Glorious New Book On Handmade Quilts

QUILTS: A LIVING TRADITION

By Robert Shaw

Hugh Lauter Levin, 312 pp., $75

Nothing compares with a handmade quilt. The feel of it, the tiny stitches marching in orderly rows, the warm weight of it draped over the foot of a bed. Now a book captures all the imagination and skill of this textile art.

''Quilts: A Living Tradition'' was written by Robert Shaw, former curator of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., noted for its American folk-art collection and scholarship.

Quilting, like jazz, is a quintessentially American art form, although its origins trace back to Europe. It is democratic, in the sense that any person with access to a needle, thread, and cloth can assemble a quilt. As the book reminds readers, quilting and other types of stitchery - including embroidery - were often the creative outlets most available to women, especially those of limited income or opportunity.

''Quilts: A Living Tradition'' unfolds pages of unusual examples of how the craft was adapted by other ethnic groups, including African-Americans, Hawaiians, and the Japanese. Each group adopted quilting techniques to express a different life-view. Japanese quilts are serene, with themes straight out of that country's paintings. Quilts made by African-Americans tend to be more complex, with a pastiche of shapes and textures.

While the book's written portions reflect Shaw's authority on the subject, readers will be drawn to the photographs of these spectacular quilts. Truly a beautifully produced book.

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