News / Arts & Entertainment

Exhibit Examines Role of Quilts in US History

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 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 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
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

How to Safeguard Your Mobile Privacy

As the digital world becomes more mobile, so too do concerns about eroding privacy and increased hacking More

'Desert Dancer' Chronicles Iranian Underground Dance Troupe

Film by Richard Raymond is based on true story of Afshin Ghaffarian and his friends More

Obesity Poses Complex Problem

Professor warns of obesity’s worldwide health impact More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam Wari
X
Katherine Gypson
May 25, 2015 1:32 AM
For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.
Video

Video Iowa Family's Sacrifice Shaped US Military Service for Generations

Few places in America have experienced war like Waterloo. This small town in the Midwest state of Iowa became famous during World War II not for what it accomplished, but what it lost. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the legacy of one family’s sacrifice is still a reminder today of the real cost of war for all families on the homefront.
Video

Video On Film: How Dance Defies Iran's Political Oppression

'Desert Dancer' by filmmaker Richard Raymond is based on the true story of a group of young Iranians, who form an underground dance troupe in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is the latest in a genre of films that focus on dance as a form of freedom of expression against political oppression and social injustice. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Turkey's Ruling Party Trying to Lure Voters in Opposition Stronghold

Turkey’s AK (Justice and Development) Party is seeking a fourth successive general election victory, with the goal of securing two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to rewrite the constitution and change the country's parliamentary system into a presidential one. To achieve that, the party will need to win seats in opposition strongholds like the western city of Izmir. Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video Millions Flock to Ethiopia Polls

Millions of Ethiopians cast their votes Sunday in the first national election since the 2012 death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi. Mr. Meles' party, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, is almost certain of victory again. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Addis Ababa.
Video

Video Scientists Testing Space Propulsion by Light

Can the sun - the heart of our solar system - power a spacecraft to the edge of our solar system? The answer may come from a just-launched small satellite designed to test the efficiency of solar sail propulsion. Once deployed, its large sail will catch the so-called solar wind and slowly reach what scientists hope to be substantial speed. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video FIFA Trains Somali Referees

As stability returns to the once lawless nation of Somalia, the world football governing body, FIFA, is helping to rebuild the country’s sport sector by training referees as well as its young footballers. Abdulaziz Billow has more from Mogadishu.
Video

Video With US Child Obesity Rates on the Rise, Program Promotes Health Eating

In its fifth year, FoodCorps puts more than 180 young Americans into 500 schools across the United States, where they focus on teaching students about nutrition, engaging them with hands-on activities, and improving their access to healthy foods whether in the cafeteria or the greater community. Aru Pande has more.
Video

Video Virginia Neighborhood Draws People to Nostalgic Main Street

In the U.S., people used to grow up in small towns with a main street lined by family-owned shops and restaurants. Today, however, many main streets are worn down and empty because shoppers have been lured away by shopping malls. But in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, main street is thriving. VOA’s Deborah Block reports it has a nostalgic feel with its small restaurants and unique stores.

VOA Blogs

New in Music Alley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Wayne Casey – “KC” of KC and the Sunshine Band – comes to VOA’s Studio 4 to talk with "Border Crossings" host Larry London and perform songs from his new album, “Feeling You! The 60s.”