As an art form, quilts have deep roots in American life and experience. For more than three centuries, the artists, primarily women, have created highly individualized expressions in this medium that is both yielding and unforgiving, challenging the maker to test the limits imposed by cutting and piecing bits of fabric.
The very fine selection of quilts on view in this show is from the distinctive collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. They range across time and place from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth century, from Alabama to Pennsylvania. The four sections of the exhibition highlight early twentieth-century quilts from a period of craft revival, designs developed by Amish communities, examples by African American makers, and traditional nineteenth-century patterns that formed a foundation for generations of quiltmakers to come.
The exhibition begins with quilts that reflect the popularity of traditional American handicrafts inspired by the United States Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and the Arts & Crafts Movement. Quilters moved away from the ornate designs of the Victorian era, which featured sumptuous velvets and silks, and embraced the use of cotton fabrics, clean lines, and schematic patterns of Colonial and early nineteenth century bed covers, as seen in the Lozenge Quilt.
Amish communities—including those in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana—have produced some of the most beloved American quilt patterns, which were adapted to suit their preferences and religious principles. However, despite the Amish belief in modesty and simplicity, bright colors were not forbidden. Bold blues, pinks, and purples—as juxtaposed in the Sunshine and Shadow Quilt—belie common conceptions of the plainness of Amish visual culture.
Each of the African American quilts in the exhibition is infused with stunning dynamism, expressing visual and material energy that seemingly will not be contained by strict geometry. Although they may draw on traditional Euro-American or revival patterns, their asymmetry, bold colors, and outsized designs may also be linked to earlier African textile practices. Lucinda Toomer, who created the Le Moyne Star Variation Quilt, and Leola Pettway, who made the Star of Bethlehem with Satellite Stars Quilt, have each described improvisation as vital to their quilting practice.
The exhibition closes with a selection of traditional patterns dating from the mid to late 1800s that illustrate the foundational quilting techniques of piecing and appliqué and formed a foundation for generations of quiltmakers to come. Piecing celebrates the straight line, often joining together many small squares and triangles to create larger abstract patterns. With appliqué, quilters cut out a variety of forms and sew them onto a larger background. Undertaken individually or within a group of women, many quilts take years to finish. Though the names of many of these quilters are unknown today, their dedication and creativity infuse these quilts with the emotional weight of passing time.
This exhibition has been organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York.