Sunday, January 28, 2018

War and Pieced at The American Folk Art Museum

Samuel Atwood, Army tailor
I thought I was just killing time when I wandered into The American Folk Art Museum before a performance of Ayad Aktar's "Junk" at Lincoln Center. But I had stumbled into a fascinating exhibit about quilts made by soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors entitled "War and Pieced."

Most of the quilts in the show come from the collection of quilt historian Annette Gero. These quilts, made during conflicts in Crimea, South Africa, India, Prussia, Austria and France, were intended to be hung on walls as art or used as table coverings rather than bedding. The wall card went on to explain, "The end use was less critical than the act of creation itself, either during a campaign or upon return to the safe harbor of home."

Many of the quilts were made from fabrics used in regular military and dress uniforms. Some were actually taken from the uniforms of fallen soldiers.

Soldier's Quilt , probably India 1850-1880
In the eyes of the curator (and, presumably, Ms. Gero), "The uniforms, associated with the best and the worst of humanity, are thus rehabilitated as an act of redemption for those darker human impulses. The uniforms are metamorphosed into testaments of ordered sanity and beauty, even as the highly organized geometry grants the solder an illusion of control over the predations of war in which he has both witnessed and participated."

The quilt shown here was likely made during the British occupation of India during the mid-19th century. There apparently was not much going on militarily, so the soldiers had to find ways to productively spend their time. In an effort to keep the soldiers occupied, the British government offered industrial exhibitions and professional workshops at which the soldiers could learn skills like needlework.

Detail from Soldier's quilt
The detail in the Indian quilts in particular is a bit mind-boggling. Once again, I'll quote from the wall card, "[Quilts made in India] are often constructed in the inlaid technique, whereby the pieces are joined with little or no seam allowance so they are virtually identical on the front and back...But what really sets quilts made in India apart are the masterful technique, embellishment and attention to detail. ...each seam is expertly covered with rickrack, braid or embroidery. Surface embellishments might include glass beads and spangles or...the tiny discs of fabric ejected as buttonholes were pierced into woolens during the tailoring process."  Due to the complexity of these quilts, it is thought that most are the work of professional regimental or Indian tailors.

Detail from a Crimean War Signature Quilt 

I was touched by the example of a Crimean War Signature Quilt. You can see how much simpler this quilt is than its Indian counterpart. But the thought of a soldier--far from home and risking his life for his country-- taking up a needle and some fabric to make a quilt for his sister just kind of gets to me.

The idea of passing time by making quilts didn't only come from the British government. The popular press during the era romanticized the practice of military quiltmaking with the sentimental image of the drummer boy.Temperance periodicals also played a role, as they promoted the idea of quiltmaking as a masculine activity in hopes of providing soldiers (and other men) with an alternative to the evils of drink.

Intarsia Quilt with Soldiers and Musicians, 
Prussia, 1760-1780
Just when I thought the exhibit couldn't get more impressive, I walked up a few steps to an additional display area. The centerpiece of the room was a table displaying this 55' x 43' Intarsia quilt. (Intarsia is a specific type of inlaying often associated with woodworking.)

I learned that Intarsia quilts often rely on copy prints as sources for their design. (Another quilt depicted the members of the House of Commons from 1860 and was displayed next to a photograph from which the quiltmaker worked. It was a truly amazing replica of the lawmakers.)  It is believed this quilt was a tribute to King Frederick William III of Prussia with its centerpiece crest of the Prussian coat of arms.

Detail from King George III Intarsia Quilt
And speaking of coats of arms, I'll leave you with a detail from a King George III Intarsia quilt that makes me laugh. The image shown here is the centerpiece of the quilt. It depicts Queen Charlotte and King George standing above the royal coat of arms, which includes a guardian lion wearing St. Edward's crown and a Scottish unicorn. First of all, what's the deal with this lion, who more closely resembles the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz than the ferocious king of the jungle? Second, why is the unicorn Scottish? According to Wikipedia's description of the coat of arms, the unicorn is considered a dangerous beast when allowed to run free and is thus typically depicted as chained. The characterization of the unicorn as Scottish, then, calls to mind the country's failed vote for independence. This royal coat of arms continue to be used today.

To learn more about this exhibit and see more (and better) images of these amazing quilts, click here to read a great article from a site called "Hypoallergic."

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