Traveling Exhibitions
Quilts: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum
November 3, 2012–February 3, 2013, at the Figge Art Museum
At the Figge Art Museum, Davenport, Iowa
Organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York

In 2011, the American Folk Art Museum launched the “Year of the Quilt,” a twelve-month series of exhibitions that paid homage to the creative contributions of three centuries of talented women. Celebrating its superlative collection of this glorious American art form, the museum’s exhibitions of textile masterpieces included recent gifts, bedcovers that had rarely been exhibited, and important cornerstones of the quilt collection. The present exhibition highlights the best of the best, quilts that represent the finest examples in a variety of techniques, time periods, and regions.

The American quiltmaking tradition draws from many sources but was first practiced by English immigrants to New England, who used heavy wools to make warm bedcovers. From there, the skills to make quilts spread south and west, changing constantly by influences brought on by waves of new immigrants and their design motifs as well as by climate and advances in technology, including the introduction of new dyes, the cotton gin, synthetic fabrics, and, most important, the sewing machine.

Textiles were among the most valued family possessions until far into the nineteenth century. Given the rarity of the fabrics used in most of the historic quilts in the museum’s collection, the fine workmanship, and the quilts’ well-preserved condition, it is clear that they are examples of “best” bedcovers, saved for use on special occasions or when company visited. Many thousands of everyday quilts from past generations, made from scraps and subjected to hard daily use and the ravages of the washboard, rarely survived.

It is important to consider each textile in the context of the time and place in which it was made. As seen here, for example, quilts made by Amish women differ greatly from those created by their neighbors in non-Amish communities. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when quilts no longer needed to be made for mere warmth, quiltmakers used the form to express their creativity within the confines of popular decorating trends, including the Aesthetic movement and the Colonial Revival styles. In some cultures, however, including African American communities in the South, quilts continued to be made primarily as bedcovers, although many have seen a second life as works of fabric art.

Most recently, contemporary fiber artists have taken the opportunity to transcend time and place, using the historical concept of a quilt as a starting point for their artistic, and often social and political, statements.

Elizabeth V. Warren
Guest Curator