For many years, quilts fell outside the traditional definition of high art. But quilt exhibitions at venues such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, San Francisco’s de Young Museum and others have begun to redefine the place of the quilt in American art and culture.
The range of expression in the American quilt equals that of any other art form. In creating free-form abstractions or meticulous, astonishingly evolved masterpieces of ornamentation, American women inventively explored the possibilities of design with textiles. Quilts were women’s primary mode of artistic effort. Large in scale and intent, the best of these quilts look confidently at home on the walls of museums.
But quilts are more than triumphant abstractions. They function as gifts, blankets, flags, and memorials. They represent a means of bonding and communicating, media for personal and political expression, and much, much more.
When they arrived in the American colonies sometime before the Revolutionary War, however, quilts were simply fancy bed coverings in the same category as fine draperies. But as the making of quilts filtered down through all layers of society over the next fifty years, many American women discovered that it represented the most pleasurable of domestic chores. With the rise of the cotton industry came the rise of the American quilt, where women could invent patterns, celebrate or memorialize family or political events, and express themselves freely in a realm nearly unnoticed by men.
Perhaps because women enjoyed making quilts then as much as now, they often produced many more than a family would need. Thus they became the most gifted of domestically created items. Quilts could be made to mark or celebrate special days in a young person’s life, for weddings, to honor loved or important members of a community, for friends or relatives moving away. While much about quilts has changed over two hundred years, this part of the tradition is strong: most quilts are made as gifts for loved ones.
In general, the craft of quilt making started out at a high level. Many of the quilts we see from 1800-1825 are beautifully constructed and elegantly quilted. By the time the sewing machine came along around 1850 quilts were being made by nearly every woman in America, and you can find all varieties of needlework skill.
Many of the most familiar quilting masterworks are from this mid-19th century period, usually considered the “Golden Age” of American quilts. Most of the spectacular extant all-white, “trapunto” quilts were created during this time. The dizzying complexities of the Baltimore Album quilts -- intricate red and green pictorial designs on white backgrounds -- date from about 1840 to about 1860. Wildly inventive two-color geometric designs sprang from every region of the country. And now that cotton had become ubiquitous and inexpensive, scrap quilts arose and proliferated. For 25 years or so it seemed there was no end to the creativity of the American quilt maker.
By the end of the Civil War sewing machines would become ubiquitous, altering the process even further. The rest of the century saw a decline in hand work, so much that hastily “tied” quilts, or un-quilted tops became common. With the industrial revolution in full swing, a profound shift in values was taking hold -- items once exclusively home made were now being manufactured in factories, and we see a turn away from “quality” and excellence towards a striving for “quantity.” Quilts made during the last decade of the century are usually less ambitious, simply made “country” quilts, and many were left unfinished. By 1900 quilts were being made primarily in rural communities, and less often in large cities.
City and country women took up quilting in the 1920’s and 1930’s as a fashionable addition to the “antique” decorating style, but with a limited number of patterns and techniques. The explosive creativity of the Golden Age of quilting would not return until the late 20th century, when the people inspired by the Bi-Centennial celebration, women’s historians, “back-to-the-land-ers” and others instigated a healthy revival that continues today.
Now there are innumerable, large quilt shows throughout the country, and contests must include dozens of categories to allow for the newly created forms of the art. Quilting is now “big business,” as well as a thriving creative outlet for millions of people around the globe.
Fine antique quilts still enrich homes decorated in all styles. They can seem sublimely at home in the most modern of settings, perfectly at ease among antiques, or dashing and fun among eclectic home furnishings.
Joe Cunningham and Julie Silber