Treasured threads: Unpicking Gunnersbury’s Quilts

One of Gunnersbury’s most remarkable items is a highly decorative fabric quilt top created by a local Acton family in around 1825.

Thought to have been intended as a bed covering, the so-called ‘Acton Top’ demonstrates a wide range of complex quilting, patchwork and appliqué skills. At approximately three metres square and entirely hand-sewn, it is a particularly fine example of early 19th century domestic needlework.

What is a quilt top?

A quilt is a multi-layered textile, normally consisting of the three layers – the decorative quilt top, the middle layer of wadding (padding) and the fabric backing. The Acton Top is so-called because when it was donated to Gunnersbury Park Museum, it consisted only of the top decorative design layer; it did not have wadding or fabric backing added to it.

An outstanding piece of craftwork

The complex, detailed design of the Acton Top demonstrates the skill of its maker(s). It is set in a frame design with a central square containing an appliqué bowl of flowers, surrounded with butterflies and birds. The central panel is surrounded by rosettes of elongated hexagons pieced in printed cottons. Expanding outwards, the top has a frame containing a series of appliquéd figurative motifs depicting biblical scenes and contemporary figures in Regency dress. Finally, the outer most border is composed of rows of paper pieced equilateral triangles and clamshell shapes.

A window into history

The top was donated to Gunnersbury Park Museum in 1931, with the donor advising it was made by members of the Ince family, who lived in Acton in the early 19th century. Beyond this, very little is known about its creators.

However, the design of the top gives some clues as to the social, cultural and religious context in which it was made. Perhaps most obvious are the scenes of daily life which feature figures from various levels of society – a maid, butcher and a man with a saw alongside better-dressed gentry. The presence of Biblical images reflects the importance of religion in the early 19th century. The scenes chosen for the Acton Top particularly focus on stories with a moral teaching – Christ and the Samaritan woman, Elijah and the Ravens, Elijah and the poor widow and Christ giving sight to a blind man. Meanwhile the use of floral patterns and motifs illustrates the increasing interest in gardening and garden flowers that was developing at this time. Within the Acton Top specific flower varieties can be identified including sunflowers, roses, tulips, tiger lilies and sweet peas.

Dr Bridget Long, an Associate Fellow of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA has studied the top in detail and believes that it was made in a family at level of society where leisure time was available to spend on decorative needlework. She noted that the maker(s) used their fabrics in a thrifty way but could clearly afford to source printed cottons from outside the home and were not stitching in an environment of “make-do and want”.

Plan your visit

The Acton Top forms the centrepiece of a special free exhibition Treasured Threads: Unpicking Gunnersbury’s Quilts (15 October 2019 – 12 January 2020). The exhibition not only explores the story of the Acton Top but also compares it with other historic quilts from the museum’s collection. In so doing, it investigates how quilting developed from the late 1780s to the 1850s, and explores associated technological and social changes.


Plan your visit to the museum