Urgent Museum Notice

Image for The Nuances Of Collaboration

The Nuances of Collaboration

Blog Category:  NMWA Exhibitions

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.

Related Posts

  • Art Fix Friday: August 7, 2020

    Posted: Aug 07, 2020 in Art Fix Friday
    Oprah magazine profiles artist Alexis Franklin, who created a digital portrait of Breonna Taylor for the cover of the September 2020 issue; Jaune Quick-to-See-Smith is the first Native American artist to have a painting purchased by the National Gallery of Art; 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
  • Now Open: Return to Nature

    Posted: Aug 05, 2020 in Exhibitions
    Today, grappling with a period of global quarantine, many people are experiencing an urge to return to the outdoors, seeking comfort and revitalization in nature. Return to Nature, a pop-up installation showcasing a selection of historical and contemporary photographs from NMWA’s collection, illustrates artists’ longstanding fascination with the natural world.
    Close-up photograph shows a trumpet-shaped flower against a dark black background. The flower's striated long neck erupts in a profusion of purple and white petals that dominate the composition.
    Blog Category:  Exhibitions
  • Art Fix Friday: July 31, 2020

    Posted: Jul 31, 2020 in Art Fix Friday
    Grace Lynne Hayes debuts a new portrait of Sojourner Truth for this week’s cover of the New Yorker; A profile on Thandi Sibisi, South Africa's first Black woman gallerist; A new show on ecofeminism at Thomas Erben Gallery; 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