Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Our Stories in Fabric

          Quilting, weaving, and pottery, have long been considered "women's crafts," as if those contributions made by female artists are not credible nor as worthy as the art created by men. This attitude has prevailed for centuries due to factors such as women's rights (or the lack thereof), societal dictums with regard to how women could study art and the human figure, and religious rules. Long-standing prejudice and widely accepted stereotypes have largely relegated female artists to women's crafts or as carriers of culture in the form of art collectors and promoters of the art of men. In reality, women have always assumed active, continuous, and influential roles in art and sculpture along with men but have largely been left out of historical documentation. It's somewhat better now, but in my quest to see the art of the women I chose to profile in my thesis, Dr. Sara Kennel, Associate Curator with the Department of Photographs at the National Gallery of Art, and Ms. Amy Johnston, Curator of Modern Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. regretfully informed me that the majority of artwork by women is archived, that is, only on view during special exhibitions.
Pentz Baltimore Album
Quilt top, family and friends of Julia Ann Pentz
ca. 1847
         Before we investigate the role the quilt played in the West, we must briefly examine the emergence of the medium. Quilting has a lengthy history. Believed to have originated as far back as in Ancient Egypt and China, quilts, and their use, have evolved over time. At its inception, quilting appears to have been used primarily for clothing as several layers were stitched together: the top, batting for warmth in between, and the backing. Fabric is delicate, and as few items survived over thousands of years, historians have turned to sculpture, paintings, and literature, to understand the role played by quilted fabric and quilts, themselves. It is likely that quilting was brought to Europe during the Crusades, a series of holy wars fought between CE 1095 and 1291. Examples in art portray Muslim soldiers in tightly quilted clothing as part of their armor which was soon adopted by medieval European soldiers. There are, however, early panels such as the Tristan quilt, a bed cover created in Sicily and archived in The Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Tristan Quilt
Made in Sicily, Italy
Linen quilted, padded with cotton wadding
with outlines in brown and white linen thread
           The quilt, as we know it in Colonial America, was strictly a utilitarian item used as bedspreads or hangings constructed of fabric that covered doors and windows to help insulate early homes. It was not, at that time, an artistic endeavor. Quilting took a back seat to weaving and sewing but, reluctant to discard anything that could be re-purposed, leftover fabric was used to patch blankets or woven coverlets that were commonly in use. Scraps of fabric began to be cut into patterns that fit into a larger design and patchwork quilting was born. In addition, apart from practical use, Colonial women made hand-pieced quilts that featured fine needlework and designs.

          The Amish, German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania and in the Midwest, are revered for their beautiful and elaborate quilts, however, they did not initially quilt when they settled in America, but continued the tradition of using feather beds and coverlets that were popular at home- few quilts were created in the Amish communities before the 1870s. As quilting became accepted, changes in how they were made occurred slowly and strictly with community approval. This resulted in a great deal of variety from community to community as each had its own set of guidelines as to how things should be done. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania Amish preferred a somber color palate, while certain brighter hues were embraced elsewhere.

Graveyard Quilt
ca. 1836
          A superb example of narrative in quiltmaking is the Graveyard Quilt. In 1836, Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell began stitching a quilt in memory of her two-year old son, John, who had just died. Later, in 1843, she added the name of another son who had died at the age of 19. Not only did it feature a graveyard in the center, the location of the cemetery is identified as Monroe County, Ohio. [1] The quilt is both a genealogical and historical artifact.

           In the West, quilting traditions were brought by women relocating from the eastern United States. There were no quilting customs among the Spanish-Mexican settlers along the Rio Grande until the coming of the railroad in 1880 when mail delivery along with Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogues began to arrive. As in the East, enterprising women used leftover scraps to provide a faster and easier way to create covers for beds than spinning or weaving blankets.  The coming of the railroad accelerated immigration bringing quiltmaking traditions along with them and the Southwest became an extension of the eastern United States, a safe place to bring families and settle down.

