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)
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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.

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