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Quilts are art as well as history and politics in new exhibit at D.C. museum

Mary A. Stinson, silk Crazy Quilt. Stinson is thought to have been a dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln. In "Workt by Hand" quilt exhibit at D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Mary A. Stinson, silk Crazy Quilt. Stinson is thought to have been a dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln. In "Workt by Hand" quilt exhibit at D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Brooklyn Museum, Designated Purchase Fund. Brooklyn Museum photograph by Gavin Ashworth, 2012

"Workt by Hand"


Even if you aren't crazy about quilts, you'll love "'Workt by Hand': Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts", a new exhibition at D.C.'s National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA).

A sign at the exhibit's entrance reads, "Keep calm and don't touch". The exquisite beauty, designs, intricacy, and master skills represented in these 35 quilts dating back to 1795 makes it hard to obey.

"These are masterpieces in their own right," NMWA associate curator Virginia Treanor told a press tour Jan. 7.

The exhibit aims to dispel many myths about quilts, mainly that "the early American ones were made by hardy colonial women, from scraps of material, to stay warm," Treanor said. "The opposite is true. They were made from expensive material, by women of means who had time to design and make quilts..."

Almost all of these glorious quilts are from the 1800s, made in America, and by hand. The quilting term "Workt by Hand" conveys the exhibit's viewing this historic subject through a contemporary lens.

Many types of quilts have whimsical names like "Crazy Quilt", for the seemingly random, improvisational assortment of its pieces; "Robbing Peter to Pay Paul"; "Delectable Mountains"; "Strippie"; "Tumbling Blocks"...

Here's a sampling:

  • "Crazy Quilt" circa 1880 by Mary A. Stinson, a professional dressmaker who is believed to have made clothes for Mary Todd Lincoln. This spectacular quilt of vivid multi-color silk pieces dizzyingly arranged, is bordered with dozens of morning glories.
  • Three "Star of Bethlehem" examples. One is a stunning red and green cotton circa 1830 star. The most dynamic-patterned one, in brilliant colors, is made of expensive silk circa 1850. A relatively simple one, of cotton and wool, is circa 1940, one of the few 20th century quilts in the show.
  • "Double Wedding Ring". Its pastel pinks, greens, and blues indicate that it was made after World War One, when Germany had to surrender its unique "dye recipes" as part of war reparations.
  • Amish quilts, with bold, geometric designs and brilliant colors have been compared to works by "Color Field" painters like Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland.
  • "Medallion Quilt" circa 1830, by Elizabeth Welsh of Warren County, Vir. A majestic American eagle is the centerpiece of this patriotic reverse appliqué work, with the eagle formed from meticulously cut pieces of chintz. Quilting, a quintessential American tradition, is one of women's many key contributions to American culture.

Several are political -- this is Washington, after all. Making quilts was one of the few ways women could express their opinions.

  • "Whig Rose" circa 1850. The Whigs in America were formed in opposition to the Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson. The Whig Rose pattern remained popular long after the Whig Party was over in 1854.
  • "Whole-Cloth" circa 1830s. This cotton print cloth featuring portraits of the first seven U.S. presidents was made to celebrate Andrew Jackson's first inauguration in 1829. His portrait is emblazoned with the phrase "Magnanimous in Peace, Victorious in War". (The cloth manufacturer chose that instead of Jackson's Presidential campaign slogan , "Protector & Defender of Beauty & Booty".)

Speaking of politics, quilts have engendered lots of gender politics and art world politics ever since 1970, the first time a museum hung quilts for their aesthetic beauty. New York's Whitney Museum of Art mounted an exhibition "Abstract Design in American Quilts".

These controversies continue today, 44 years later.

"Why's a Jackson Pollock work a thousand times more valued than a quilt -- which, honestly, took a lot more time to create," Treanor commented.

"I don't think anyone can argue that given the energy, time, skill, expertise she puts into it makes it art -- the innovation, color combinations, designs," Treanor told me later. "She decides what to put where in a quilt, just as an artist decides what to put where on canvas."

Various other experts, in an excellent film within the exhibit, explain that quilts are rarely valued as art mainly because they're made by women; equated with domesticity/homey; viewed as merely functional/everyday objects, were hardly ever signed...

Ditto Greco Roman pitchers and vases -- except for the women's work aspect. Those former everyday functional domestic unsigned objects are unquestioned objets d'art in art museums around the world.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn"? "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"?

This exhibit is an ode on American quilts.

For more info: "'Workt by Hand': Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts", on view now through April 27 at National Museum of Women in the Arts,, 1250 New York Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-783-5000 or 800-222-7270. Talks about "Workt by Hand", by Virginia Treanor, on Jan. 8, Feb. 19, April 2, and April 18. The exhibit is organized by the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The National Museum of Women in the Arts is the world's only museum devoted exclusively to recognizing women's creative achievements.

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