By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
Perhaps you went to a museum or local arts and craft show and stared in wonder at a beautiful quilt on display, mesmerized by its color, simplistic or intricate design, and exceptional craftsmanship. As someone who loves history, especially history than crosses time to touch several generations, I can honestly say that I love and admire quilts (especially Amish quilts!). However, quilts are not just about someone’s family; they have become historical markers of our communities, different time periods, and the diverse cultures and religions that can be found in America. And so, it’s not surprising that today quilts are also considered a true art form.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF QUILTING
Quilt making actually dates back thousands of years. The oldest piece of patchwork-type quilting is a patchwork canopy for a bed, and dates from 980 BC. This patchwork canopy is on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The patchwork squares are made of leather that has been dyed in various colors. Silk quilts have also been found in Chinese tombs. A 9th century altar cloth, described as a patchwork of rectangular pieces of cloth, was found in the early 20th century by British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Marc Aural Stein during the excavation of The Cave of the Thousand Buddhas in Dunhaung. It is believed the rectangular pieces of cloth were made by poor pilgrims to the cave, who took the pieces of material from the only thing they had, their clothing. This altar cloth can now be found in the British Museum.
In early Rome, bedding was known as a ‘culcita’, basically a sack of cloth or cushion that had been stuffed and tied in the center to hold the inner layer in place. As the Roman Empire grew, so did the culcita. In France, the word culcita became ‘cuilte’. England adopted the word as ‘cowlte’, which would eventually become the word quilt.
As crusaders, adventurers, and merchants began to travel the world, so did customs and traditions like quilting, as well as the availability of different textiles. Cotton from India, silk from China, and finely woven linen from Egypt would be traded first in the Far East and then throughout Europe.
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION
Many of us have ancestors who made quilts, traditionally a type of bed cover using several pieces of cloth that have been pieced together by meticulous hand stitching. Most were crafted out of a necessity for warm bedding, especially during Colonial and Frontier America. The cost for imported fabric was very expensive and although homespun fabrics were available, they were not as durable. As such, saving leftover scraps of material was very important.
During the Colonial period, most quilts were made in the pattern known as wholecloth. Repeat lengths of the same leftover pieces of fabric were sewn together, creating the illusion of one piece of cloth. Pictured left is a c1780 block print wholecloth chintz quilt made for a four-poster bed.
After the American Revolution, pieced quilts became more commonplace. Leftover fabric was cut into uniform shapes that, when pieced together with other fabric of similar shape and size, formed a pattern such as blocks, stars, circles, or other shapes. Pictured below is a traditional design patchwork quilt using triangular shapes. Made in New England around 1825 it incorporates fabric from the late 1700s through 1820.
Pictured below is a quilt from 1845 using a white rose applique design.
Formed out of three layers, the top cloth was the decorative layer; the middle layer was batting or wadding, and the third layer (or backing) was woven cloth. The word quilting refers to the joining of at least two of these layers using hand stitching or ties.
Quilting was often a family or communal event. My great-grandmother, along with my grandmother and her sisters, quilted together. As a little girl, my mother would not only watch but knew by sight what each person’s stitches looked like. I have distinct memories of my mother also pointing out a certain fabric in a family quilt and remembering her mother had used that material to make a dress for her, or saying “that was the fabric of our kitchen window curtain”.
But when exactly did quilts, as a whole, become recognized as ‘art’?
A RESPECTED FORM OF ART
Although created as a necessary source of warmth and comfort, found in log cabins on the frontier, clapboard farmhouses on the plains, and both slave quarters and antebellum pillared homes of the south, they definitely incorporated color, creative design and use of textiles, and skill.
But it was not until the early 1970s that the Guggenheim Museum in New York took grandma’s quilts off their beds and put them on the wall as a work of art. Cosmopolitan New Yorkers were suddenly face-to-face with the examples of colorful textile artistry that would have hardly been noticed by them in their natural home’s setting. In addition to the design, skill and fibers used to make the quilt, the patterns were studied and it soon became clear that many of them tell a story. For example, you won’t find calico or fabric featuring patterns or stripes on an Amish quilt. As part of their culture and religion, strict observance must be made to the prescribed requirements of both color and fabric.
