In the age before Pinterest, some of the original DIYers were 19th-century soldiers who repurposed fabric from old military uniforms to create some unique, dynamic quilts. New York’s very own American Folk Art Museum, just a short hop on the One train from Columbia itself, currently hosts an exhibit displaying some of these recovered quilts. Bwoggers Levi Cohen and Abby Rubel took a peek at this dynamic artwork:
The American Folk Art Museum, located just across from the 66th Street One station, is currently hosting War and Pieced, an exhibit of quilts assembled by quilt historian Annette Gero and museum curator Stacy C. Hollander. The quilts on view were sewn primarily by 19th-century soldiers and were made from the fabric of repurposed military uniforms. Some of these quilts are being shown in the U.S. for the first time.
The quilts were grouped both by technique and by where they were made (most of them being the products of British soldiers stationed in colonies). Some were designed for decoration, while others served more practical purposes: a pattern of squares in the center of one was a portable chessboard, for example.
The exhibit explores a number of themes brought out by the unique situation of the artists. These anonymous soldiers took up quilting either out of boredom or as a method of occupational therapy while recovering from injury. Personal touches abound in the quilts–artists used the colors of their regiments, embroidered on symbols of their nationalities, and one featured the initials of the artist’s wife stitched across from his own. These moments of humanity tell us something about the identity of one soldier out of thousands; they personalize the experience of war.
It was also interesting to see how the artists made quilting, typically treated as “women’s work,” into an acceptable art form for men to practice. The exhibit describes quilting competitions, and even exhibits a medal awarded to one winner. Some officers thought quilting could be a good way to teach men how to patch up their uniforms. The exhibit’s focus on the repurposing of quilting for war is an unusual, alternative look at a traditional artform.
Generally, we enjoyed the exhibit. It was fascinating to imagine a soldier sitting in a hospital bed as he sewed one of the beautiful quilts displayed. While the difference between the quilts made by professional regimental tailors and those made by convalescing soldiers was obvious, it was equally obvious that each quilt was the result of massive amounts of time and effort. Thankfully, the museum did not cover most of the quilts with glass, which allowed us to scrutinize each little stitch and appreciate that effort.
However, the exhibit could have done a better job explaining the techniques used to create the quilts. For example, the notes on many quilts referenced a technique called “intarsia,” but failed to adequately describe how the technique was different from applique. The exhibit was also rather small, though this is less a fault of the museum than it is a result of there being so few surviving quilts of this kind. Lastly, we felt slightly out of place–we lowered the average age of the visitors by at least 10 years, though this may have been because we were there in the afternoon of a school day.
Given that admission to the exhibit is free and transportation is easy, we would encourage people to check it out. If you’re the kind of person that needs a cool store as an incentive to go anywhere, the gift shop has some offbeat stuff, like intricate temporary tattoos and calendars with pictures of “vintage owls.” Our personal favorite was a wall hanging that said “Mother’s busy. Take a number.”
If you’re stressed about upcoming midterms and want to imagine being wrapped in the warm embrace of a handmade quilt, there are two reasons why this exhibit might not be for you. Firstly, you can’t actually touch the quilts, making opportunities for actual snuggling scarce. Second: one of the uniforms used in those quilts definitely belonged to a dead guy.
Photos via Bwoggers