Creating functional and decorative bed coverings by piecing together scraps of cloth and enhancing the finished piece with decorative stitching is a skill and art with a long history. Although patchwork or piecing probably originated as a way to use fabric scraps, by the 18th century it was not unusual for quilters to purchase fabrics specifically for individual quilting projects. Art became as much a part of the process as thrift, perhaps even the greater part.
Quilting is the process of making a pieced (patchwork) or appliquéd bedcover or hanging: a quilt. The word also describes the stitching that holds the layers of a quilt together. A quilt is defined as a decorative top layer, an interlining layer for warmth, and a backing fabric for finishing, held together with decorative stitching or ties. A coverlet is a decorative top layer and a backing without the interlining. Many quilt patterns are built up from regular repetitions of a design unit sometimes called a “block,” but more accurately named a “cell.” Specific patterns also exist for the quilting stitchery that binds the layers together.
Since the 1970s, it has been fashionable to look at certain kinds of quilt patterns as anticipating a number of movements in 20th century art: abstract expressionism, op art, color field. Quilts, however, are textural objects that break through the two-dimensional picture plane prized in some modern painting. The tactile nature of the fabrics creates an intimate art form, inviting close inspection of details as well as appreciation of overall composition from a distance.
Quilt patterns were and still are published in magazines and handicraft manuals and traded among quilters. Even when a pattern is followed, however, each quilt artist adds something of her own personality and aesthetic sense to her work. Self-expression is realized through the basic choices of materials, colors, patterned or solid-color fabrics, scale, overall composition, and the combination of imagery for the quilt top and the quilting stitchery. Each decision engenders a new set of questions until the quilt or coverlet is completed. The infinite variety of quilts lies in each individual quilter’s answers to these questions.
Quilt Condition and Preservation
In choosing the pieces for this exhibition, the curators held to this guiding principle: condition problems do not reverse themselves in storage. Thus, when beautiful pieces show irreversible flaws that have emerged from use or “inherent vice,” it was decided to allow them one last moment in the limelight, suitably supported, before nature continues to take its course. Quilts reflect the varied environments in which they were made and employed. The fabrics used in the quilts were originally finished for the dress or furnishing market with processes that have contributed to “inherent vice” in the cloth. In cottons, black and brown dyes that used iron sulfates and tannins as mordants (chemicals used to make fibers retain dyes) degrade the fibers over time. Similarly, metallic salts added to silk dyes to increase the fabric’s weight react chemically with the fibers, causing the fabric to split and shred as it ages. Starching discolors cottons, and bleaching oxidizes and weakens fibers. When in use, the finished quilt suffers from the play of sunlight over its surface, as light fades the dyes. An admiring touch contributes damaging oils to the fabric. Variations in humidity and temperature cause fibers to lose strength and flexibility. Dust and food spills attract insects that harm the fabric, and laundering itself, while removing soil, abrades the fibers and also fades the dyes. Relegated to the presumed safety of a cedar chest, the quilt suffers from lack of ventilation, the presence of insects or molds, and brown staining due to contact with acids from ageing wood and paper wrappings.
Conservators can alleviate some problems by wet-cleaning and stabilizing compromised areas; however, disintegration due to dyes or finishes cannot be stopped or reversed. When loss has already occurred, attempts to make the quilt appear as it did originally involve invasive restoration techniques that may cause further damage or introduce variations in color affecting the original design. Thus, despite a quilt’s aged appearance, it must be remembered that all of these circumstances mark natural, inherent life stages of an object that has both absorbed and enriched the ambience of many different environments.