Cloth Stories

A uniquely American (patchwork) microcosm

Is there any textile that is more descriptive of our lives than quilting? We take tiny snippets of found, horded or purchased material and little by little, with painstaking precision, we piece them together to form a quilt. We cannot help but see the human hand in them – in the ways in which they are perfect, and the ways in which they are not.  In fact, many quilt making cultures stitch in mistakes, known as a “humility squares,” to show that only God is perfect. Quilts are mirrors of life . . . mistakes and all.
 
The earliest surviving quilt is from approximately the first century BC and was found in a Mongolian cave. It is a quilted linen carpet, currently on display in the Saint Petersburg department of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Quilts were popular in the Egyptian culture, used as bedding and as burial items sent into the after life with kings and commoners alike. There is some evidence of patchwork and quilting in medieval Europe, when the clothes worn under armor or as armor seem to have been made of quilted leather or linen padded with rags, straw or sheep’s wool, and even perhaps reinforced with metal. Very little is documented and only the occasional item survived.
 
However, during the Renaissance there is evidence of more decorative quilted clothing, and bedcovers quilted as luxury items. As time went on, the surviving records show that quilting became popular lower down the social scale, especially in the guise of bed covers.
 
From the 17th century more items survive, as quilts were used in a wider range of homes. British farmers were famous for quilts and many American pioneers brought their skills over to the New World. The Oregon Trail crossing was legendary for its danger – evidenced by the gravesites found every 80 yards from Missouri to Oklahoma; many were buried with the cold comfort of a quilt from home as there was no time for a coffin or proper burial. 
The patchwork quilt is a uniquely American microcosm of life, and perhaps that is why they are becoming increasing popular again. In Quilts for Everyday Life, Bonnie Evans espouses that “There is also a need for quilts in the everyday life, quilts that can be sat on for play time, eaten on top of for picnics, and dragged about the house, car and sports stadiums without fear of ruining them or of their coming apart.”  We can all agree that a quilt from Granny can be a comfort, but quilts of late are being elevated to the level of art form and changing the game. 
The patterns and names of traditional quilts speak to the issues and beliefs of the times: Star of Bethlehem, Log Cabin, or School House, but modern quilts, like those in the current Made In NY show curated by City Quilter at the Williams Club features quilts called Wildlife, and Green Piece or Kitschin’ Jane.  Some of the current quilts bring attention to social causes and that is not unusual.
Today quilts may shed light on politics or the environmental movement, which is perfect as quilting has always been a way of recycling while simultaneously proving social connectivity. During the Civil War there were quilting bees formed to raise money to support the Abolitionist movement and others to send bedding to the front lines. Some Abolitionists were active in the Underground Railroad and helped runaway slaves find safety. There are stories that certain quilts were used as signals to help the slaves in their flight to freedom. The idea that a log cabin quilt would be hung on the line of a safe house was one. More recent stories tell of certain quilts being used to tell the slaves what they needed to do to get to safety.
In 1987 the AIDS quilt began as a social movement to increase awareness of the AIDS crisis.  Across the country panels with images and names began to be stitched together and currently there are 40,000 panels of memory, making it the world’s largest quilt and a testament to an epidemic. 
According to Elaine Hart who studied quilt history and opened a shop on East 73Rd Street after her personal collection topped out at 300. ''Quilts were our country's only art that was solely ours and a woman's only means of expression of her artistic feelings. Women were expected to complete 12 quilt tops by the time they were engaged.''  Today men and women alike embrace this art form and the vibrancy of patterns and materials has been augmented, often thanks to modern technology. The innovations for quilting include moving from hand stitching to machines that can both sew and impart intricate pattern. Now quilters employ rotary cutters, or computer downloads which mean that the style has morphed beyond what pioneer lineage offered -- and moved into the realm of art and imagination.
 According to Jackie L. Jackson a longtime quilter, “ What I am loving of late is that there is no limit to materials people will use or what issues they tackle with their quilts:  I see beads, found items, strings, or sequins all enmeshed with fabric. Quilting has taken a turn from pure utilitarianism to a serious art form. I recently saw quilts at FIT’s (Fashion Institute of Technology) group show where entire passages of texts were splashed as headlines across the quilt and embroidered and beaded to boot.”  In her own work Jackson creates memory quilts using scanned photographs to create a photo collage in fabrics for graduations, birth or weddings.
The future of quilts will take form in the ever-broader contexts in which they are seen: from museums, to shops, to homes where the work is on display on beds, walls or racks. Quilting is on the verge of a major bounce back as it unites community in a lively, live, interactive way and has aspects, like the monthly book club, of a once receding activity now ascending. Quilting unites through intellect, skills and shared histories and passions.
Now that is cause for comfort. 
 
 
 

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