News / Arts & Entertainment

Exhibit Examines Role of Quilts in US History

New Exhibit Examines Role of Quilts in US Culturei
X
January 28, 2014 9:06 PM
Quilt-making has always been an essential part of American life and culture. A new exhibit in Washington, titled “Workt by Hand; Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts” [workt with the "t" is correct] offers a rare look at 35 historical quilts on loan from the Brooklyn Museum’s renowned decorative arts collection. VOA reporter Julie Taboh visited the show and tells us about the significance of these cultural treasures.
New Exhibit Examines Role of Quilts in US Culture
Quilt-making has always been an essential part of American life and culture. A new exhibit in Washington, titled “Workt by Hand; Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts” offers a rare look at 35 historical quilts on loan from the Brooklyn Museum’s renowned decorative arts collection.

Cultural treasures

One of the quilts given prominent display at the exhibit is a large creation decorated with an eagle and other symbolic/patriotic American images dating back to around 1830.

Its quilter, Elizabeth Welsh, used a complicated technique called reverse appliqué where a design is cut from the top layer of the quilt to reveal the appliqué beneath. The historic pattern inspired a popular quilt kit called "American Eagle" in advance of the national Bicentennial in 1976.

Victoria Royall Broadhead’s Tumbling Blocks quilt features an abstract design of vibrant colors and unique block patterns in silk and velvet, helping it earn top prizes in several state fairs in the 1860s.
Victoria Royall Broadhead’s "Tumbling Blocks" quilt earned the top prize at several state fairs in the 1860s. (J. Taboh/VOA)Victoria Royall Broadhead’s "Tumbling Blocks" quilt earned the top prize at several state fairs in the 1860s. (J. Taboh/VOA)
​They are among 35 historic quilts now on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington. 

Associate curator Virginia Treanor said the exhibit provides an opportunity to see a rare collection of “gorgeous quilts,” and examine how quilts have been viewed and perceived by Americans over the past 150 years.”

“We know that quilting traditions exist all over the world,” she said. “But in American culture and American history, quilts have really become a symbol of Americana…and that is in part what this exhibition looks at.”

Women quilted, said Treanor, for a number of reasons.

“Learning needlework for much of American history was an absolute necessity for women,” she said. “You had to learn how to use a needle and thread, you had to know how to make clothes, how to stitch bedclothes…so it was really a large part of the education for girls and women for a large part of American history.”

But for many women, quilt-making was also an enjoyable activity and an essential form of artistic expression.

Crazy quilts

While some quilts in the exhibit were made from a single piece of cloth, others were assembled from an assortment of small, irregular pieces of fabric. Referred to as Crazy quilts, the process became popular in the late nineteenth century as luxury fabrics became more accessible.

Quilts assembled from small, irregular pieces of fabric are called "Crazy" quilts. This one, by Mary Stinson, was created around 1880. (J. Taboh/VOA)Quilts assembled from small, irregular pieces of fabric are called "Crazy" quilts. This one, by Mary Stinson, was created around 1880. (J. Taboh/VOA)
x
Quilts assembled from small, irregular pieces of fabric are called "Crazy" quilts. This one, by Mary Stinson, was created around 1880. (J. Taboh/VOA)
Quilts assembled from small, irregular pieces of fabric are called "Crazy" quilts. This one, by Mary Stinson, was created around 1880. (J. Taboh/VOA)
A good example is Mary Stinson’s exquisitely embroidered Crazy quilt, which was sewn around 1880.

“When you look at the detail in that quilt it is just amazing to think that one woman was responsible for all that detailed work,” said Treanor. “And her pride in her craft really comes out in that quilt.”

Some quilts were made by a single seamstress, while others were the result of a collective effort.

In the charming and intricate 1840 Pictorial quilt, for example, each quilter has embroidered her initials into the square she worked on, reflecting her individual skills and interests. One square features a woman’s silhouette; another depicts a heart, while another square features a brown horse centered against a golden background.

