Fabric of a Nation – American Quilt Stories at Boston MFA

I was so lucky to kick-off 2022 with a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see the Fabric of a Nation – American Quilt Stories exhibit. This exhibit features approximately 100 quilts that span 300 years of American history, including some of the our darkest days and toughest times. Beyond the obvious meaning of the work, you see the spirit of America, amazing craftsmanship, and creativity that continues to inspire. The quilts are unique in sharing the perspective of the maker and a placard in the exhibit talks about how the makers used these quilts to give difficult topics a soft landing, including several pieces believed to have originated in Connecticut. Following are some of the pieces that spoke to me.

Upon descending the staircase to the exhibit you are greeted with a larger-than-life interactive display highlighting some of the quilts.

Upon entering the first gallery, you are treated to three red, white and blue quilts that firmly cement this exhibit as quilt making in America. This quilt, Hossier Suffrage quilt, was made before 1920 by an unknown maker, likely from Indiana. It is believed to have been used for fundraising, with embroidered names representing those that donated to the cause.

This quilt is called Scenes of American Life and was possibly made by Mrs. Cecil White from Hartford, CT around 1920. I thought this was absolutely fantastic with 55 snapshots of life in America appliqued onto the blocks. They are simple in design, but yet have detail to bring them to life, ie. the stitching to show the path of the balls in the the billiards block above. Outside the charm of the blocks, there are some biases depicted including class and racial stereotypes of the time, that are disturbing today. Many of the activities shown would be different today, and I would hope the character depictions would be as well.

These three whole cloth quilts were stunning. The red is from an unidentified maker in England in the late 17th or early 18th century. It is a silk satin and would have been considered a status symbol to have a quilt like this during that time. The white version was made by Eunice Dennie Burr from Fairfield, CT in approximately 1790. It is thought that she made this quilt to replace one destroyed when British troops invaded Fairfield in 1779. This hand quilting has 22 stitches per inch. I can’t even, and am sorry the photo doesn’t do it justice. The blue quilt is also from an unidentified maker from Connecticut and/or Western Mass between 1750-1800. The stitching features a medallion surrounded by borders with leaves and flowers. It couldn’t be more stunning, and of course I want to do a whole cloth quilt for my bed now.

I thought these three bed covers were super interesting for different reasons. The one thing they have in common is having no border at the top of the quilt where the pillows would go. Today we would border our quilt on all four sides. This is actually pretty smart to do it this way.

The first coverlet was made by Harry Tyler from Jefferson County, NY in 1839. It is woven as opposed to quilted, but I thought the center was very modern for the time. I could easily picture this design as a top-selling applique pattern today. This was a very popular pattern of the time, and this version was appliqued. In later years mills printed this fabric so the top could be created with less work. The placard suggested that this was a special occasion quilt. The second, Carolina Lily, was made by an unidentified maker between 1830 and 1845. The third is a Rio Grande blanket from an unidentified maker from New Mexico in mid-19th century. It is a wool tapestry weave with dyed wool to create the blue color.

This Floating Bars quilt was made in Lancaster County, PA by an unidentified Amish quilter around 1940. It has the saturated color and geometric design we expect from Amish quilts and is a timeless beauty.

These two stunning quilts are from quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama and bring the range of design styles used to life. Quilts of Gee’s Bend are am amazing representation of the utility of quilts and the tenacity of these women that went to amazing lengths to care for their families. The red and white Courthouse Steps quilt on the left was made by Creola Bennett Pettway and Georgianna Bennett Pettway in approximately 1955. Housetop (on the right) was made by Lillie Mae Pettway in 1965. The quilt features various fabrications including cotton, corduroy, knit and wool. I love the pops of color amidst the more neutral tones that may have come from home furnishing fabrics.

These two timeless quilts were made in the 1930’s and entered into a Sears national quilt contest. Honestly, if they came into the shop today we would be amazed by them. The first quilt, A Century of Progress was made by Louise Rowley of Chicago in 1933. It showcases the site of the Century of Progress Exposition along Lake Michigan. Interestingly, the label attributes the quilt to Louise, but it later was disclosed that her son helped her make the quilt, especially with developing the pattern. What a rare event – for a man not to get credit for his contributions!

The quilt on the right, The Spectrum, was by Edith Morrow Matthews of Nevada and was made in 1933 with help from her husband who helped engineer the design. She won $210 and used that money to support her family because her husband was not working due to illness.

Coastline by Susan Hoffman (active in Boston, NY and CT) was made in 1975 of cotton, polyester, silk, velvet and wool. It was machine pieced and hand quilted and is stunning. A self-taught quilter, Susan creates large-format pieces to raise awareness of social causes, recently having a quilt included in the Migrant Quilt Project that builds awareness and empathy for those trying to cross the Mexico/US border.

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you! Agusta Agustsson of MA made Blanket of Red Flowers in 1979 to hang in Boston City Hall as part of an exhibit of women artists called Throbbing Needles. The quilt was banned and later hung informally by members of different quilt and design groups. Her intent was to explore sexuality and if you look carefully will see that women’s genitalia are also shown. I found it interesting as I have been working on some three-dimensional quilts lately. Don’t worry, mine aren’t this exciting.

Nixon Resignation was made by Edward Larson of Liberty, IL and quilted by Fran Soika of Novelty, Ohio in 1979. It features traditional piecing, applique, embroidery and quilting. Larson is known for his story quilts and he worked with many different quilters to bring his ideas to life. For this project, he gave Soika freedom and flexibility to add quilting and embroidery as she saw fit. According to the description, “The first president to resign, Nixon floats away from the others, in the darker margin where stick figures bow their heads and cry.”

Survivors by Carla Hemlock was made between 2011-2013 and includes traditional piecing with applique and quilting, and glass bead embellishments. This artisan uses her quilting to “explore issues ranging from environmental injustice and violence toward women to indigenous sovereignty.”

The hashtag and subject matter give this quilt away more recently made and the subject couldn’t be any more urgent. #howmanymore was made by Sylvia Hernandez of Brooklyn, NY in 2018 in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. This quilt is said to be a “memorial to the victims and a protest against gun violence.” I found it very powerful.

To God and Truth by Bisa Butler of Orange, NJ was made in 2019 of cotton with traditional piecing and applique and quilting. She used thousands of pieces of fabric to create the image based on a photo from the Morris Brown College baseball team. The men shown are life-sized and the detail is amazing. The placard speaks of how she wanted to honor their individuality and explore they skin tones and features. It mesmerized me for several minutes.

There are so many more quilts I should have shown you and so many more stories these makers shared. One I had hoped to share (but my photo was blurry) included embroidered messages from a mother to her children. I found that very heartwarming. There was also a meaningful mini highlighting the struggles of black men in America that unfortunately the photo was cut off. This exhibit made it clear to me that the issues may change but the passion of makers to have a voice and impact social change has been a constant through our history.

If you haven’t seen this exhibit, there is still time. It runs through January 17. It is an easy ride from the Brookfield area (less than three hours door to door!) and well worth it. If you can’t get there but would like to know more, I’ll have the book of the exhibit in the shop after next week and you are welcome to make a cuppa and have a look.

Ok, here is one more, by Virginia Jacobs in 1987 that is a three-dimensional masterpiece.

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