ABC’s of Art: The 2015 Teacher Institutes

NMWA offered the week-long Art, Books, and Creativity (ABC) Teacher Institute for the sixth year, and for the second time also held the Advanced ABC course for returning teachers. Participants spent the dog days of summer, July 13–17, 2015, learning arts-integration techniques. The ABC curriculum is ideal for third- through eighth-grade educators. During the program, teachers explored new avenues of creativity.

Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

One teacher’s book art project; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Made possible through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, ABC encourages growth in visual literacy and critical thinking, while also highlighting women artists’ achievements. In particular, the work of Maria Sibylla Merian inspired “bug books,” which encourage students to focus on insect life cycles and habitats.

As NMWA’s education intern, I learned as much as the enrolled teachers. I was largely unaware of the many challenges educators face—particularly in issues of literacy in D.C. schools. The Advanced ABC participants discussed ways in which artists’ books could provide visual literacy as a pathway to reading.

Unfamiliar with artists’ books, I was not aware of their practical applications. Teachers found new ways to incorporate concepts into their own curriculum plans. One educator based his flag book on famous women of the American Revolution. Another teacher said these techniques would allow her to “feed the artist in my classroom.” Ranging from investigations of traditional Native American cultures to literacy interventions, many advanced lesson plans were ready to be shared with colleagues by the end of the week.

Teachers wear their hats; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Teachers with their hat creations; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Participants also constructed sculptural hats and “star books”—books with complex folds and covers that demonstrate knowledge of shapes and primary colors.

The Advanced Institute teachers delved deeper and experimented with circuits to add lights and motorized elements to their books.

Toward the end of the program, the two groups converged during a crafty happy hour at the museum. Program participants enjoyed wine and refreshments and then experimented with paste, marbling, and watercolor techniques during a paper-making activity.

While creating personal portfolios of artists’ books, teachers learned the basics of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)—a method for facilitating discussions about art.

VTS encourages close looking and deep thinking, where each student feels his or her opinion validated. This method provides an equal playing field for art appreciation and creative engagement. As an art history student, I often ask about a work’s title, artist, or time period. However, I was exposed to new points of view through hearing participants’ personal connections. VTS creates a culture of thinking where students work together as storytellers.

To access the free curriculum, visit the ABC website. To learn more about the ABC Teacher Institute, check out the museum’s website.

—Brittany Fiocca was the summer 2015 education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Food, Drink, and Fun: After Hours at NMWA!

Last Thursday, the museum held NMWA Nights: Earthly Delights, an after-hours event featuring two new exhibitions, Super Natural and Organic Matters—Women to Watch 2015. Hosted together with members of the Young pARTners Circle, NMWA Nights provided staff-led tours of the exhibitions for over 100 attendees.

Attendees explore exhibition artworks, including Organic Matters artist Dawn Holder's Monoculture; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Attendees explore exhibition artworks, including Organic Matters artist Dawn Holder’s Monoculture; Photograph: Laura Hoffman

Super Natural features women artists who do not simply document nature but treat the natural world as a space for discovery and invention. Historical and contemporary depictions of plants, animals, and natural landscapes are juxtaposed to show the diverse ways that nature has inspired women artists.

Organic Matters is a part of a series presented every two to three years in which the museum’s national and international committees nominate up-and-coming women artists from their region to exhibit at NMWA. This year’s 13 selected artists work with the subject of nature in mediums ranging from photography to fiberglass.

Guests contribute paper flowers to a collaborative floor installation

Flowers in a collaborative installation; Photograph: Laura Hoffman

Between tours, guests met on the Mezzanine to sip on the specialty cocktail, cleverly named “Metamorphosis.” Participants sampled an array of tasty snacks—provided by Dirty South Deli in collaboration with Union Kitchen—all while listening to tunes by DJ Flying Fortress.

In the Great Hall, attendees explored their crafty side by pushing the boundaries of paper. Guests sculpted flowers and contributed them to a collaborative art project.

