts of coats and military uniforms, decorated with woollen appliqué (pieces of fabric sewn on to a larger piece to form a picture) and embroidered details, including the words 'Ann West's work', and the date, 1820 – a clue to the maker's identity.

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Patchwork hanging, Ann West, 1820, England. Museum no. T.23-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The patchwork features 64 brightly coloured woollen panels, centred around the biblical scene of Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden. It was probably intended to hang on a wall, possibly of a nursery or Sunday school. Captions have been carefully embroidered over the appliqué scenes, often quoting the bible or adding playful personal touches. The smaller squares reveal the social mix of a town in early 19th-century England: from shepherds and milkmaids to a well-dressed sportsman, a 'distressed widow' and a 'poor sailor'.

Patchwork hanging (detail), Ann West, 1820, England. Museum no. T.23-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Who was Ann West?

The handwriting embroidered on the hanging suggests Ann West was a well-educated woman, with access to a wide-range of source imagery, including exotic animals and birds. The phrases "Forget me not" and "Remember me" are stitched among the patchwork's delicate imagery, suggesting she wanted her work to survive as a personal memento. But Ann West was a common name – identifying her almost 200 years later has proved difficult. A family story suggested that Ann West worked at Longleat (the Marquess of Bath's country estate), and the patchwork has long been associated with the Wiltshire town of Warminster, four miles away – although no records survive to confirm this.

Patchwork hanging (detail), Ann West, 1820, England. Museum no. T.23-2007. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another possibility is an Ann West who lived in the Wiltshire village of North Bradley, and was identified in the 1841 census as a 'tailoress'. She was born Ann Love Collier, in Rode, Somerset, in 1761, and married Edward West, also a tailor, in 1783. This might account for the materials used in the hanging: off-cuts from fine blue-black cloth used for tailored coats, scarlet for army uniforms and other woollen fabrics from ordinary garments and blankets – products of the cloth-weaving industry which were then vital to the prosperity of southwest England.

In 19th-century England, patchwork played an important role outside the home. Some of the most inventive examples were produced for exhibition and display, often illustrating political events and military heroes. Others promoted Victorian values of perserverance and hard work, or showed off individual skill. The scenes on Ann West's hanging are similar to the illustrations used in schoolrooms and nurseries, suggesting it may have been intended as a children's teaching aid – with the message that Christ came to save all humanity, regardless of racial origin or place in society. Its combination of detail and humour continue to fascinate today.

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