Quilting has a long history as a practical earthy art form that allows members of a community to pool their talents and skills in the service of a common objective — celebrating a wedding, friendship, honoring the deceased, fundraising, recognizing a newly established house of worship and beyond.
At the American Folk Art Museum’s gallery in Long Island City, “Connecting Threads: A Year of Exceptional Quilts” focuses on how these durable fabric archives (some of them well over a century and a half old and in astonishingly good condition) capture the details of daily life for 19th-century women and the moment-to-moment social interaction between quilters and their environment and themselves.
“Signature Styles: Friendship, Album and Fundraising Quilts” is the first of three successive exhibits that comprise “Connecting Threads.”
“Quilts tell a story of women’s history just not available from traditional forms,” says curator Emelie Gevalt. “It’s an alternate resource to learn about women’s lives.” Quilting was a socially acceptable way (at the time) for women to display their mastery. Capturing women’s history through women’s hands, the quilts function as independent source documents that provide intimate information about them that otherwise might have gone unrecoverable. Men number among quilters as well.
Although the natural inclination might be to associate a renewed interest in mid-1800s quilting with a reactive desire to return to a more domestic, nonmechanized time, the Industrial Revolution’s technological advances, including the invention of the sewing machine, helped reignite a passion for the craft. Fabric and textiles were now less expensive and more readily available. A second quilting revival arose during the modern art movement in the 1920s and 1930s.
The “Dunn Album Quilt,” cotton with embroidery, was made in 1852 and features vivid squares on a pale grayish cream background. Created by members of the Sewing Society of the Fulton Street United Methodist Episcopal Church in Elizabethport, NJ, and presented to a Mr. and Mrs. Dunn, its believed purpose was to commemorate a newly established Methodist congregation in the town. A predominantly floral group motif is joined with a square depicting Noah’s Ark. Another square shows a church. Along with rings, ovals and rectangles, flowers in all four corners gracefully face the center. Some have stems pointed at the tips, giving the impression arrows have been shot through the blossoms, which seems to simulate the repeat impaling and swooping act of manual sewing.
Quilts were also a vehicle to show gratitude for and honor a community member’s military service as seen in the “Admiral Dewey Commemorative Quilt” made between 1900 and 1910 in Indiana. Cotton with Turkey red cotton embroidery, its large block letter transposed D pattern creates an unexpected transposed symmetry that adds to its distinctive appearance, almost like bureau handles viewed sideways.
Elegant applique details characterized quilts originating in Baltimore, and the “Reiter Family Quilt,” an heirloom made of cotton and wool by the donor’s great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother to honor a generation of cousins, is believed to be one of a series of 13 quilts probably made by the Baltimore Hebrew congregation. A Mexican-American war hero born in Maryland, Capt. Samuel Hamilton Walker, shown as a mounted rider on a black horse (maybe a dark horse pun reference)? appears on the quilt near the center.
The “Cross River Quilt” by Eldad Miller and 11 other women in 1861 in Cross River, NY, is the material equivalent of the autograph album popular among American women in the 1840s. Records show the women were between 15 and 55 years old and lived within a few miles of each other.
The “Friendship Album Quilt” features patchwork squares on a blazing scarlet background and is believed to be of Mennonite origin, made by an unidentified artist in the early 20th century. The tilted squares form a fused cloth diamond fabric clot, setting off the variegated patterns to dynamic effect.
Twentieth-century quilts like the “Hudson River Quilt” by Irene Preston and the Hudson River Quilters (1969-72) made of cotton wool and blends protesting the pollution of the Hudson River, brought quilting into the modern era and is a patchwork of NYC landmarks including the Verrazzano Bridge.
Today, quilting remains a highly popular activity.
The act of people coming together to create something larger than themselves in the service of maintaining a community’s well-being is an act by necessity and definition as old as human existence and time itself.