The American Folk Art Museum has named 2011 the Year of the Quilt. Learn more about three quilts from its collection. 

July 16, 2013
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Global Perspective: Quilts from the American Folk Art Museum

Written by Maria V. Charbonneaux

Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum

"Just as with a painting, you can learn much about a quilt and who made it by studying the quilt," says Elizabeth Warren, independent curator and trustee of the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

In her book Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (Rizzoli International Publications with the American Folk Art Museum; 2010), Elizabeth has included photos of 200 quilts representing 11 categories. The book kicks off a two-part exhibit of the same name and other quilt-related exhibits and events at the American Folk Art Museum, which has designated 2011 as the Year of the Quilt.

Most of the quilts in her book are what Elizabeth calls "orphans," with little more than family anecdotes to provide hints about their past. Her job is to help fill in the blanks.

"Quilts are great road maps to American history, both in terms of women's lives and textiles," she says. She urges families to keep the histories of their treasured quilts alive. "Write down absolutely everything you know about it and keep that information with the quilt so the next generation will have it," she says. In the following slides, Elizabeth shares insights on three quilts contained in her book.

Appliqué Clues

These appliqué templates cut from newsprint were found with Bird of Paradise (dated 1858–1863), the quilt top they were used to create. See the quilt top.Because a template of a male figure is part of the collection but was not incorporated into the design, Elizabeth speculates the Civil War Era quilt was intended for a wedding that may never have taken place. Some of these templates, such as the elephant, suggest the quiltmaker may have been influenced by a traveling circus. Later findings have verified that an elephant named Hanible traveled in a circus in the Hudson Valley region of New York state, where the quilt most likely was made, during the same time period.

Photo: Bird of Paradise templates. Artist unidentified. Vicinity of Albany, New York; 1858–1863. Gift of the trustees, 1979.7.1. Courtesy of Rizzoli and the American Folk Art Museum.

Not So Crazy

At first glance, the Map Quilt (1886) has been mistaken for a crazy quilt, but Elizabeth believes it's not. True crazy quilts are randomly patched and often contain foundation piecing, luxurious fabrics, and embroidery. While the quilt is made of silk and contains embroidery, the background was a published pattern called Right-Angle Piecing. Because embroidery only appears in some of the states, Elizabeth believes the quilt may be unfinished.

Photo: Map Quilt. Artist unidentified. Possibly Virginia; 1886. Silk and cotton with silk embroidery, 78-3/4x82-1/4". Gift of Dr. and Mrs. C. David McLaughlin, 1987.1.1. Courtesy of Rizzoli and the American Folk Art Museum.

Pieced Planning

The Triangles and Flying Geese Quilt came to the museum with no information. "I was just overwhelmed by the planning and work that went into it," Elizabeth says. "Look at all those thousands of tiny triangles-each one is like a fabric encyclopedia." As a general rule, quilts are dated by the age of the newest fabric used. This quilt was probably created between 1875 and 1900.

Photo: Triangles and Flying Geese Quilt. Artist unidentified. United States; 1875–1900. Cotton, 83x78". Gift of Leo Rabkin, 2008.20.1. Courtesy of Rizzoli and the American Folk Art Museum.

Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum Exhibit

What: Stunning quilts from the museum's collection.

Why: From rare fabrics to fine workmanship, you'll see well-preserved quilts that are rarely displayed. "These are the quilts that were made to put on the bed when the minister or other important visitors came," Elizabeth says.

For more info: folkartmuseum.org

Photo: Harlequin Medallion Quilt. Artist unidentified. New England; 1800–1820. Glazed wool, 87x96". Gift of Cyril Irwin Nelson in loving memory of his grandparents John Williams and Sophie Anna Macy, 1984.33.1. Photograph by Matt Hoebermann. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.

Super Stars: Quilts from the American Folk Art Museum Exhibit

What: A diverse array of pieced, appliquéd, and embroidered star-studded quilts, curated by Stacy Hollander.

Why: "This exhibit really shows you the imagination of quiltmakers and what they can do with just the basic idea of stars," Elizabeth says. From traditional five-pointed stars inspired by the American flag to kaleidoscope-inspired stars, you'll see how this motif has evolved over more than 100 years of quilt history.

For more info: folkartmuseum.org

Photo: Star of Bethlehem with Satellite Stars Quilt. Artist unidentified. Possibly Pennsylvania; 1930–1950. Cotton and blends, 81-1/4x81". Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick M. Danziger, 1985.4.1. Photograph by Helga Studios. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum.

Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red-and-White Quilts Exhibit

What: 650 red-and-white quilts spanning 300 years from a private collection.

Why: This record-breaking display will be the largest exhibition of quilts ever held in New York City. No two quilts are alike!

For more info: folkartmuseum.org

Photo: Vortex quilt. Artist unidentified. United States; 1890-1910. Pieced and appliquéd cotton, 80x82". Collection of Joanna S. Rose. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth. Courtesy of the American Folk Art Museum