Introduction to the Art of Quilts

Bisa Butler, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, 2019.

Introduction to the Art of Quilts

Have you ever wondered about that old family quilt? The one draped over the arm of your grandfather’s chair or found in a trunk in the attic? Maybe you’ve thought about how old it is, who made it, or “why do we still have it after all these years?”.

Quilts not only are family heirlooms, but memories and pieces of our history, examples of fine craftsmanship, and a look at the artistic aesthetic of when they were made. While perhaps faded from being left in the sunlight or exposed to the elements, and joyfully used for practical purposes, quilts are in fact, just as important as any other form of art.

I hope that this post will serve as an introduction to the beauty of, the story behind, as well as the creativity and skill that goes in to, quilting art and to have you think perhaps about the quilts you’ve come across in your own life and what they might represent.

You might say, “well I don’t like how quilts look, so I don’t want them as art”. I think is a common misconception that stems from the thoughts of the quilts we’ve found in our families, and the “traditional patchwork” aesthetic so commonly associated with them.

In return, I’d like to say that just like with any form of art, I’m sure there is a quilt that would suit your fancy. Story quilts, abstract, multimedia layered crazy quilts, the genres continue. Personally? The abstract ones are what I enjoy best, where you can’t quite see the stitches at first, and where the use of color seems to make the piecework disappear until you step. Right. Up. To. It..

I grew up around quilts. Going to the annual show at Sully Plantation in Chantilly, VA, searching endlessly at local shops for the perfect pink flowered fabric when I was five for a Thousand Triangles quilt (which ended up being tied patchwork rather than quilted because I requested so much batting), and watching my mother stitch quilts and clothing. I’ve been lucky enough to see them as an element of history, a craft made by family, and as a work of art on display – an appreciation that led me to study textiles for my master’s program.

Some of my mother's quilts

Close up of traditional Log Cabin using reproduction civil war fabrics, made by my mother for my grandfather, a historian.

Close up of Thousand Triangles quilt, made by my mother for me, fabrics chosen by the both of us over a dozens of trips to shows, shops, and scrap bins.

Close up of Moose quilt, made by my mother for my father, to commemorate his love of the outdoors and family trips to Steamboat Springs, CO.

It’s all those moments that give me a sentimental outlook on them, just as you might for the quilt lovingly draped over your grandfather’s chair. And no matter how sentimental walking into a quilt shop might make me feel, I know that they’re more than memories. Hundreds of hours easily going into one piece – hand-sewn or by a machine – with skill developed through countless practice. I don’t have the patience to create wondrous works, but knowing I don’t, helps me appreciate all the hard work, skill, and time that goes into them even more.

I want to introduce you to quilts and textiles and what they mean in the grand scheme of things. Ones you’ve seen in your personal life, the influence they have on modern fashion (embroidery, patches on jeans, quilted jackets), the global textile trade throughout history, and what the future might look like for them in the world of art.

Throughout the next few months, leading up to our Summer 2022 exhibit, HARMONY, we will explore museum exhibitions, feature interviews with local textile artists, and highlight some of the artists we love that have made an impact in art history! We’d love to share these stories with you, sign-up for our blog or email list, and get the next post directly in your inbox. Or just come back and visit our website again. So happy to make this journey with you!

Do you have any memories or attachments to textiles? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Jennifer Sweetapple is the gallery manager at the Alexandria Broadway Gallery location. She holds a Masters in Dress and Textile Histories from the University of Glasgow where she researched the evolution of movie costumes, and the rise of department stores and mail-order catalogs during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. When she’s not at the gallery, you can find her volunteering as a Social Media Assistant for the Association of Dress Historians.

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