The floor installation featuring everyone’s paper flora and fauna was inspired by Organic Matters artist Rebecca Hutchinson’s Patterns of Nature.

Many added to a projected photo collage by instagramming their artwork and photo booth fun with the hashtag #NMWAnights.

Everyone who instagrammed—anything from floral photos to face-in-the-hole shots of collection artwork—was entered into a photo contest to win delightful prizes. Check out @womeninthearts on Instagram to see what people captured!

To stay informed about future NMWA Nights, networking events, and other fun and enriching opportunities, please visit the online calendar or join the Young pARTners Circle.

—Bridget Mazet is the development intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“Greetings” from the Archive

Between the years 1910 and 1915, American painter, illustrator, and printmaker Dulah Evans Krehbiel, along with artisans called the “Ridge Craft Girls,” designed a line of greeting cards.

Dulah Evans Krehbiel card, The Ridge Crafts, Parkridge Illinois 1911; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Dulah Evans Krehbiel card, The Ridge Crafts, Parkridge Illinois 1911; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Originally created for the Park Ridge Art Colony, the sample sales book of these cards, containing hand-painted greeting cards, place cards, and book plates, is now in the archival collection of the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center. With the holiday season approaching, the Library has taken on its first digitization project, making these beautiful cards accessible online to help spread the cheer and maybe even strike up inspiration for viewers’ holiday cards.

Dulah Marie Evans Krehbiel circa 1908

Dulah Marie Evans Krehbiel circa 1908

Dulah Marie Evans was born on February 17, 1875, to David and Marie Ogg Evans, pioneer residents of Oskaloosa, Iowa. She graduated from The Art Institute of Chicago and completed her postgraduate work at the Art Students League in New York, where she won many first-place awards in illustration. She later studied at the New York School of Art under William Merritt Chase.

In 1906 she moved her studio to Park Ridge, Illinois, after marrying fellow Art Institute student Albert Krehbiel. Dulah and Albert were part of the Park Ridge Art Colony, a group whose goal was to create a society that would work for the encouragement of artistic culture. This colony is where Dulah Krehbiel and the Ridge Craft group designed and produced their line of greeting cards. These detailed and ornate engraved images and colored lithographs were designed by Krehbiel and hand painted by the Ridge Craft Girls. The set of 194 cards contain beautiful, delicate drawings, vivid colors, and incredible detail that evoke holiday cheer.

Dulah Evans Krehbiel card, The Ridge Crafts, Parkridge Illinois 1911; National Museum of Women in the Arts Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center

Dulah Evans Krehbiel, who had become known as the “Park Ridge Modernist,” died on July 24, 1951, but her work lives on in galleries across the country and in the archives of the LRC.

Check out the library’s flickr and pinterest pages, take a look at these charming cards, and share them with your loved ones this holiday season!

—Molly Krost is the Library and Research Center intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art, Books, and Creativity! The 2014 ABC Teacher Institute

After a long school year, how do teachers recharge their batteries and fill their minds with exciting new project ideas for the year to come? For a select group from as far away as Cleveland, Ohio, and as near as Cleveland Park, D.C., NMWA’s annual weeklong Art, Books, and Creativity (ABC) Teacher Institute is just the ticket. From July 14–18, 2014, 23 teachers ranging in subject areas from science to French, grades Pre-K through 12, spent the week with NMWA’s educators and institute instructors learning arts-integration techniques centered on the ABC curriculum.

During the ABC Teacher Institute, teachers created fantastic portfolios of artists' book samples to use in the classroom

During the ABC Teacher Institute, teachers created fantastic portfolios of artists’ book samples to use in the classroom; Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Developed by NMWA through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the ABC curriculum unites visual and language arts through the creation of artists’ books. In addition to developing students’ visual literacy, critical thinking, and writing skills, ABC also focuses on the cultural contributions of women artists. The ABC Teacher Institute introduces teachers of all ages, abilities, and disciplines to the curriculum and provides them with resources to successfully integrate visual arts into their classrooms. During the institute, participants created a portfolio of artists’ books and writing samples as models for classroom lessons; learned the basics of Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), a method for facilitating discussions about art; and brainstormed numerous creative ideas for how to adapt the ABC curriculum for their own classrooms and subject areas.

