Quilting is a craft we usually associate with the American collective. Unless you have a mother, grandmother or other distant female relative who mastered the art of the quilt, we generally envision a group of anonymous laborers, mostly women, working over hordes of fabric together.
There are two assumptions built into this constructed history of quilting -- that the practice is a decorative craft, not a feature of fine art, and that the field is occupied by nameless women whose work exists beyond their authorship. But how did this particular understanding of quilting come to be? And is it entirely accurate?
A new exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is tackling the quilting conundrum. Called "Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts," the show features 35 quilts created over the past 200 years in an attempt to explore and reexamine the ways we've interpreted and presented quilt work over the centuries. The clever title alludes to the very intimate act of producing a quilt by hand, as well as the impressive yet overlooked amount of collective effort that went into the final product, an accomplishment that's somehow been undermined in popular art history accounts.
“Quilt making was among the most significant forms of artistic production historically available to women,” explains NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling in a press release for the show. “This exhibition helps to reveal wider truths about the status of women’s creative efforts in American society during the past 150 years and the relative value placed on their work.”
The exhibit, organized by the Brooklyn Museum, spans the quilting genres, from the "Barn Raising" pattern to the "Rose of Sharon and "Sunshine and Shadow." It illuminates an important part of women's history in America, a bit of nostalgia that -- despite the fact they are judged in competition and often hung on the wall as tapestries, much like fine art -- have been unduly associated with idle time or generic histories of production. Many of the works on view, like Elizabeth Welsh's "Liberty Quilt," display imagery endemic to the times, reproducing revolutionary narratives in textile form.
The exhibition is largely white female-centric, admittedly presenting works by Anglo-European women only. But perhaps "Workt by Hand" will open the doors for a larger review of textile production and how we've contextualized it over the last few centuries, a practice that could reveal the "hidden" histories of a wider breadth of women in and around the United States. View a preview of the exhibition below and let us know your thoughts on the world of historical quilts in the comments.
“Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts" will be on view December 20, 2013 to April 27, 2014.