Wednesday, 7 October 2015


In patchwork we are always reminded that accurate measuring is vitally important, and in all areas of our lives we are constantly measuring something: ingredients for cooking, the speed we are driving, even how long until home time. Many of these everyday units of measurement are the same the world over, which makes modern life much easier than it must have been in the past. Time, for instance, we didn’t have a truly standard time until the advent of the railway system. (An hour was still an hour, but when that hour started was a matter of local opinion.) Before global standardisation, many industries used their own forms of measurement. Some of these we are familiar with; should you be in the market for a diamond, they are still sold in carats (about 0.2g)

Many of these old forms of measurement had quaint names – sadly words which will soon be lost from our language as standardisation becomes paramount

Morgen The area one man and one horse could plough in a morning
Firkin 6 ¼ lbs (pounds) soap or 56 lbs butter
Peck 14 lbs of salt
Fother 2184 lbs of lead or 120 lbs steel
Stone Could have referred to 8lbs of fish, 5 lbs of glass or 32lbs of hemp
Even a pound (lb) wasn’t always a pound – the apothecaries’ pound only had 12 ounces instead of the more common 16 ounces (but then apothecaries apparently have scruples!) From this confusion you can understand why some form of standardisation was needed.

In patchwork, as you probably know, we still use imperial measurements. I am not quite sure why. Is it because the Americans, who have a huge patchwork following, still work in imperial? Or because many of us in Britain were taught imperial in our childhood? I am lucky enough to be of the generation who learnt both imperial and metric measurements since I grew up during the period when Britain changed from one to the other. Strangely enough, although I would measure in millimetres from choice, I still reckon in feet & inches. If asked “how long is that …..” I would answer “oh, about three feet” or “about six inches”. I don’t know if other people of my generation find the same, but I cannot visualise a metre (3 foot 3”) or 150mm (6”).

I wonder if by perpetuating this insistence on the imperial we are closing the patchwork door anyone under the age of 40, since by then they would probably not have been taught this archaic form measurements. I know there are metric quilting rulers available, but most of the patterns I have seen is written in imperial. You would have to be pretty determined to take up a new hobby if you have to learn a whole new system of measurement before you start. Where does the answer lie? A knotty problem which I am sure the more forward thinking members of quilting groups would like to find an answer to. We need young blood to keep the traditional skills alive, but we also need fresh young ideas in order for those skills to develop and move forward into the modern era.

Despite all this, why does Britain still measure road distances in miles and beer in pints? (Please don’t think I have any inclination to change this, I am just curious to know why!)

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