While they are serious about their teaching, this year’s participants were not afraid to have fun and let the creative juices flow! Highlights of the week included creating “bug books” inspired by the work of Maria Sibylla Merian; learning landscape and pop-up book techniques from paper engineer Carol Barton, whose mind-boggling paper creations left everyone in awe; writing poems based on the Fibonacci sequence; collectively creating “exquisite corpse” sketches; and transforming newspaper into sculptural hats that any fashionable avant-gardist would love.

Photo credit: Laura Hoffman

Participants capped off the Institute by presenting the lesson concepts that they developed throughout the week. These incorporated key aspects of the ABC curriculum while addressing the unique curricula, objectives, and standards of learning of the teachers who created them. Ideas included landscape books used to teach scales in music class, pop-up books to expand the vocabulary of ESL (English as a Second Language) students, flag books for a unit on quadrilateral polygons in math class, among others. The lesson concepts clearly demonstrated the myriad cross-curricular applications of the ABC curriculum and left everyone feeling inspired and impassioned.

As one participant reflected, “the energy and ideas were flying right up ’til the last minute! I think the enthusiasm of all of the presenters rubbed off on the participants and spurred us on. I feel refreshed as a teacher going into the summer vacation, and when has that ever happened before?”

To access the free ABC curriculum, visit artbookscreativity.org. To learn more about the annual ABC Teacher Institute, check out NMWA’s Teacher Institute page.

—Olivia Mendelson is an education intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Common Threads: Staff Quilt Stories

In honor of National Quilting Month and NMWA’s current exhibition “Workt by Hand”: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts, NMWA staff members share their quilt stories and memories:

“I didn’t know there were quilters in my family until after ‘Workt by Hand’ opened. I mentioned to my mother that it felt strange not having a quilt story, and that’s when I learned that my great-grandmother, Rossie Webber, was an award-winning quilter. Her double wedding ring quilt won first prize at the Cleveland County Fair in North Carolina, ca. 1941.”—Ashley, Assistant Educator

Ashley's quilt (left) and Stephanie's (right)

Ashley’s quilt (left) and Stephanie’s (right)

“My aunt took up quilting when she and her husband bought a farm in Indiana. She had no ties to the area but figured quilting would be a good way to assimilate into ‘farm life.’ She made quilts for me and each of my sisters to mark our 16th birthdays, customizing them to our individual tastes. Knowing nothing about quilts then, I was so impressed with my aunt’s quilt when I received it with its multi-colored patches in a seemingly random array of mismatched pieces. Now having seen Workt By Hand’, I can attribute my quilt to taking after the Crazy Quilt genre. It’s crazy and bright, and I love it.” —Stephanie, Curatorial Assistant

AIDS Memorial Quilt; Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

AIDS Memorial Quilt; Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“The most memorable quilt to me is the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Not only has the quilt been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but it is also the largest community art project in the world and has been traveling the globe since its inaugural display in Washington, D.C., in 1987. Today, the quilt in its entirety includes over 48,000 individual three-by-six-foot memorial panels, most of which commemorate the life of someone who has died of AIDS.”—Gordon, Director of Operations

Quilts that Laura received for her Bat Mitzvah (left) and at birth

Laura’s quilts from Kathy

“A family friend, Kathy, made my sister and me quilts for major milestones in our life (birth, Bat Mitzvah, etc.) Each quilt was specific to both the person and the occasion, and they were always inscribed, ‘Love, Kathy.’ They are among the few gifts I distinctly remember receiving, and I have cherished them over the years. Though Kathy passed away this year, I still sleep under her quilt when I visit home, and I feel connected to her.”—Laura, Digital Media Specialist

Ginny's family quilt

Ginny’s family quilt

“My mother’s quilt, which currently lives in my office in honor of the ‘Workt by Hand’ exhibition, came from my great-great Aunt Fanny and Uncle Bob Thompson who lived in McHenry, Illinois. We think it dates from the 1920s, and it was most likely part of her wedding trousseau. I believe my grandmother received the quilt after Uncle Bob passed away in the 1980s.”—Ginny, Associate Curator

Do you have a quilt story to share? Add it to the comments section below, or comment on NMWA’s other social media sites—thank you!

