American Quilts as Art as Well as Documents of Politics and History

When we think of quilts, we tend to think of women making them from scraps of material to keep their families warm in drafty houses. The introduction of quilts to this country was actually quite different from this impression.
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"History chronicles the large and glorious deeds of the standard bearers...and tells nothing at all of the courageous women who keep the business of the house going," writes Lilla Day Monroe as quoted in Johanna L. Stratton's Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier.

The American Folk Art Museum is rectifying this situation with the opening of the first installment in a year-long exhibit highlighting America's quilt heritage. During the year, the exhibit will celebrate three centuries of women whose textile creations clearly demonstrate artistic talent as well as ingenuity, and perseverance.

The quilts have been selected by guest curator Elizabeth V. Warren who is also author of Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum, a beautiful full-color book just published by Rizzoli in association with the American Folk Art Museum with an introduction by Martha Stewart.

"Examining a quilt is like reading a historical document," says Stacy C. Hollander, project director and the Folk Art Museum's senior curator. "The quilt tells the story of a time and the story of a life, sometimes multiple lives."

Quilts Started Out as Signs of Status
When we think of quilts, we tend to think of women making them from scraps of material to keep their families warm in drafty houses. The introduction of quilts to this country was actually quite different from this impression.

"Textiles were among the most valued family possessions until well into the nineteenth century," says guest curator Elizabeth Warren. She notes that most of the quilts in the Folk Art collection were created for and used on special occasions, or they would not have lasted. "Some of the fabrics in the quilts would have been extremely expensive and may have been purchased specifically for using in a quilt."

The tradition of quilt making began in England and was brought to the colonies, primarily in the New England area. Most American women did not have time for handiwork of this type during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Women had a full roster of household chores that included spinning and weaving fabric so they could sew clothes for their families. Cloth was expensive and hard to come by so the fabric often could not be spared for use in decorative work such as a quilt; previously worn clothing would more likely be refashioned to be worn by another family member.

The industrial revolution brought about major changes in the work force but also major changes for homemakers who could buy commercial fabric rather than weaving their own. (By the 1840s fabric prices would have come down enough to be affordable for most families.) The availability of cloth provided women with a little more time for creative pursuits, and interest in quilt making began to grow. Additional changes occurred in 1856 when the Singer Company began to sell sewing machines on a time payment plan. This meant that more households could obtain machines that would speed regular sewing chores and free up more time.

Reading the Story
Quilts have played an important role in our country. Many have been purely functional, created for warmth, but culturally, they have expressed the lives -- and often marked the celebrations -- of the women who made them. Socially they provided an opportunity for women to gather and share family and neighborhood news.

Quilt making also offered an important means of expression. At a time when society felt that there were limits on what was appropriate for women to say or do, the fact that women could gather together to create a quilt that expressed their patriotism, their support of the temperance movement, or their religious beliefs provided an outlet that did not ruffle society.

The dilemma for quilt collectors and a museum like the American Folk Art Museum is understanding the story a quilt is telling. While curator Stacy Hollander says that occasionally they receive a donation of a quilt with biographical information on its maker, most of the time the information has to be gleaned from careful study.

Dating a quilt requires understanding the approximate dates of quilting trends, knowledge of fabrics and dyes and the dates they were first used as well as knowledge of how trends varied in different parts of the country. Quilts made in the English style used newspaper templates, and occasionally that will provide a date and a location for a quilt, but most of the time, the curatorial staff works to study everything from the fabric and the dyes used to the subjects depicted in order to ascertain a date and a geographic area.

Made for Good Causes
Women have always helped out with good causes, and creating items to donate to those who need them. In the mid-nineteenth century, women on both sides of the Civil War undertook blanket and quilt-making, sometimes donating them directly to soldiers; other times selling them at fairs in order to raise money for war-related needs.

This trend continues today. The best-known political quilt of all time is the AIDS Memorial Quilt, begun in San Francisco in 1987 to memorialize the lives of people who had died of AIDS when it was feared they would be forgotten. The quilt now contains almost 100,000 names. On the website, it states that the quilt has helped raise more than 4 million dollars to help people with AIDS.

Exhibit Schedule
The Folk Art Museum's Masterworks exhibit will be presented in two parts. The first installment will be on view from October 5, 2010 to April 24, 2011. The second installment will be on view from May 10 to October 16, 2011. Curator Stacy Hollander is selecting star quilts for a separate exhibit called "Super Stars" to open in the museum's satellite display space opposite Lincoln Center.

In addition, the American Folk Art Museum will install 650 red and white American quilts in a show at the Park Avenue Armory called "Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts" (March 25-30, 2011). These quilts are all on loan from a single collector. This will be the largest collection of quilts ever held in the city; this unprecedented exhibit will be open to the public and will be free.

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