On Quilts and Stitching Memory
The art of quilting is in many ways the art of stitching memory. Quilts tell us the stories of families’ lives, both through their use and through their designs. The quilts in the Neill-Cochran House Museum
collection speak to us of creativity, practicality, and the beauty to be found in the everyday lives of the
artists who produced them. In some cases, we know a good deal about the quilter, and in others the quilter remains an enigma – anonymous. In this inaugural exhibit we have placed on display five quilts, which represent different processes (patchwork, applique, and crazy quilting) as well as a variety of
traditional design motifs. Though very different from one another in appearance and process, all of the quilts on display share great artistic design and detail in the stitching and material choices.
The term “quilt” stems from the Latin culcita, meaning “stuffed sack,” a description of the process of
sewing two or more layers of fabric together to produce a thicker, padded material. Most quilts have three layers: a quilt top, batting or insulating material, and a back. Ancient Egyptians produced the
earliest-surviving quilts, though the process is thought to stretch into pre-history. During the 11th century, quilting came to Europe from the Middle East. Europeans used quilts not just for bedding, but in clothing as well; knights wore quilted garments under their armor for additional protection and padding.
The art of quilting came with immigrants to the American Colonies. For early American Colonial women, quilting was a practical means of producing bedding with remnant fabric either left over from another project or salvaged once it no longer served its original purpose. Remnant fabric even found its way into batting. Over time, quilts became increasingly elaborate in design, and many were virtuoso displays of both creativity and technique in needlework.
For generations of American women, producing quilt tops was a vital part of building their trousseaus; they finished the quilts after they married and as their families grew. And quilts were active participants in the story of American migration. When Abraham Lincoln enacted the Homestead Act of 1862, and Americans began preparations, travel guides encouraged families to carry enough fabric to produce 2-3 blankets or quilts per traveler for the passage across the continent.
As time passed, and the Industrial Revolution brought store-bought products within reach of a larger number of Americans, for wealthier women the tradition of quilting became more a labor of love than of necessity, while it remained a household necessity of others. Quilts became educational resources in classrooms, depicting alphabets, solar systems, and constellations. Families also produced quilts to
commemorate significant events such as births and weddings. The crazy quilt, which is not a true quilt as it contains no batting, dates to this time period when many quilters approached quilting as fabric
The Neill-Cochran House Museum quilts date from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s, a time that saw virtuoso skill and craftsmanship as well as a rapidly changing material world. All of the quilts feature machine-produced fabrics, arranged with great care. Whether elaborately stitched into a crazy quilt or precisely cut and pieced for an appliqué or patchwork quilt, these objects are a testament to the lives and art of the women who produced them.
This exhibit is free with any museum admission and on Sunday, March 6th for Sunday Funday.
Join us for a special, behind-the-cordons reception Tuesday, March 8th to benefit our fundraiser with Amplify Austin.