Lending Color to Quilts

In Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts, Barbara Brackman discusses the ways in which certain characteristics of a quilt can disclose important information on its origins and the time is was made. In addition to dating quilts through their style and patterns, she also dates them in a more scientific way through their dyestuff.

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

The book talks about two types of dyes: natural dyes and synthetic dyes. Natural dyes are extracted from natural substances such as animals, plants, and minerals, and generally need the help of a substance, called a mordant, that allows the color of the dye to adhere to the actual fabric. On the other hand, synthetic dyes are human-manufactured and came into prominence in last half of the 19th century. At the time, most of them were imported from Germany, which held internationally-honored patents for their dyes. It was not until after World War I (when the German patents were awarded to Americans) that the American dye industry began to thrive.

Brackman illustrates that both natural and early synthetic dyes were difficult to work with. Often, the dyes were not as colorfast as quilters would have liked, and they would slowly begin to fade. This made conservation difficult, especially if the maker intended to pass a quilt on to future generations. To add to this, many types of dye, especially ones with iron or tin mordants, can deteriorate the fabric itself, again causing problems for conservation.

Star of Bethlehem Quilt, ca. 1830; Cotton, 95 x 95 ½ in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alice Bauer Frankenberg; 59.151.7; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Star of Bethlehem Quilt, ca. 1830; Cotton, 95 x 95 ½ in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alice Bauer Frankenberg; 59.151.7; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Until the first half of the 19th century, green dye was specifically difficult to both produce and manage. Many quilters had to perform a painstaking double-dyeing process that consisted of first dyeing the fabric yellow and then dyeing it again with indigo or Prussian blue, or vice versa. The final product was a vivid green color many quilters referred to as “poison green.” According to Brackman, single-process synthetic dyes came after 1860 and were able to provide quilters with a much simpler process. However, many of these later synthetic dyes were not as colorfast, especially when exposed to light, and ended up fading to beige.

Although the color of a quilt can play a major role in its aesthetic value, not many people realize how useful the condition of the dye really is to justifying the historical significance of a quilt. Changes in the process of dyeing fabrics and the ingredients used in dyestuff parallel the chemical and technological advancements of the time. These facts can not only help date a quilt, but can also help in informing the quilt’s conservation.

—Kyla Crisostomo is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

To learn more about quilts, as well as the people who created them and the ways society saw them, visit “Workt by Hand” at NMWA, on view through April 27!

Demystifying Amish Quilts

Although their roots have been attributed to different cultures, Amish quilts are regarded by many as “quintessentially American.” In Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon, Janneken Smucker investigates this claim and talks specifically about the Hmong, many of whom immigrated to Pennsylvania and changed the Amish quilt trade some thirty years ago.

In the 1970s many Hmong fled to the United States after the Southeast Asian War. They left their refugee camps in Thailand and resettled into their new homes with the help of the Mennonite Church. Hmong communities began to grow in California, Minnesota, Washington, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

As a source of income, many Hmong women decided to sew and sell their native textiles. Paj ntaub—translated as “Flower Cloth”—is a popular Hmong textile that requires expert skill for its intricate designs, which are symbolic in the Hmong culture and resemble natural forms. The creation of these textiles uses many similar techniques to quilt-making. For example, three textile practices used in the making of paj ntaub are embroidery, batik, and appliqué, which is the practice of applying smaller pieces of fabric to a larger piece to create patterns.

