'Workt by Hand': Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts
- Dates: March 15, 2013 through September 15, 2013
"Workt by Hand": Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts
Few artifacts straddle as many cultural categories and inspire such a range of responses and scholarly approaches as historical quilts. They can be seen as functional objects or artistic creations, as a decorative flourish or the product of necessity, as demonstrations of skill and status, or as expressions of love. In museums, quilts have been spaced along a gallery wall, like modernist paintings, combined with archival materials as evidence of individual lives or grand social narratives, utilized within period rooms offering visual descriptions of the way people once lived, or hung close together, country-fair style, so viewers can see which designs stand out in a crowd.
“Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts showcases rarely seen treasures from the Brooklyn Museum’s decorative arts collection, investigating the interpretive methods that have been used to understand quilts at key moments over the past one hundred and fifty years, and how these interpretations reflect changing cultural interests and imperatives. Ephemera related to shifting public perceptions about quilts are included in “Workt by Hand,” inviting audiences to consider how the reception of objects is shaped by specific moments in history.
Since the 1970s, feminism has offered one of the most significant new lenses through which to view quilts. A galvanizing event was the major 1971 exhibition at the Whitney Museum that viewed traditional quilts in relation to abstract painting, at the expense of individual authorship. In response, feminist art historians and artists claimed quilting as a tradition that spoke to women’s historical creativity and cultural contributions, as well as to the limitations and devaluation of their labor within the dominant culture. Just as importantly, feminist artists and scholars began to examine the ideological implications of categorizing and presenting quilts: as craft, fine art, or historical artifact. “Workt by Hand” draws from the Museum’s remarkable collection to engage in this ongoing dialogue.
Myths and Nostalgia
Myths surrounding American quilts and their making have developed over time, reinforcing a national self-image reliant on individual tenacity and ingenuity. Common misconceptions include the belief that pieced quilts were first produced out of necessity by poor pilgrims using recycled cloth and that quilt-making evolved from haphazard, no-nonsense collages to elaborate patterns made with exceptional materials. While quilts may seem evocative of a shared heritage, these stories are shaped by larger, often assimilationist cultural forces in which quilts serve as evidence of a uniform and mythic national past—in which history has been reduced, modified, or reimagined. As the study of quilts has combined in recent years with textile science, anthropology, and material history, these narratives have been reexamined, and a more nuanced and complicated history has emerged, which sets out to document how historical quilts actually functioned: as both a creative outlet and as a repository of cultural history for various communities.
The Brooklyn Museum’s collection largely originates from and reflects Anglo-European traditions of making and collecting. However, contemporary scholarship confirms that enslaved Africans and, later, African American domestic workers and seamstresses would have labored on quilts attributed to white households. Appreciation for the aesthetic traditions that African American quilters developed as a parallel practice, for use within their own communities, only deepens the sense that quilt history can illuminate multiple aspects of the American story.
"A Simpler Time": The Colonial Revival and American Centennial
The divisive Civil War (1861–1865), followed by the country’s Centennial and rapid changes introduced by emancipation and industrialization, produced a nostalgic longing in the late nineteenth century for all things “olde tyme”. The resulting Colonial Revival lasted from the 1860s through the early twentieth century, and celebrated the founding fathers’ way of life—as seen in the playfully costumed attendees and simulated colonial kitchen at the Brooklyn Sanitary Fair of 1864. Quilts were embraced by women as emblematic of this simpler, bygone era, and of their idealized colonial foremothers, who wrought beauty from the wilderness.
Contemporary scholarship, however, has found that colonial period quilts are rare and were generally owned by elite families and stitched from expensive imported fabrics. It was the Colonial Revival itself that first made quilts a popular, quintessentially American endeavor, encouraging middle-class women to take it up as a hobby. Quilting’s continuing—and largely exaggerated—association with national roots could be seen in the 1904 restoration of General Washington’s New York headquarters, which featured a “quilting room” of dubious historical accuracy as part of its transformation into a tourist destination.
Value and Labor
Extraordinary quilts have been made by hobbyists and professionals, as part of daily routines or to commemorate major events, and for highly personal or entirely practical reasons, and the value that makers attached to them can be as different as each quilt. Likewise, quilts can be quantified within a variety of economic frameworks. Historically, families that produced their own quilts were able to reallocate money that would have gone to bedding, decoration, gifts, or charitable donations to other needs. Quilts could also serve as a source of income, often for women with few other earning options. To the current day, quilt-making and connoisseurship drive sizable independent hobby and collecting industries.
The value of a quilt can change over time, becoming a family heirloom, antique, piece of collectable folk art, or, occasionally, the exemplary work of a particular artist, to which the market attaches additional value. As historical quilts become part of a rarified market system and contemporary quilt-making feeds the hobby industry, an understanding of the cultural and economic changes that have turned quilts from personal mementos to fine art objects can become a tool for examining social values over time, making clear whose labor and what work is considered worth paying for, preserving, studying, and celebrating.
“Home-Made Quilts of U.S. Represent $675,000,000 Labor.” The Pensacola Journal, February 24, 1907. Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Washington D.C.
