Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Quilts

"Floating Bars" Amish wool quilt, made by Menno Peachy, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, around 1940. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

These days, I'm busy writing lots of short scripts about vintage and antique quilts for an upcoming (April) exhibition at the MFA. They will introduce the quilts on the multimedia tour (an iPod Touch with headphones). The show focuses on color and quilts — how some 19th- and early 20th-century quiltmakers, often Amish and Mennonite women, seemed to have had the same ideas about color theory and aesthetics that inspired Abstract Expressionists and Op Art painters later in the 20th century. The quilts are from a superb private collection and many really do resemble 1960s abstract art. although they were made decades (or even a century) earlier. The collectors, who were both trained as artists, were among the very first to see the connection, acquiring more than 1,500 quilts.

Several quilts in the show come from my neck of the woods. I grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch country, not far from Amish and Mennonite communities. My mother made quilts. She made me one for Christmas, when I was in high school, with blocks of floral fabric scraps from dresses she'd sewn for us. She appliquéd a contrasting print heart on each one and hand-quilted them. And it was a surprise! How did she manage to make a big quilt in our little house without my discovering it? I will never know, but that will always be my favorite quilt and one of my all-time best presents.

I remember going to houses where there was a quilt in progress, stretched on a frame in the living room, waiting for women to get together to stitch it. I went to some of the big summer quilt shows in Lancaster where an overwhelming variety and quantity of prize-worthy quilts filled a huge barn.

One summer during college, I taught a quilting class to teenagers at the historical museum where I worked. Considering that I've never had any skill at sewing, knitting, crocheting, tatting, quilting, embroidering, or needlepoint (my mom did it all so beautifully, why should I even try, I thought... stupidly), I'm amazed by this fact now. I have no idea what I taught; what I remember is that a couple of those teenage boys really enjoyed making and sewing their blocks. They were some of the most insightful, interesting, and funny kids I've ever met. There's a type of teenager who absorbs information like a sponge, is game for anything, and will then tell you all about it with such eagerness that it all sounds exciting and fresh. I suppose this is why some of us go into teaching. I know I've missed having kids with such flexible, creative minds around.

I'd thought Possum would be interested in helping me with the quilt scripts, because he'd hinted that he knew a lot about quilts. It turns out his knowledge is mostly about how soft they are, and the various ways a cat can sleep on one. Unfortunately cats don't absorb quilt knowledge osmotically, the way they learn information inside books — by lying upon them, or upon a person reading. So he's been useless to me, except as a purring, chattering distraction, occasionally requiring my attention and frequently demanding food.

I don't own any pieced or appliquéd quilts — just a few solid-color ones covered with fancy stitching from India. I find this odd, considering how much I like them. I think the abundance of cheap, appliquéd quilts from China and India, sold at all the big stores, has changed our attitude about quilts, making them seem tacky and "downscale" instead of the feats of creativity and needlework that homemade, one-of-a-kind ones often are. There's something hokey and dated about the mass-produced ones, and those are the ones we constantly see, so I believe they've tainted our ideas about quilts.

I can promise you that there is nothing remotely hokey or dated about the sixty quilts in the upcoming exhibition. All of them are interesting, and some are mind-blowing, with colors and designs that you probably never connected with quilts. Even the traditional Log Cabins are a breath of fresh air because of their strange and wonderful fabrics.

Plan to see the show, and you'll see what I mean.

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