Bars Quilt, ca. 1890, Pennsylvania; Cotton and wool, 83 x 82 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Findlay, 77.122.3; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Bars Quilt, ca. 1890, Pennsylvania; Cotton and wool, 83 x 82 in.; Brooklyn Museum,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. Peter Findlay, 77.122.3; Photography by Gavin Ashworth,
2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

While Hmong immigrants all over the country earned income from producing paj ntaub, those in Southeastern Pennsylvania soon realized that there was a more sizeable market for Amish quilts, especially prevalent in Lancaster County. In the nineteenth century, many Amish quilts—including some currently on view at NMWA in “Workt by Hand”, such as Bars Quilt, 1890—remained monochromatic geometric forms pieced together in creative ways. By the twentieth century, Smucker mentions that Amish women expanded their quilt pattern repertoire to cater to their market. In the 1980s, “The Country Bride”—a relatively difficult appliqué pattern—began growing in popularity, and the Amish found great skill in Hmong women due to their expertise in appliqué. Similarly, Smucker states that Hmong quilt seamstresses could create ten quilts in one day that could be sold for $25 each, while a paj ntaub for the same price could take up to a week to create. For these reasons, many Hmong women in Pennsylvania ceased making paj ntaub and instead adapted their skills to work as seamstresses of Amish quilts.

From there, Smucker illustrates that a great deal of outsourcing began to occur. Amish women would outsource the work to Hmong seamstresses in the United States, and these Hmong seamstresses would then outsource the work to impoverished families in Thai refugee camps who were not aware of where the quilts were from or where they will ultimately end up.

Like “Workt by Hand”, which aims to debunk quilting myths, Janneken Smucker’s book demystifies the “quintessentially American” nature of Amish quilts.

—Kyla Crisostomo is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Also, click here for information about NMWA’s April 24 talk and book signing by author and quilt historian Janneken Smucker.

The Nuances of Collaboration

Quilting has long been viewed nostalgically as a collaborative activity among women, but over time these pieces have also been created by groups or individuals with complex or dubious motivations. Often, true collaborations simply meant teamwork between groups of women to create quilts efficiently. Through quilting bees, women were able to gather, sew, and find social relief from their homes. The photograph in “Workt by Hand” of the Ladies’ Aid Society at Mt. Zion United Brethren shows the group proudly displaying their collective quilt with each of their signatures stitched into the fabric. This image shows the communal nature of the task and the shared sense of ownership the group had over the final product.

Russell Lee, Women looking at quilting and crocheting exhibit at Gonzalez County Fair. Gonzales, Texas, November 1939. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Russell Lee, Women looking at quilting and crocheting exhibit at Gonzalez County Fair. Gonzales, Texas, November 1939. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

Fairs also provided a venue for quilters to connect. Sanitary Fairs were popular among women after the start of Civil War. Women volunteered their quilts both as charity to soldiers, and as goods to fundraise for war relief efforts. At other times, fairs were not so politically charged. In Russell Lee’s 1939 image titled Women looking at quilting and crocheting exhibit at Gonzalez County Fair, a cluster of women can be seen admiring the quilts displayed at a county fair. These fairs provided a space not only for leisurely gathering, but also for sharing and exchanging pattern ideas.

“Home-Made Quilts of U.S. Represent $675,000 in Labor.” The Pensacola Journal. February 24, 1907. Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Washington, D.C.

“Home-Made Quilts of U.S. Represent $675,000,000 in Labor.” The Pensacola Journal. February 24, 1907. Library of Congress, Chronicling America, Washington, D.C.

Yet in some cases, “collaboration” in quilting produced less equality and community among women and instead stressed the social hierarchy between them. In the “Value and Labor” section of “Workt by Hand”, it is mentioned that for many women, quilting was not merely a hobby, but a source of income. For instance, after the Civil War, African American seamstresses would create quilts that would then be attributed to white households.

