A celebration of that unique art form - the American quilt

It's been a long trip from the scrap bag to the walls of America's top museums. But there's no denying the place of American quilts as an art form. And there's no denying their popularity.

''World of Quilts,'' a state-of-the-art exhibit featuring some of the finest examples of American quilts from museums and private and public collections throughout the United States and several other countries is running until Sept. 25 at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. Dr. Robert Bishop, director of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City and honorary chairman of the exhibit, calls it ''a celebration of the American quiltmaker's art'' and ''one of the most important events ever mounted in this field.''

In Meadow Brook Hall, a 100-room Tudor-Elizabethan manor house, more than 120 quilts are displayed to advantage - some 39 of them actually on beds.

Most of the quilts in the show are antique - the oldest is the Saltonstall quilt from 1704. Its age was determined by the template (pattern) cut from a Harvard College newspaper dated 1701. A few are new works by top American quilters. And nearly all have historical or artistic significance. Many have never been seen in a public show before.

Some quilts have been loaned by such famous people as Lady Bird Johnson, whose ''Texas Star'' will be on display along with crazy quilts from country singers Loretta Lynn and June Carter Cash. King Juan Carlos of Spain is loaning his ''George Washington Centennial,'' circa 1876. The Eleanor Roosevelt quilt ( 1940) depicting her life was sent by the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Even ardent quilter (and satirical columnist) Erma Bombeck is in the show with her celebrity quilt of autographs and sketches done by well-known personalities.

For all that, it is a serious show for quilt lovers, according to Merry Silber, the show coordinator.

''The piece-work quilt is unique to this country,'' she said. ''It can be considered, along with jazz, as an original American art form.''

Mrs. Silber says quilts were born out of necessity - not just the necessity to keep warm, but the need to have, or create, something beautiful in frontier society. Ironically, it came in bits and pieces out of the scrap bag.

Although quilting had been done in some form in other countries, it was in the American pioneer environment that the many traditional patterns - all piece work - came into being, she said.

The show is the idea of Marilyn Brooks, director of special projects for Meadow Brook, who saw it as a way of celebrating the 100th birthday of Matilda Dodge Wilson, who gave the hall along with 1,400 acres of rolling countryside to the state of Michigan in 1957 for the establishment of Oakland University.

Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the hall is considered one of the Midwest's most prized architectural treasures. It is used as a cultural and conference center.

Also on the property is Knole Cottage, a minimansion playhouse built for Mrs. Wilson's daughter, Frances Dodge. (Before her marriage to Alfred Wilson, Matilda had been the widow of automotive pioneer John Dodge.) During the show, 26 antique doll and crib quilts from Mrs. Silber's own collection will be on exhibit in Knole cottage.

One of the most unusual quilts in the show is the Winter Carnival quilt from the Minnesota Historical Society, which has a three-dimensional scene of the annual St. Paul Winter Carnival with crystal beads providing the look of real ice. It is dated 1886-91.

Another is a Vine of Life quilt with more than 9,000 pieces hand sewn by Susan McCord of McCordsville, Ind., in 1850. It was loaned by the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village in nearby Dearborn, Mich.

There is one entire quilt of strawberry leaves; each leaf has 350 buttonhole stitches. Another has 87,789 pieces, using 5,400 yards of thread. There are Amish quilts from both Indiana and Pennsylvania. The exhibit also features several examples of the prized Kentucky quilt, plus a couple of reversible ones.

The art of quiltmaking experienced a revival during the Great Depression, and there are a number of quilts from this period, including one loaned by Nancy Hawkins of Richardson, Texas, called ''Prosperity Is Just Around the Corner.'' It is dated 1930.

The American Museum of Britain in Bath, England, has sent four quilts for the exhibit, all dating from the early or mid-19th century. In all, 24 museums are represented. Other quilts from corporate art collections have been loaned by Chase Manhattan Bank, IBM, Levi Strauss, and Better Homes and Gardens magazine.

Nearly 60 collectors from almost every part of the US have provided quilts for the Meadow Brook show. Canada, France, Italy, New Zealand, and Spain also are represented.

One unusual contemporary work is the ''Tit for Tat'' quilt designed by Illinois quilter Virginia Piland. Since Ralph Lauren once cut up valuable antique quilts to make some of his high-fashion clothes, designer Lauren has been the target of quilters' wrath. Ms. Piland has retaliated with a special two-color design using an aqua Ralph Lauren shirt and some white feed sacks. Like the early quilters, she has used every scrap of the shirt, including collar and cuffs. Around the border she has inscribed messages to the designer.

Admission to the exhibit is by reservation except Sunday, Sept. 18, when the exhibits are open to the public. Tickets are $5 for the hall and $1 for Knole Cottage. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Special arrangements for group tours can be made by calling (313) 377-3140.

A fully illustrated, 60-page color catalog is available for $11, postpaid, through Sept. 25 - for $14 after that date by writing to Marilyn Brooks at Meadow Brook Hall, Rochester, Mich. 48063.

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