Saturday, December 14, 2013

Just Plain Ole Quilts

Maybe I was getting weary of uber-busy quilts or those masterpiece quilts with designs so elaborate they remind me of Victorian wallpaper. But the day I cruised Ebay and found these old girls, their simple patterns, forthright quilting, and yes even their wear-and-tear were appealing. I love this kind of country quilt. It seems so honest. True, it is a bed covering and at the same time, slam it up against a white wall in a New York loft gallery and watch people's jaws drop. Good as graphic art and with added benefits: if the heat's off, you can snatch that quilt from the wall and wrap right up in it.

The faded gold and black quilt is from Texas. It has lots wrong structurally with it-threads loose, a few little holes batting pokes through, and a ratty binding. The patchwork block is so simple that you almost miss the fact that once upon a time when this quilt was young, those white framing strips were indeed striped fabric.
And that pinky-tan? Dollars to donuts, that tan was once flaming scarlet. I think the quiltmaker's choice of black around the patchwork and bright gold sashing is really gutsy. More on instinct than fact, I place this quilt's date as something around 1910-1920. Maybe an antique but certainly vintage.

The second quilt is late 1930s or maybe the 1940s. The pattern is often called Bulls-Eye. The prints here are much more feedsack-ish and feminine. This cheerful quilt is from Arkansas and in good condition.

Thecloser you look at the quilt, the more interesting it is. You can see the quiltmaker boldly used striped fabric and consistently used white, with one exception, as the blocks' centers.

We can surmise from a couple of clues that the maker was likely poor. Or perhaps raised and taught quilting by a grandmother who prized thrift as a virtue.                             Some blocks are pieced.

Others show defects in the print of the fabric itself and were likely the remnant that was on the sale table. But this quilter used it all!

There's even rayon in the quilt.

The stitching is a geometric 'elbow' of right-angled lines and the white stitches show well against the cornflower blue backing.
Both quilts are deceptively simple at first glance but upon a long view followed by close thoughtful examination, they can still teach us by example. For instance, the first quilt says "Use large bold patterns" and "Dare to combine black and gold in the same quilt." The second quilt reminds us to "Use what you've got-" and "Keep it neat" but "Quilt densely in a pattern not dictated by the seams of the quilt top." Lots of lessons here.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Amish Inspirations-Again

Way back in 1971 (that's more than forty years ago!) some Amish quilts were part of a groundbreaking exhibition of American antique quilts at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The urban art scene was abuzz with talk about the newly rediscovered craft of quilting and especially those Amish quilts. With their fields of plain color and subtle but always there hand stitching, the Amish quilts were hailed as high art from people who otherwise never gave a nod to needlework. Suddenly antique dealers and folk art collectors, auction houses, and museums were hot on the trail of Amish quilts. And the Amish people have had to deal with the publicity ever since.

Some of the publicity was good for the Amish people. When their antique quilts made it to auction, they often commanded high prices. And since quiltmaking was a way of life for many Amish women, when they purposefully made quilts to sell to 'the English' (any non-Amish person) their work was recognized and appreciated. Infatuation with Amish quilts has led to romanticizing the people and their quilts and there have been ups and downs in popularity. But quilt scholarship has also led to understanding that different Amish communities make different styles of quilts. Favorite patterns and colors can guide the astute scholar in recognizing a 20th century Lancaster, PA Amish quilt will likely be quite different than an 1880s Indiana Amish quilt. In other words, Amish quilts are not homogeneous and have their own quirks and qualities. The quilt here is a Lancaster PA Center Diamond quilt in muted colors made from wool, c.1930.

One again Amish quilts are inspiring quiltmakers and reappearing in exhibitions. The Modern Quilt Guild movement has led to a resurgence in the use of solid-color fabrics. What better body of work to inspire solid color quilts than Amish examples?

The use of solids immediately leads to the question of the quilting, those stitches that hold together a quilt's three layers. Traditional Amish quilting designs combine straight-line stitching with folk art motifs like baskets and flowers and their quilting stitches really shine when sewn in wide borders that frame the patchwork.

Some of my favorite Amish quilts are somewhat scrappy in appearance. These probably were never meant to be seen outside the Amish home but I feel lucky that the owners shared these images with me. The pale Shoofly quilt below is from Miflin County Pennsylvania.

A Rabbit's Foot pattern quilt from the Honeyville, Indiana area, c. 1940.

A hired man's quilt (long and narrow for a cot or twin-size bed) from Holmes County, Ohio. The pattern is called Railroad Crossing.

This Double Nine Patch in brilliant colors was never used and likely given as a wedding gift in the 1940s. From the Goshen, Indiana area.

I could look at Amish quilts all day long. There are so many variations and they have much to teach us about color use, both strong and subtle shades used in the same quilt, and above all, the stitching. If color is the soul of the Amish quilt, then quilting stitches are the heart.