Urgent Museum Notice

The Common Thread: Quilt Grids

Blog Category:  Artist Spotlight
View of the museum from outside showing the Neoclassical building from one corner. The building is a tan-colored stone with an arched doorway, long vertical windows, and detailed molding around the roof.

In Quilts as Women’s Art: A Quilt Poetics, quilter and activist Radka Donnell discusses an organizational feature of the quilt—its “grid”—which she defines as the element that is “not locking but only tentatively ordering the whole by calibrating the unlike into a fascinating puzzle action.” She explains that the grid can function either as a “diagnostic aid” or as a starting point for the visual effects of the surface design.

Pictorial Quilt, ca. 1840; Cotton and cotton thread, 67 ¾ x 85 ½ in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Franklin Chace, 44.173.1; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
Pictorial Quilt, ca. 1840; Cotton and cotton thread, 67 ¾ x 85 ½ in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Franklin Chace, 44.173.1; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

“Workt by Hand” features a variety of quilts demonstrating the range of craftsmanship, creativity, and vision of the women who created them. Still, many of these quilts are tied together by the concept of the grid. Some quilts have, as Donnell states, more physical depictions of gridlines and separations. For example, at first glance the Pictorial Quilt, 1840, may seem like a mere conglomeration of symbols and pictures, but it does not take long to notice clearly-stitched delineations between the twenty different blocks. Therefore, the grid in this quilt acts as an integrating device that brings otherwise irregular objects into a regular scheme.
Even quilts with seemingly haphazard patterns, such as crazy quilts, still have an underlying visual order. Anna Williams’s Quilt, 1995, creates the essence of a grid instead of emphasizing the stitching together of separate blocks. Williams improvises as well as uses traditional block settings, giving the grid a slightly different function—it is not simply an integrating device, but an arrangement of geometric play.
Anna Williams, Quilt, 1995; Cotton and synthetics, 76 ¼ x 61 ½ in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift in memory of Horace H. Solomon, 2011.18; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum
Anna Williams, Quilt, 1995; Cotton and synthetics, 76 ¼ x 61 ½ in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift in memory of Horace H. Solomon, 2011.18; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Since it is not as standardized and obvious as the grid laid out in the Pictorial Quilt, this arrangement amplifies the viewer’s desire to find structure in chaos. Donnell compares this experience to interpreting poetry, where one must reach a compromise between the established regularities of language and the irregularities of individual existence and emotion.
Despite their variety and their disparate origins, the other quilts on view in “Workt by Hand” similarly use the concept of the grid in nuanced and interesting ways. Though the quilt grid is flexible enough to be personalized, the examples all show their makers’ use of its underlying structure as a common thread.
—Kyla Crisostomo is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Related Posts

  • New Acquisition Spotlight: Hung Liu

    Posted: Apr 12, 2021 in From the Curator
    Two paintings by Hung Liu are exciting new additions to NMWA's collection, enabling the museum to showcase Liu’s distinguished skills as a painter and printmaker.
    A painting of a light-skinned woman of Asian descent atop complementary colors of orange-red next to lime green. The shorthaired woman holds a pink handkerchief. To her right is a sad looking fish.
    Blog Category:  From the Curator
  • Art Fix Friday: April 9, 2021

    Posted: Apr 09, 2021 in Art Fix Friday
    A photo essay explores acts of love in Asian and Asian American communities; Bisa Butler: Portraits at the Art Institute of Chicago; and more.
    A black-and-white photograph of a light-skinned adult woman holding a newspaper with news about World War II. She wears a coat and her short, curly hair is caught in the wind.
    Blog Category:  Art Fix Friday
  • Modern Makers: Océanne

    Posted: Apr 08, 2021 in Museum Shop
    Océanne is a line of minimalist modern jewelry and apparel by French designer Anne Harrill. We spoke with Harrill about her mission and more.
    A small, circular brass keychain pendant is engraved with the phrase
    Blog Category:  Museum Shop