Quilts: New and Old
The nature of the process of taking woven cloth and fitting it together in new ways immediately begins the tale. The reuse of old cloth and their inventive patterns add to the narrative; cutting up of something and putting it into a richer and more interesting form. Sometimes the stories they tell, because they were not part of written history, are enigmatic and add to their romance. Quilts are one of the few art forms primarily associated with women, so in recent times, with the quest to understand the artistic role of women in society, they have received much attention. Also, quilts are part of an active tradition—they are still being actively made in many places.
This weekend I was at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and saw the show “Quilts 1700-2010, Hidden Histories, Untold Stories.” It was especially interesting to see historic quilts interspersed with modern examples. Paradoxically, I found that many of the old ones had qualities that seemed newer or fresher than those of recent manufacture.
My favorite is a quilt from 1851 (seen at top) that has cutouts of patterned fabrics in simplified shapes—including the outlined form of Hiram Powers’ famous sculpture of the Greek Slave from 1847. That statue, the subject of many essays of that period, was adopted as a symbol by the movement to end slavery. Around those statuesque forms are depictions of animals including chickens, camels and lizards along with plants and trees. Some have conjectured that the quilt represents rural life and others think it represents a larger world view that includes abolition. I admire how the abstracted shapes are silhouetted against a white ground, this graphic use of contrast reminding me of today’s fashions and decorations.
Of course, the recent examples look new, too. Another favorite is Tracey Emin’s "Hotel International" from 1993, which, according to the artist’s statement, is a collaged tale of her childhood. It also looks like a punk rock poster—which also may be part of the story.
Images from top: coverlet by unknown artist, 1851, Britain; quilt by master tailor James Williams, 1842-52, North Wales; Tracey Emin, “Hotel International,” 1993.