Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Not Your Grandmother's Quilt

Western Kentucky University. Henry Clay Presentation Quilt c. 1850. 83 x 102¼. Attributed to Clay’s wife, Lucretia Hart Clay. Lender: Western Kentucky University

Over the years, quilts have come to represent a wholesome slice of Americana, feel-good, grandmotherly traditions, and a return to simpler times. But Judy Schwender, a curator at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky hopes that people realize that quilts are more than just nostalgia; they’re works of art. “Quilters today use the quilt as a palette, as a canvas,” Schwender said. “They put everything they have into it. And it really reflects the feelings of the maker.”

Garden Maze. 1998. 82 x 82. Maker: Irma Gail Hatcher---Conway, Arkansas. From the Collection at The National Quilt Museum

Open since 1991, the National Quilt Museum is dedicated to advancing and preserving modern quilting and fiber art. It holds over 300 quilts in its collection, all made since 1980---a time when the country’s quilting revival was well underway. This renewed interest in quilting, which Schwender said was fueled by the bicentennial’s celebration of all things American, as well as the feminist movement’s focus on traditionally female-oriented arts, began to stretch the art form into new directions.

Although many contemporary quilts follow a traditional block pattern, Schwender said that the museum focuses more on “one-of-a-kind” quilts, which can feature pictorial images, bold colors, or curved piecing. “Contemporary quilting allows each artist to pursue their own vision, and their own style,” Schwender said. Throughout the collection, “that’s what really comes through.”

Spice of Life. 2003. 82 x 82. Maker: Linda Roy---Pittsfield, Massachusetts. From the Collection at The National Quilt Museum

This summer, the museum is exploring the origins of these modern styles in The Exquisite Stitch: 200 Years of Hand Quilting. The exhibit, on view through September 11, focuses on the workmanship required of quilts made by hand, rather than on a sewing machine. Many of the quilts on display are also noteworthy for their trapunto work, which is when part of a quilting design is stuffed to give something of a sculptural, bas-relief effect.

Feathered Star (Star of Bethlehem). 1855. 95 x 96½. Maker: M.A. Anderson---Minnesota Territory. Lender: Chris Moline

Regardless of their design or century of origin, all of the quilts in the exhibit display the same attention to detail and fineness of stitching. Schwender describes the craft behind one of the exhibit’s quilts as an example. Made during the 1850s in the Minnesota Territory, this Feathered Star of Bethlehem quilt features a different stitched flower in each of the setting blocks. “They’re so detailed, it looks like you could just pluck them right off,” Schwender said. For anyone unaccustomed to thinking of quilts as high art, “this [exhibit] will make people’s jaws drop.”

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