Unfolding | Mingei International Museum

"In learning about quilts and their history, we get a glimpse into the lives of makers and the stories that they share."

I am the Quilt Research Fellow Olivia Joseph — recently hired to get a better understanding of Mingei’s quilt collection — and to look deeper into the stories and histories which exist in these textiles. This focus resonates with my interest in how socio-cultural and political systems are reflected in the objects people create!

A vast majority of the American quilts in the Museum’s collection were donated by quilt historian and collector Pat L. Nikols. I’ve had the opportunity to learn about them directly from Pat and Leah Zieber — a quilt historian who has worked closely with Pat. Through our conversations it became clear that there is a lot to unpack when it comes to quilts, so let’s start with the basics — what are these multi-layered textiles?

Olivia with Log Cabin Quilt — Sunshine and Shadows Variation, 201235134, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project.
Detail of Log Cabin Quilt — Sunshine and Shadows Variation, 201235134, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project.

Commonly defined as a “warm bed covering,” quilts are textiles comprised of three layers. A decorative top, stitched together with various fabrics to create complex patterns. The middle insulating layer of batting, at times consisting of materials like wool or cotton. And a backing layer made both in a plain or decorative manner.

However, quilts are much more than a tool for warmth. They can reveal trends of the time, express political ideas, indicate class, and serve as a tool for learning. Historically, quilts were predominantly made by homemakers and serve as a documentation of history which highlights the women’s perspective. Textiles used for quilting can give insight into both the technological advancements and socio-cultural practices of the time. Take for instance the mourning print, a type of print reflective of the public grieving practices of the 19th century.

In the quilts below, most of the mourning prints in the collection are comprised of grays, blacks, and whites. Light greys were worn in later mourning phases to signify that the end of the grieving period was near, while black colors signified the early phases. The mourning length an individual was expected to participate in was determined by their relation to the deceased (Lancaster History). While exploring the collection these are the types of insight I keep in mind, and I invite you to do the same.

Charm Quilt Top — Tumbler Rows of Colors, 201235049, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Charm Quilt Top — Tumbler Rows of Colors, 201235049, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Charm Quilt Top — Triangles, 201235036, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Charm Quilt Top — Triangles, 201235036, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Charm Quilt Top — Stripy Samples, 201235031, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Charm Quilt Top — Stripy Samples, 201235031, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Charm Quilt — Right Triangle, 201235066, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Charm Quilt — Right Triangle, 201235066, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert

For this short essay, I will explore four of eight quilting categories at Mingei: the Child/Doll, Charm, Early, and Feed Sack quilts. Child/Doll quilts are made in the same manner as ‘full-sized’ quilts but scaled down. In the collection, these quilts feature nursery rhyme motifs and were likely made by children – evident through the craftsmanship and/or signatures.

These quilts give us a glance into childhood and the general expectations put on children. Take for instance Amanda Grace Ellison's quilt. At the young age of 9, she produced a quilt that calls attention to her advanced skill and careful planning.

Her quilt, dated 1858, highlights quilting as a woman’s and young girl’s pastime; in addition to reflecting the ideas of womanhood during the Victorian era.

Child’s Quilt — Embroidery Nursery Rhyme, 201235006, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Child’s Doll Quilt — Two Sided, 201235017, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Amanda Grace Ellison Quilt, 201235174, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert

Charm quilts became popular around the late 1800s. Like all quilts, dating is determined by the most recent fabric found in the textile. This category is most known for the use of non-repeating fabrics; which can be helpful in research when observing fabrics spanning multiple time periods. Examples of fabrics in these quilts include the mourning ones seen above and the neon prints below.

Featuring various patriotic centennial fabrics — the 100-year anniversary of the nation — the Tumbler Centennial charm quilt is an excellent example.

While one quilt showcases a print with the liberty bell and cap, another features a bald eagle and patriotic shield. Can these prints give insight into women’s political participation? Personally, these centennial quilts and prints are a subject that I would like to explore further!

Charm Quilt — Tumbler Centennial, 201235049, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Charm Quilt — Tumbler Centennial, 201235049, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Charm Quilt — Tumbler Centennial, 201235049, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Charm Quilt Top — Tiles, 201235042, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Charm Quilt Top — Window Panes, 201235043, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert

The Early quilt predates the mid-1800s and can be distinguished by its use of early fabrics. The lack of early textile technologies in the new colonies meant that many of these quilts were hand-sewn and utilized imported fabrics from England. Fabrics in these quilts included chintz, a cotton textile originating from India; printed calicos, a less processed cotton fabric; wool, and even various furnishing and clothing scraps.

Square Dance is an early quilt that utilizes a variety of white and tan clothing and furnishing scraps along with blue, red, and green floral chintz fabric. This quilt gives insight into the resourcefulness of quiltmakers at a time when the American textile industry was still developing and evolving.

Early Quilt Top — Square Dance, 201235094, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Early Quilt Top — Square Dance, 201235094, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert.

Feed Sack quilts are made with cotton feed sack fabrics. Visual indicators of this fabric include sewing holes — from how the feed sack was sewn together — and printed text that indicates what commercial goods it carried. Surfacing around the time of the Great Depression, these quilts reflect the frugality of the time. The two quilts above are excellent examples of these types of quilts.

Manufacturers in this era sold their goods in bright and ornate printed feed sacks, aiming to draw the interest of the homemaker. During the 1940s, purchasing fabric yards sold in stores was not cost-effective for many people, and rather than abandon quilt-making, makers adapted in resourceful ways using the ‘free’ fabric that came with everyday goods and necessities.

Detail of Feed Sack Quilt Top — Streaks of Lightning, 201235112, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert
Detail of Feed Sack Quilt Top — Trip Around the World, 201235115, Gift of Pat L. Nickols; Digitization made possible through the Quilter’s Guild of Dallas, Quilt Accessibility Project: Photo by Tim Siegert

In learning about quilts and their history, we get a glimpse into the lives of makers and the stories that they share. At Mingei, a majority of the quilts in the collection are Euro-American, so while we are given plenty of information of the white women quiltmakers, there are also other perspectives which have been omitted and should be considered. BIPOC narratives have long been underrecognized, and like many others, I find it necessary to consider the various histories, traditions, and developments which have emerged alongside the eurocentric mainstream practices. Communities of color have long used quilts to share symbolism and meaning unique to their experiences and heritage. It is through my work that I would like to shed light on stories like this, stories of the underrepresented.

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