Monday, 16 November 2015

Inspiration: Eye on Elegance at the DAR Museum

Eye on Elegance Exhibition
Eye on Elegance was an exhibition of antique quilts at the DAR Museum in Washington DC, USA, this summer.  I wish I had been lucky enough to visit as was my friend, Louise Carr.  However, I got second best as she kindly gave me a copy of the catalogue.  As well as the catalogue and physical show, the DAR Museum has also mounted a big and informative online exhibition of these quilts, which is well worth a look.  You can access it here - .
Pieced and Stuffed Medallion Quilt about 1810 and 1820s
For anyone interested in historical quilts, it is a must.  For others though, there is lots of interesting titbits to be gleaned.  As well as the quilts, which are organised by type (Appliqué, Pieced, Album, Migration and Wholecloth), there is historical information about the makers and the designs and fabrics used.  A few facts that caught my attention:
·         The quality of the stitching is stunning.  Some of these quilts have up to 12-13 stitches per inch.  Reading this made me flick through the catalogue to look at the different standards – even the ‘worst’ has 6-7 stitches per inch. I think I would struggle to draw 12-13 stitches per inch, let alone stitch them!
Reverse Applique Flower Basket Quilt 1849
·         These are not ‘make-do-and-mend’ quilts.  Some of the fabric cost more per metre than a farm hand would earn in a week.  I would be terrified to use such expensive fabric now in case I got it wrong.  Unsurprisingly, many quilters followed patterns and sometimes it seems you could buy a kit ready basted ready for you to stitch down the appliqué and then quilt.  This would still be very time consuming.
·         The curator makes the point that even when there is one named quilter (and there is much information on their individual lives, which is fascinating), often any woman who could stitch to a high standard living in that household would be commandeered into helping – including servants and slaves.  I admit knowing this changed how I looked at some of the quilts.  We have this lovely cosy view of a sole maker inviting her friends to a quilting bee to finish off her masterpiece, but how much does this actually reflect reality?  Did these woman see stitching as a break from their normal routines, or resent being made to do it?

Although these quilts are over 150 years old, it is surprising how relevant they are to today.  
Tree of Life and Birds quilt 1810s
For example, I was teaching Broderie Perse to my City & Guilds Certificate Group yesterday – it is part of the syllabus.  No, none of them were using pieces of chintz that cost over £200 a metre, but it is the same process.  And the other month with the Diploma Group, we were looking at borders and their proportions, just like the medallion quilts in this exhibition, which were very popular at that time.  
Mathematical Star Quilt 1830s
And I love the star design, and was already thinking of making one using paper piecing, even before I saw this book.  Actually, I’m trying to dissuade myself due to lack of time and to concentrate on my 4-years-and-counting hexagon paper pieced quilt, which is still going to need another 3 years!

If you have the opportunity, I would thoroughly recommend reading the book - the photos are stunning and there are lots of detailed shots -  and having a flick through the online exhibition.  And fingers crossed that one day I can get to see some of these quilts in person.

All images used with kind permission from the DAR Museum.

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