The Pure American Artistry of Quilts

QUILTS, made of thousands of pieces of cloth and countless stiches, look like modern paintings. They have jumped off the four-poster and landed on museum walls, office and hotel lobby walls, in mall displays, greeting cards, and calendars, even into books galore. The old-time bed coverings, usually humble, often beautiful, always warm, are a joy to behold. Great Grandma's stitches charm and dazzle with the shapes and colors we thought only modern design can give. The quilt came over on the drafty, soggy old Mayflower, and when the colonial dames weren't milking cows, plucking turkeys, making soap, cutting wood, hauling water, or nursing children, they stitched. Stitching scraps left over from making clothes, they wasted not, wanted not. The designs, as old as geometry; the colors, whatever the scraps yielded. They also loved bright colors, and often used colored prints from London. This got to be much too much for the preachers of 1675, who railed against such degradation. Happily, nothing really stopped those wonderful optical illusions made from triangles and blocks and divisions and arrangements of the square. Ancient designs, reinvented by ingenious needlers, created with the linsey-woolsey and cotton scraps their own hearthside kaleidoscopes.

Very American from the beginning, the pieced quilt we think of sometimes as ``folk art'' was a staple long before Betsy Ross is said to have applied her skill to the first American flag. A modest, utilitarian model needed some 4,000 pieces of cloth. High fashion in Boston might go to 14,000, depending on size and complexity. Quilters could keep track of the number of spools, but the stitches, following warp and woof, were countless. A quilt was usually made by four or so women sitting around a quilting frame. (There are signed quilts proving that men quilted, too. Feminists will appreciate this information.) It was called The Quilting Bee, symbolic of the days when people got together to build a house, raise a barn, harvest a crop, or square dance. They made do.

A good quilt could be finished in three days if there was not too much time out for tea and if the discussion of important events and objective overviews of people and local places did not interfere. (Gramps called it gossip.)

Of course they didn't just start out sewing like mad. Studying their treasured hoard of scraps they worked out designs with straight edge and templates cut out of tin by Gramps. Circles could always be drawn with a cup or a plate. When they weren't doing a pattern their own grandmother loved, they could copy from what they had seen at fairs, which always featured quilts, or Aunt Agatha might send something new from that hotbed of practical design, Philadelphia.

And the designs had names, and the names are telling: Wild Goose Chase sounds modern. Yankee Puzzle suggests New England transcendentalism. Mariner's Compass might have helped warm someone on a whaler out of Nantucket. Flower Pot is as homey as you can get, while Straight Furrow comes from the fields after Gramps had finally cleared the stumps out. Beehive is a sweet reminder of the sentimental ideal of industry that kept these homemakers burning candles long after supper, their interest and attention providing for the bride's dowry or the warm cradle. Bear Paw and Fly Foot conjure up Kit Carson and the Rocky Road to Kansas sounds like the All American Story.

But not to get too sentimental; it is the lines and circles and optical effects of repeated images in two dimensions that are especially interesting today. Contemporary quilters not only keep the old designs alive, they have branched out with quilts as ``modern'' as any other creative medium. They make witty and inventive, even three-dimensional pieces, sort of cotton collage. The old quilters were not ``artistic'' in any self-conscious way, they were simply part of the world of make-do, make it yourself, with no mall down the road. The baskets, barrels, hinges, weather vanes, dolls, and portraits by ``naive'' artists were practical, but they were also artists in spite of themselves.

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