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Home | Articles | Art of the Needle: 100 Masterpiece Quilts from the Shelburne Museum

by Henry Joyce

Fig. 1: The Williams album quilt, possibly by Catherine Cox Williams, Ohio, 1873. Pieced, appliqued, and embroidered. 94 x 93 inches. 2001–24.

One of the largest and highest-quality public collections of bedcovers in the United States is to be found at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. The finest examples from a collection of 400 are showcased in Art of the Needle: 100 Masterpiece Quilts from the Shelburne Museum, on view through October 26. This installation presents ten principle quilting construction and design themes, several categories of which are illustrated here.

When Shelburne Museum first opened in 1952, quilts were exhibited solely as decorative accessories in historic house settings. Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960) made Shelburne the country's first museum to formally display quilts as works of art, when, in 1954, she moved a barn to the museum grounds and within it created unique gallery spaces for textiles. This gallery held America's first major collection of quilts on public view. The bedcovers and textiles collection, which spans three centuries, continues to grow and is recognized for its exceptional depth, range, and quality.

Fig. 2: Sunflower pattern quilt by Caroline (Carrie) Carpenter, Northfield, Vt, 1870s. Appliqued and quilted. 78 x 84 inches. 10–651.

Instruction in the art of quilting and embroidery began at an early age, and it was generally believed that the time dedicated to creating skillfully wrought quilts and the repetitive task of needlework taught women the virtues of patience and gentility. Although sewing machines were invented in the 1840s and were generally available in homes after the Civil War, the social importance of fine hand quilt making continued into the twentieth century.

In some communities it was common for a girl to have completed her first quilt by the age of 5; by the time of her marriage, a young woman would likely have produced a group of quilts for her dowry. The recently acquired Ohio-made Williams Quilt (Fig. 1) probably celebrates the 1871 marriage of Catherine Cox to Newton Allen Williams, whose name is embroidered on the front along with the date 1873. It might easily have taken her two years to finish such a richly detailed album quilt, which features decorative blocks and narrative scenes, several of African-American men and women, a rare subject in American quilts.

Fig. 3: Mariner's compass with hickory leaf medallion, attributed to Emeline Barker, New York, 1840–1860. Pieced, appliquéd, and quilted. 100 x 96 inches. 10–022.

Fig. 4: Nine patch concentric squares quilt, unknown Amish maker, Lancaster County, Pa, ca. 1900. Pieced and quilted wool. 80 x 80 inches. 10–671.

Appliqued and pieced quilts represent the largest body of quilts in the exhibition. While both techniques were employed in most quilts, those designated in these groups used appliques or piecework as the focal point of a design. Quilts celebrating appliques most frequently include a range of traditional designs such as the lotus flower, rose, double tulip, laurel leaf, lily, pine tree, and oak leaf patterns. One of the most beautiful and unusual of the museum's applique quilts is the Sunflower Quilt (Fig. 2) made by Carrie M. Carpenter of Northfield, Vermont. It exhibits the highly sophisticated styling of the arts and crafts movement, in which the sunflower was a central part of the design vocabulary, made famous through the work of William Morris.

The Mariner's Compass (Fig. 3) is a superb example of the geometrically-based designs characteristic of pieced quilts, which reached their zenith in the mid-nineteenth century. The workmanship is a testament to the great lengths quilters would go in order to display their virtuosity.

Fig. 5: Crazy quilt by Delphia Noice Haskins, Rochester, Vt, ca. 1880. 82 x 69 inches. 10–215. Although most crazy-quilt makers relied on brilliantly patterned silk fabrics and elaborately embroidered designs to embellish their creations, Delphia Haskins used plain and printed cottons for her quilt blocks and decorated each of the forty-two blocks with a different appliquéd motif.

Among the most visually dramatic quilts ever made are those from Amish and Mennonite communities. Dating primarily after 1850, these quilts pulsate with energy and excitement in the same way that Op Art of the 1960s seemed to jump off the canvas. The quilt in figure 4 is further highlighted by the cable and diamond quilting patterns repeated in the color bands.

Combinations of color and pattern were taken in an entirely different direction with the mainstream popularity of "crazy" quilts, so named for the abstract and often asymmetrical scraps of fabric from which they were created. The most original examples in the collection were made in the 1880s by members of the Haskins family of Rochester, Vermont (Fig. 5). The wonderful images in these cotton quilts (including blackbirds, cats, squirrels, a mother and child, and a man playing a violin) demonstrate an unusual imaginative freedom not seen in the crazy quilts made with kits containing pre-cut and embroidered pieces available a decade later.

The exhibition is the result of a three-year comprehensive survey conducted by Shelburne Museum curators in consultation with Amelia Peck, associate curator in the Department of American Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. A full-color catalogue is available through Shelburne Museum. Call 802. 985.3348 x 3144.

Henry Joyce is Chief Curator at Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont, and author of Art of the Needle: 100 Masterpiece Quilts from the Shelburne Museum.

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