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

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid

New in Music Alley

The Hamilton Live

Trumpeter, percussionist and bandleader Etienne Charles was born in Trinidad and blends island rhythms with modern jazz. He and his stellar band perform a rich gumbo of jazz, calypso, reggae, and rock-steady that Charles calls “Creole Soul” on "The Hamilton Live."