Political statement

And since women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1920, many expressed their political views through the designs they chose for their quilts.
Quilts were often a means of political expression. This 1830's quilt depicts the first seven US presidents up through Andrew Jackson. (J. Taboh/VOA)Quilts were often a means of political expression. This 1830's quilt depicts the first seven US presidents up through Andrew Jackson. (J. Taboh/VOA)
A whole-cloth quilt from the 1830s for example, depicts portraits of the first seven U.S. presidents up through Andrew Jackson.

The quilter was most likely a supporter of Andrew Jackson, based on the visual evidence of Jackson’s image being given precedence over his forerunners by being enclosed in a medallion.

Another purpose of the exhibit said Treanor, is to dispel common myths associated with quilts and the women who made them.

“One of the more popular myths is that early colonial women were patching together quilts from scraps of clothing and other materials to stay warm in the winters, and this really was not the case,” she said. “The quilts that we have today from this earlier period really demonstrate that women who did make quilts were from a very, very high social class because they had to be able afford the material.”

Material, at that point, was imported, usually from England, so it was expensive. The women also had to have the time to complete the quilts.

Quilts as art

The 1970s was a pivotal turning point in the history of quilts which, for the first time, were displayed in museums to be appreciated and recognized as art.

“A lot of people were very happy about that because finally they felt like quilts were getting the credit they deserved as artworks in their own right,” said Treanor.

The quilt revival of the 1970s continues to this day. More than 20 million quilters in America have turned this traditional craft into a multi-million-dollar industry.

You May Like

Multimedia Obama Defends Immigration Action

Obama says with his executive action on immigration, enforcement resources will be focused on 'felons, not families; criminals, not children' More

US-Led Airstrikes in Syria Kill Over 900: Monitoring Group

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the toll includes more than 50 civilians, five of them women and eight of them children More

Report: Obama Broadens US Combat Role in Afghanistan

The New York Times says resident Barack Obama has signed a classified order extending the role of US troops in Afghanistan for another year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
New Skateboard Defies Gravityi
X
November 21, 2014 5:07 AM
A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Gay Evangelicals Argue That Bible Does Not Condemn Homosexuality

More than 30 U.S. states now recognize same-sex marriages, and an increasing number of mainline American churches are blessing them. But evangelical church members- which account for around 30 percent of the U.S. adult population - believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender evangelicals are coming out. Backed by a prominent evangelical scholar, they argue that the traditional reading of the bible is wrong.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Mexico Protests Escalate Over Disappearances

Protests in Mexico over 43 students missing since September continue to escalate, reflecting growing anger among Mexicans about a political system they view as corrupt, and increasingly tainted by the drug trade. Mounting outrage over the disappearances is now focused on the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, accused of not doing enough to end insecurity in the country. More from VOA's Victoria Macchi.
Video

Video US Senate Votes Down Controversial Oil Pipeline - For Now

The U.S. Senate has rejected construction of a controversial pipeline to transport Canadian oil to American refineries. The $5 billion project still could be approved next year, but it faces a possible veto by President Barack Obama. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, the pipeline has exposed deep divisions in Congress about America’s energy future.
Video

Video Can Minsk Cease-fire Agreement Hold?

Growing tensions between government troops and separatists in eastern Ukraine further threaten a cease-fire agreement reached two months ago in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Critics of U.S. policy in Ukraine say it is time the Obama administration gives up on that much-violated cease-fire and moves toward a new deal with Russia. VOA's Scott Stearns has more.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Ferguson Church Grapples with Race Relations

Many white residents of Ferguson, Missouri, say they chose to live there because of the American Midwest community's diversity. So, they were shocked when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in August – and shaken by the resulting protests and violence. Some local churches are leading conversations on how to go forward. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

Soul Lounge

Avery Sunshine is known for her irresistible combination of soul, jazz and gospel influences. She’s traveled the world entertaining audiences with her powerful voice, inspiring lyrics and infectious spirit. She joins host Shawna Renee on "The Soul Lounge" to perform and share the stories behind her new album, "The Sun Room."