As part of the Go West exhibition, The Blanton is featuring four quilts from UT’s Briscoe Center for American History. Stephanie Piefer Niemeyer, from the museum’s education department, discusses the enduring appeal of American quilts with Kate Adams, quilt curator at the Briscoe Center.
Visit the Go West resource room in The Blanton’s Michener Gallery Building to see the quilts. On April 12 at 12:30 p.m., Kate Adams will give a gallery talk at the museum as part of The Blanton’s Perspectives series.
Stephanie Niemeyer: Kate, thanks so much for speaking to me today about the amazing quilts that you get to work with everyday. Why did UT begin to collect quilts?
Kate Adams: The Briscoe Center for American History began to build its Winedale Quilt Collection in 1995 when it took on administrative responsibility for the Winedale Historical Complex. With Winedale came a wonderful, but small, collection of traditional American quilts dating back to about 1790. We recognized that American quilts and the documentary materials that support their study are important resources for the study of American history and culture. Accordingly, the Briscoe Center began to build on this core quilt collection as a resource for the study of American culture, women’s history, textiles, and related fields.
It is amazing to me that UT has quilts from the 1790s. As you mentioned, traditionally, quilt makers have been women; how long would it take for a woman or a group of women to make a quilt?
This varies a lot and depends on many factors, including the size and complexity of the planned quilt, whether it is to be hand or machine quilted, and, of course, the time the quilt maker has to devote to the project. Some quilt makers I know have worked on one quilt for more than 10 years—but they also make other quilts in the meantime, work outside the home, raise families, etc. An experienced quilt maker can create a simple crib quilt in a weekend. But intricately pieced or appliquéd quilts or quilts that are heavily quilted or embellished usually require more than a year of steady work.
Where did the materials come from? I have always thought that people used scraps from other sewing projects.
Early quilts—those made in Colonial days, were often made from wools imported from Britain—these fabrics were very expensive. As the textile industry developed in the United States, say by the 1840s, cotton fabrics were more readily available and less expensive, putting them within reach of women of modest means. Today quilt makers can buy fabrics specifically for use in quilts from quilt stores. But quilt makers also have always been very resourceful—they use scraps saved from earlier sewing projects, trade for fabrics, or recycle clothing or other fabrics for use in their quilts.
One of things I love about quilts is that the makers are so imaginative and so thoughtful about how materials are used and repurposed. For you, what would you say is the enduring legacy of quilts? Why do quilts capture our imagination?
Quilts delight us with their fabrics, colors, and patterns; their artistry inspires us and their histories and those of their makers illuminate our past. Quilts are wonderful expressions of craft, art, belief, memory, friendship, and aspiration. Quilts and their stories connect us to our past—they are tangible evidence of the American past. They are central to the American story.
Talking to you really brings the past to life, and I appreciate your passion for these beautiful objects more and more every time we talk. In your opinion, what do we learn by studying quilts?
As with all objects of material culture, quilts reflect some of the specifics of the time, place, and culture from which they came. For example, the fabrics and construction of a quilt can tell us about the development of the U.S. textile industry, the evolution of fabric dyes, and the introduction and widespread popularity of the sewing machine. We can learn about changing American fashion tastes and aesthetics by studying quilts. And of course, because many quilt makers imbued their quilts with expressions of belief, friendship, hope, and sorrow, quilts mark some of a family’s, a community’s, or our nation’s most important events—a signed friendship quilt that a family carried overland to the West; Whig’s Defeat, a quilt pattern that grew out of a political campaign; or quilts that expressed sorrow, condolence, and support after the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy.
Kate, many thanks for letting us borrow the quilts and for taking time to speak to me today. The inclusion of the quilts has enriched the Go West visitor experience. We really appreciate your sharing the quilts with us.
Thanks for asking me! I love quilts and working with them, so it is always my pleasure to get the chance to talk about them.