This exploitation of quilt creators by quilt owners is highlighted in the book American Icons by Dennis Hall and Susan G. Hall, which tells of the controversy in the 1933 Sears and Roebuck quilt competition in the Chicago World Fair. Margaret Rogers Caden of Lexington, Kentucky, was awarded the grand prize of $1,000 for the intricate padding of her quilt. Unknown to the judges, however, although Caden had signed the entry documents stating the work was entirely her own, she in fact had hired four other Kentucky women to make the quilt for her. In the midst of the Great Depression, these four women had no means of protesting, for doing so would have meant losing their jobs. Situations like this dispel the notion that quilting, because of its feminine nature, was untouched by social corruption.

It is important to understand that quilting had a politics of its own. Historical images and photographs in “Workt by Hand”, on view at NMWA through April 27, help visitors situate the beautiful quilts on view within the quilters’ more complex social and economic contexts.

—Kyla Crisostomo is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Political Patchwork

In the late 1980s, quilt-lovers and feminists Jane Benson and Nancy Olsen approached Euphrat Gallery director Jan Rindfleisch with an idea for an exhibition on political quilts. After two years of research, the women published The Power of Cloth: Political Quilts 1845–1986 to accompany the exhibition. In the book, the authors state that while men were allowed to vote and participate fully in political events, some women took to quilting as a means of expressing their own political alliances and opinions.

Whole-Cloth Quilt, ca. 1830s; Cotton toile, 70 x 85 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Margaret S. Bedell; 28.111; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Whole-Cloth Quilt, ca. 1830s; Cotton toile, 70 x 85 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Margaret S. Bedell; 28.111; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

For example, Whole Cloth Quilt, ca. 1830s, uses a special cotton fabric that depicts the portraits of the first seven presidents. The inclusion of the phrase “Magnanimous in Peace, Victorious in War” beneath Andrew Jackson’s portrait suggests that the quilter was his strong supporter. However, political positions were usually not so overtly expressed in quilts, and women relied on symbolic imagery to state their opinions.

Medallion Quilt, ca. 1830, depicts an image of an eagle, derived from the American Bald Eagle, which was adopted as the great seal of the United States in 1782. As Benson and Olsen state, the eagle became a popular national symbol for “strength, power, and keenness of vision,” which made them and other patriotic icons prevalent in the first half of the 19th century due to the War of 1812 and the territorial expansion to the west. Therefore, both male and female viewers would have quickly understood the quilter’s nationalistic stance.

Elizabeth Welsh, Medallion Quilt, ca. 1830; Cotton, 110 ½ x 109 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of The Roebling Society; 78.36; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Elizabeth Welsh, Medallion Quilt, ca. 1830; Cotton, 110 ½ x 109 in.; Brooklyn Museum, Gift of The Roebling Society; 78.36; Photography by Gavin Ashworth, 2012, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Yet there were also many instances when men were oblivious to the female subculture around quilting. Women found ways to exert power and take ownership of the practice of quilting, one of which was by naming patterns in such a way that their significance was only understood by fellow quilters. In fact, names of quilt patterns, much like titles of artworks, had the power to transform a seemingly traditional quilt into a highly politicized one. Benson and Olsen give a few examples of the way changing the names of quilting patterns can, in turn, change their connotations. For instance, in response to the issue of slavery, quilters changed the name of the “Jacob’s Ladder” pattern to “Underground Railroad” (though this has been disputed by other researchers, who say that the pattern did not appear until after the Civil War), and the “Whig Rose” pattern changed to “Radical Rose” when a black circle was sewn into the center of the flower.

In a sense, this “secret language” of quilting was a way for women to compensate for their lack of political representation. While men were able to express their political stances in the public sphere, women did the same thing, albeit quietly, as they stitched their views into the very fabric of history.

—Kyla Crisostomo is the publications and marketing/communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 

Visit NMWA to see the beautiful examples of quilts on view in “Workt by Hand”, on view through April 27, 2014.

The Common Thread: Quilt Grids

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.