          Although the demands of frontier life as well as cultural norms, limited opportunities for artistic expression by many women, scholars have discovered that the important contributions of women in the West did not go entirely undocumented. Aside from diaries and journals, Western women also recorded their daily lives in their quilts. On the westward trail or in frontier settlements, quilts were a means of both physical and emotional comfort. Quilts lined and covered wagons, padded china, or became window covers or even primitive shelters such as tents. Quilts were even used in the place of coffins. A diary written in 1849 records the bodies of a mother and infant wrapped together in a bed comforter and wound with a few yards of string that we made by tying together torn strips of a cotton dress shirt.[2]

          Many women on the frontier made quilts to pass the time. The weather was a challenge on the plains and out west, homesteads were far apart so women didn't have regular access to town or to each other. The relative isolation of the women also made the idea of the "quilting bee" attractive.  The quilting bee offered women a chance to socialize. At a quilting bee women from the area would bring quilt tops that were already pieced and work together to quilt the top. Often a quilting bee would be a full day affair with lunch served to the women who came to help and dinner for all the families. Sometimes there would be a dance in the evening. One of the happier functions of the quilting bee was to help provide young women with quilts for their hope chests. [4]
Detail Crazy Quilt
Silk and silk velvet
Initialed and dated 1890

          Not much is known about the earliest quilt patterns. References to quilts can be found in a few old diaries kept by women quilt makers, but there is rarely mention of what the quilts looked like. The first pattern ever printed in a periodical was the Honeycomb or Hexagon pattern, printed in "Godey's Lady's Book" in 1835. Initially, these early printed patterns had names that described the quilt's shape (i.e., "honeycomb"). The 1880s saw the beginning of regular publication of quilt patterns in women's magazines. As quilt patterns were merchandised, more and more were sold with names attached. In addition, the magazines would also invite readers to send in their own quilt patterns. By 1890, mail-order catalogs included quilt patterns. A woman could not only order fabric from Sears or Montgomery Ward, but for a dime, could choose from hundreds of patterns. Over time, quilting styles, fabrics and patterns have varied, in some cases, out of necessity. During the Great Depression, the use of feedsacks were popular.
          The apex of the Victorian Crazy quilting style was 1885, however, these quilts were made from approximately 1880 until the late 1890s in both the East and Western United States. Any Crazy quilt dated prior to 1879, would most likely indicate a particular period in the family’s history. During the height of the Victorian era, homes could not have enough embellishment and women decorated every available space on the floors, walls, and furniture. The culture of the time was full of symbolism, poetry and romance. Crazy quilting allowed women to display their artistic abilities in needlework, oil painting, and arrangement of embellishments. Silks, silk velvets and chenille, and threads of every hue were used to incorporate names, dates, pictures, and a wide assortment of symbols. [4] 
          According to Dorothy Zopf in the excellent book Women Artists of the American West, we can read a quilt like a book. From a distance it is the colors that attract us...Up close we begin to see the individual shapes, or "words" of the piecing. [5] With thousands of stitches in every quilt, the creation is a labor...but one of commitment and love.

Next post: Art before the Immigrants: Native American Painters
1. Lipsett, Linda Otto. Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell's Graveyard Quilt: An American Pioneer Saga (Dayton, Ohio: Halstead and Meadows, 1996). 
2. Cross, Mary. Treasures in the Trunk: Quilts of the Oregon Trail (Nashville, Tenn.: Rutledge Hill Press, 1993).
3. Betsey Telford-Goodwin's Rocky Mountain Quilts. Victorian Crazy Quilts,  http://www.rockymountainquilts.com/files/antique_quilts_crazy.php. (Accessed 12/17/2012).
4. Johnson, Julie, Emporia State University, History of Quilting. http://www.emporia.edu/cgps/tales/quilte~1.html. (Accessed 12/18/2012).
5. Ressler, Susan R., ed. Women Artists of the American West (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2003).

Further Reading
America's Quilting History, Pioneer Quilts: A Comfort Through Hardship.
http://www.womenfolk.com/quilting_history/pioneer.htm (accessed December 12/12/2012). Quilting in America: A History of Quilts, An American Folk Art.
http://www.quilting-in-america.com/History-of-Quilts.html. (accessed 12/13/2012).
Americana's Quilting History: Quilting Through Colonia Times through the Twentieth Century
http://www.womenfolk.com/historyofquilts/. (accessed 12/14/2012).
Patches from the Past: Scraps of Fabric, Sewing, and Quilting History. The Myth of Colonia Quilting in America, 1620-1780. http://www.historyofquilts.com/colonial.html (accessed 12/17/2012).

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