A quilt is not just something to keep you warm at night. In 2002, Sandi Fox, curator of quilts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, staged an exhibition of thirty-nine quilts, bed covers and comforters from the period 1840 to 1940 that had been made in the East and carried by migrants to California, or had been made in California.
“Quilts” tells their stories and shows them to us in 204 color and black and white illustrations.
While quilting has traditionally been viewed as a folk art, some of these examples show it to be more of a fine art.
The text accompanying each quilt gives it a name and tells us of its provenance, maker and the life of the maker, if known, of California history related to it, and of its intellectual and artistic content.
The earliest items displayed are not actually a quilt but an exquisitely clothed doll from about 1840 and a little quilt made for it a few years later, called “The Charity Hopkins Doll and Quilt.”
The difference between a quilt and a bed cover or comforter was that quilts had fine, patterned stitching holding the front and back together, which was a part of their artistry, whereas the other two did not. Detailed photos show us a few of the stitching patterns.
Unfortunately, Fox tells us little about them generally. For convenience sake, we will refer to all of them as quilts.
Quilts tops were made in many patterns.
We probably are more aware of the geometrically patterned ones, many of which had names such as “Stars and Swag,” “Road to California,” or “Broken Dishes,” the last of which was made of 13,260 little pieces.
They also had free-form crazy quilts and pictorial representation of important people, even movie stars and lettering such as family members’ names and the dates of important events in their lives.
Many quilts in this exhibition were constructed of squares of plain fabric on which designs were then appliquéd or embroidered. Embroidery was used to accent patterns or as a design element in its own right.
In addition to this media, we also see several examples of pen-and-India-ink or paint letterings and drawings, as well as photos and printed patterns stitched on. Many makers used a combination of these techniques. It was and is truly a versatile medium to work in.
Quilts were usually made of cotton but wool, velvet, silk, flannel, plush and sateen were also used. These latter fabrics generally came into use after the pioneer days. While some quilts were made from used garments because the maker could not afford new.
Others had to employ used because new yard goods were not readily available in their area in frontier California.
One interesting, deliberate choice of used fabric was the latter nineteenth century craze for cigar ribbons. These narrow strips were pieced together in a geometric pattern so that people could read the makers’ brands and slogans.
Quilts originally had the simple utilitarian value of keeping a sleeper warm. Fox tells us that as quilting developed, they also recorded history, showed the quilter’s values and interests, were gifts to relatives and friends, were sold as fund-raisers for churches and other groups and were used for other functions as well.
Clearly, a quilt may not be just a way to keep warm. It also can be a culturally significant object.
The illustrations in Sandi Fox’s “Quilts: California Bound, California Made 1840-1940,” show us gorgeous examples of the quilter’s craft. The texts are well researched and interesting.
Readers who want to see or learn more can go to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln’s International Quilt Study Center and Museum or visit it online at http://www.quiltstudy.org/.
They can also look at the Manhattan Public Library’s more than 300 quilting related books.
To see quilts locally, the reader can go to the Quilters’ Guild meetings at St. Thomas More Church on the second Mondays of the month or go to their Stars of the Prairie Quilt Show on April 19 to April 20 at the First Presbyterian Church to see 200 quilts on display; admission is $5.
Chris Banner is a Manhattan resident.