Follow the stitches of quilts from the past with your eyes, and you visually retrace paths painstakingly made marks the creators left behind as a record of their lives. Women made quilts to commemorate births, to celebrate weddings and to memorialize loved ones.
Women's modes of personal expression were limited during previous centuries, so quilts and other needlework were often their only creative outlets and remain the only physical documents of their history.
Masterpiece Quilts from the Shelburne Museum, the exhibition now on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), offers not only an enjoyable aesthetic experience filled with wonderful designs and dazzling color but also a profound revelation of the hopes, desires and talent of women from America's past.
The Shelburne Museum holds one of the largest and highest-quality bedcover collections in the United States. Cynthia Amnéus, the CAM's associate curator of costume and textiles, says many traveling quilt shows have been offered to the museum, but this one "was the first that I looked at and said, 'We have to take this show, because the quilts were just spectacular.' "
The CAM's minimal installation emphasizes the quilts as art objects. Quilts monumentally displayed on the walls at a slight angle surround visitors. Closer inspection reveals the intricacy of their designs and the incredible craftsmanship and skill of their creators.
The first gallery provides background on the prominence of needlework in 19th- and early-20th-century women's lives, including some pencil drawings of women sewing and other related artifacts.
This introduction provides a strong foundation for the rest of the exhibition, which is divided into seven categories focusing on different quilting techniques and emphasizing the creative possibilities within each.
Women made whole-cloth quilts using either large panels of cloth or by stitching together wide strips of fabric. Background quilting — patterns of stitching that hold the batting (the quilt's "filling") in place — provides the design interest. The phenomenal "Red Whole-Cloth Quilt" from the late-18th, early-19th century, for example, employs an elaborate floral pattern stitched into a field of bright red wool.
Appliquéd quilts integrated small pieces of fabric applied to a larger cloth surface. Many of these quilts included chintz — glazed cotton that was imported from France or England. By cutting chintz into small pieces, a woman could maximize the decorative possibilities of this very expensive fabric. The expressive possibilities of appliqué are well represented — from the graphic forms of the "Presidential Wreath Quilt" from 1845, with bold red and green shapes on an ivory background, to the delicate "Flower Basket Bedcover" from the mid-19th century, which incorporates reverse-appliqué, a difficult, rarely used technique.
The maker cut out tiny shapes of petals, leaves and thin vines, placed fabric behind the cutouts and then painstakingly folded and sewed the pieces together. The result is a unique, delicate surface texture unlike any other quilt in the exhibition.
Album quilts were often made by several women sewing separate squares that were stitched together into a grid format. The most fascinating album quilt in the exhibition, however, is attributed to one woman. Minnie Burdick's "Centennial Album Quilt" from 1876 depicts 36 different scenes from daily life, biblical stories and New England motifs. Some seem autobiographical — one panel shows two children on a swing, the words "My first proposal" embroidered into the margin, while another, stitched with "My last proposal," illustrates two older adults seated on chairs next to one another, possibly examples of a woman incorporating her life history explicitly into her work.
The largest section of the show is comprised of pieced quilts, small geometric shapes sewn into complicated designs. Women often used traditional patterns like "Log Cabin" or "Flying Geese" as a foundation, but always made them original. For example, two remarkably different "Mariner's Compass" quilts hang side by side, one with four-pointed stars arranged in a grid with a simple blue, red and white palette, the other with subtle brown, blue, mauve, green and yellow starbursts that vibrate like Op-Art.
The Amish use large geometric shapes and subdued colors in their quilts — their makers believe that "showy" patterns draw too much attention to the individual. These minimal designs provide a visual counterpoint to the crazy quilts on view in the same gallery. Seemingly chaotic and irregular, crazy quilts were actually carefully planned, like the well-balanced "Crazy Patchwork Quilt" from 1884.
Several clues indicate the quilts in the exhibition were intended as aesthetic rather than functional objects. Many lack evidence of use or wear — they are in incredible condition. Some contain little batting, suggesting they weren't intended to keep someone warm. According to Amnéus, many were probably used as decorative bedcovers that were removed before sleeping. But the most obvious hints are the signatures and dates on several quilts, indelible evidence of the maker and her personal creative expression.
MASTERPIECE QUILTS FROM THE SHELBURNE MUSEUM is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through June 1. Get gallery hours and find nearby bars and restaurants here.