Perhaps the most moving antique quilt I have ever seen is one called “The Graveyard Quilt”. I first learned of this quilt in a DAR magazine article two years ago, and it has haunted me ever since.
In 1836, a woman named Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell began stitching a quilt in memory of her two-year old son named John, who had just died. A few years later, in 1843, she added the name of another son who had died at the age of 19. But what was so unusual about her quilt is that it features a graveyard in the center. On the top is where the graveyard is located in Monroe County, Ohio. I must admit the grim, almost Tim Burton, look to it disturbed me. I wanted to know why this woman had chosen such a depressing way to remember her family.
Once again, necessity became the mother of invention. Apparently, when her family moved, Mrs. Mitchell wanted to make sure that no one forgot where her two sons had been buried. So, from a heartbreaking, mourning perspective, she used the materials she had and a talent she possessed to not only remember her deceased children but document her family’s history for future descendants. As such, her quilt became a genealogical and historical artifact.
Having been involved in geneaology and family research for over twenty-five years, I know how difficult and frustrating it can be to find a missing piece of the puzzle, that key bit of genealogical information or firsthand historical documentation. So, now that I understand the story and her reasoning, I appreciate and admire the love and sentimentality Mrs. Mitchell crafted into her quilt. I must admit, however, that her method of keeping up the quilt bothers me. You see, when a child was born into the family (a joyous occasion usually filled with happiness and hope for their future), a black, eight-sided coffin was immediately added to this quilt around the outer edge. When death occurred, these coffins would be removed from that edge and reapplied into the graveyard area, located in the center. The death date would also be embroidered. After 175 years, quilters today may be impressed by Mrs. Mitchell’s “traditional layout of a center medallion surrounded by blocks of alternating 8-pointed stars and black printed fabric”, but for anyone who has spent hours and even years searching for one clue about their ancestors, “The Graveyard Quilt” (macabre as it may seem) is a tangible artifact and sacred history for the descendants of Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell.
Today, you will find many art shows and museums across the country that exhibit quilts as a form of art. Texas even has a museum wholly dedicated to the art of quilt-making.
At present, the museum is featuring its third installment of “Texas Quilts Today: Selections from the book, Lone Stars III – A Legacy of Texas Quilts from 1986-2011”. The book was written by museum co-founders and co-directors, Karey Patterson Brensenhan and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes, and features no less than 200 Texas quilts. The last phase of this three-part exhibit will run through September 30, 2012. Beginning in October 2012, the museum’s exhibit will be on “Antique Quilts”.
Whether you have a much loved quilt that you use everyday, display as an heirloom, or just want to preserve, it is important to remember that quilts are an art form where fibers are used as the medium. As stated in The Quilt: A History of an American Art Form (2007), “Only a small number of quilts made before the nineteenth century survive today, making them all the more precious.” And because quilts are made of natural fibers, precautions need to be taken to preserve them – very much like any piece of artwork. If a quilt is on display, the quilt should be placed in a cool, dry environment and, most important, not put in direct sunlight. If the quilt is to be folded and displayed on a quilt rack, tissue paper between the layers of the quilt when folding is recommended. If you have an heirloom quilt and want to store it, remember that quilts need air, so do not store quilts in a plastic bag or sealed plastic container. Special containers made of muslin, canvas, etc., can be purchased online to safely store and preserve quilts.
I hope that you enjoyed my post about quilts and their legacy, and remember that each one tells a story. The next time you see a quilt show, whether at your county fair or a museum, admire the creativity and artistry that went into it, as well as the patience and time it took to make those meticulous stitches by hand. And if you are fortunate enough to have a quilt that has been passed down within your family, remember it truly is a time capsule that represents not just the person who made it, but the time period they lived in, the textiles available to them, and the legacy that the art of quilting continues to inspire.
The Texas Quilt Museum http://www.texasquiltmuseum.org
A Treasury of Amish Quilts by Rachel Thomas Pellman, Kenneth Pelman: Good Books (1990)
The Quilt: A History and Celebration of an American Art Form by Elise Schebler Roberts: Voyageur Press (2007)