Folk Art and American Identity after World War I
Appreciation for folk arts took on an isolationist tone after the United States entered the First World War in April 1917. American suspicion of European decadence motivated artists, critics, and collectors to build on what they idealized as an unpretentious and honest native culture. As part of this elevation of the common man, it seemed fitting to celebrate “untutored” female quilters, who presumably designed by intuition and sought accolades at county fairs rather than galleries.
First-wave feminists viewed the study of quilt traditions as a way to investigate women’s history, publishing books that argued forcefully for women’s roles in creating and continuing the art form’s evolution. During the Great Depression, Americans who transformed old clothes and feedbags into pieced quilts turned stories of earlier pioneering “scrap-bag” quilters into sustaining myths, linking their period of scarcity to another. Eventually, these Depression-era quilts became symbols of perseverance from a supposedly more authentic time. This image of America can be seen in Farm Services Administration photographs documenting communities in which quilting still figured prominently.
Aestheticism and Gender in the 1970s Revival
Presenting quilts within the frame of high art reached an apex in the 1970s, but had important precedents. In 1965 the Newark Museum hosted Optical Quilts, and even earlier, the 1960 American Quilts and Coverlets exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum displayed works on stretchers for maximum visibility. In 1971, the Whitney Museum’s Abstract Design in American Quilts presented quilts as antecedents to abstract painting, encouraging audiences accustomed to Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko to marvel at their aesthetic brilliance and compositional strategies.
While this allowed quilts to be appreciated in a new way, feminists began to look critically at how gender played a role in these comparisons and valuations, arguing that while the works themselves were receiving great attention, their female makers, as individuals and artists, had disappeared. The Whitney organizers’ insistence on a purely visual experience of these objects was seen by some as scrubbing them of their history as multipurpose and authored works, recasting them as evidence for an American tradition of boldly colored abstraction, ultimately realized in masterpieces by male painters.
Feminist Responses and Contemporary Contributions
“For all women everywhere, who never really wanted to be anonymous after all.”
—Dedication page from Patricia Mainardi’s Quilts: The Great American Art, 1978
Feminist artists and scholars responded to the Whitney exhibition by collecting a wealth of quilters’ first-person accounts, mounting contextualizing exhibitions, and disseminating essays, books, and films that tied women’s historical experiences to the evolution and innovations of quilt-making. Quilts and quilt history became a resource for feminist artists challenging gender biases inherent in the designation of fine versus decorative arts. They questioned why painting and sculpture, for centuries the domain of male artists, were considered more important than works made in mediums associated with women, such as textiles and ceramics, and set out to contest this stigma.
Significantly, both the aesthetic and feminist reframings encouraged individuals trained as fine artists to take up quilting, exploring both the visual possibilities and the historical and gendered implications of the practice. Twenty-first century artists who engage with the tradition of quilt-making are often drawn to the medium’s personal, cultural, and political associations, seeking to play with both the historic and mythic connotations that have evolved around quilts.
Collecting and Consuming Quilts
In the 1970s, a scholarly interest in quilts as art spurred a wave of private and corporate collection among those who saw these large textiles as ideal wall hangings. Following the popularity of the Whitney Museum’s Abstract Design in American Quilts, curated by private collectors Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof, there was an explosion of quilt coverage in the national press, from art reviews in the New York Times to fashion tips in Vogue to decorating advice in House & Garden. Collectors were particularly drawn to Amish designs, featuring a geometric simplicity and monochromatic fabrics that fit comfortably within a modern aesthetic.
Throughout the following decade, the flood of consumers looking for quilts had a dramatic impact on Amish communities, particularly in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which developed a substantial tourism industry in response to this demand. As in the past, this revival of interest in quilts also spoke to nostalgia for the simple ways of life preserved by Amish traditions, and coincided with a back-to-the-land movement that sought to counter destructive mass consumption with the self-reliant spirit of pioneers.
Parallel Quilt-Making Traditions
Museum collections evolve over time to reflect the priorities and prejudices of their time and place. Reflecting the acquisition history of the Museum’s collections in general, and the Decorative Arts collection in particular, both of which initially privileged Anglo-European culture and patrimony, quilts were collected based on their ability to serve as superlative examples from this dominant lineage. Since the 1980s, significant work has been done by scholars and practitioners to make visible the remarkable and historically important quilt-making traditions that flourished alongside those highlighted here, which are not yet well represented within the Museum’s collection.
Major exhibitions and books devoted to African American quilters have increased appreciation for the cross-cultural exchange and stylistic innovations evidenced in their work, while reminding viewers of the fraught legacy of slavery in which this tradition developed. Likewise, contact with traders, missionaries, and other pioneers led Native American communities to incorporate quilting into their cultural framework, adapting it for ritual, aesthetic, and utilitarian purposes. Recent additions to the Museum’s collection include the nearby work by Anna Williams, which exemplifies the mix of historical patterns, traditional techniques, and improvisational variation associated with African American quilting, as well as a figural quilt by Luke Haynes (American, born 1982), on view in this floor’s Contemporary Art Galleries, which directly engages a history of male quilters and queer identity through its patchworked self-portraiture.