War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics, the current exhibit at the Museum of Folk Art is a must see! Especially if you like quilts, but even if you don’t. Drawn primarily from the unparalleled collection of internationally acclaimed quilt authority Dr. Annette Gero, all the quilts were made by men in uniform: soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors. This was not an accident of history, but rather the result of the English government’s attempt to boost the morale of its troops far away from home, whether in India, the Crimea or fighting the Napoleonic Wars. Being a soldier could involve a fair amount of tedium, especially when stationed in areas that were remote, or where going into town was not sanctioned or not an option. In order to keep the troops from relieving their boredom by drinking and gambling, the English government promoted quiltmaking as a masculine activity, both at home (to future soldiers) and to the conscripted.
Because the soldiers used milled wool and broadcloth made for British uniforms, the color palette is pretty much red, greens, blue/black, gold, beige and white, with the occasional purple – however, that seems to have been a spur to the complexity of many of the patterns. For me, the mix and arrangement of varying sizes of rectangles, stars, diamonds and squares into geometric patterns with concentric frames gives several of the quilts an op-art feel. While many of the textiles have no batting or are not backed, the exhibit uses the word “quilt” as “a term of convenience.” No matter what you call them, they are all stunning. They are also very big, anywhere from 5 feet to 9 feet high.
In the entryway to the exhibit, you’ll find Roger Fenton’s photos of the Crimean War (1854-56) projected on one wall. Because of the difficulty of taking and developing photographs in the mid-19th century, many of Fenton’s pictures are posed ones of key military leaders and enlisted men, or stills of their surroundings. Against another wall you’ll find the words to “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as well as a wax recording of Alfred Lord Tennyson reading his poem (it’s faint, but give it a listen).
Off to the left, the gallery features 6 quilts mostly made in India. Since soldiers were often stationed there for years at a time, the British government held quiltmaking workshops and sponsored competitions to keep them engaged. It’s not clear if all the quilts on display were made by soldiers, or were the work of professional tailors, as they weren’t signed or otherwise attributed to a particular person, which also makes it difficult to determine where they were made and whether it was during or after service abroad (some are thought to have been made by soldiers convalescing in military hospitals).
You’ll notice that many of the seams are covered in chain stitch or rick-rack, and there’s often beading or other embellishments. India has an ancient tradition of beadmaking, and quilts like this one were often made by a colonel’s orderly, who was more likely Indian than British.
This piece from the late 19th century is a bit of an outlier – it was found in Germantown, Pennsylvania, artist and origin unknown, but it is similar to ones made by Jewett Washington Curtis, the only American soldier known to have made quilts in the British style.
This quilt, with compass stars, pinwheels and game boards, bears the colors of the Coldstream Guards, one of the regiments that comprise the personal troops of Her Majesty the Queen, and that is still in service today.
The main gallery area features 12 quilts made using the intarsia technique (pieces are placed next to each other and whipstitched together, so the front is often identical to the back), which was widely used in Central Europe. As many of these quilts relate to the “Turkish Wars” of 1719 (Austria vs. Ottoman Empire) or the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800’s, you’ll find several of them have images of soldiers, or the double-headed eagle, or other references to the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire. The room is dominated by a very large (approx. 9ft x 9ft) quilt stretched out parallel to the floor which features architectural images of the HRE, such as the Maison Carrée of Nîmes and the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
The central panel in this Hungarian Soldier’s quilt, made in the early 1800’s, includes hussar officers, a staff officer and a Hungarian magnate, framed by ten starry cartouches, each with a soldier in uniform styles that were popular in the 1820’s-30’s, and an outer border of pinwheels.
The wall label conjectures that this quilt was made by an professional military tailor. The thistles in the central panel indicate that its maker may have been with one of the Scottish regiments that fought in the Crimean War.
The last gallery contains 9 textiles…
including this regimental “bed rug”, one of the rare pieces whose maker, Sgt. Malcolm Macleod, was identified. As noted several times on this quilt, he served with the 72nd Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, a highly-decorated Scottish regiment – you’ll find references on this coverlet to the many places they served. The photo at the top of this article is of another panel from this quilt.
You’ll also find a quilt made in India whose outer border is exceptionally intricate – the three-dimensional effect is created by multiple layers of crimped cloth which were probably bits of fabric that were punched out when buttonholes were created. This piece bears the regimental colors of the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot, stationed in India from 1846 to 1875.
The complexity of this quilt suggests it was made by a professional tailor, who assembled some 25,000 tiny diamonds, hexagons and squares, with embroidered seams. This photo is of the inner frame, whose corners are festooned with crowns, cannons and flags.
This late 19th century quilt is one of the most unusual in the show, and the only one to feature hexagons, the usual motifs being squares, stars and diamonds. Since its construction is very simple, this quilt might have been made by a soldier convalescing in a military hospital.
This quilt might also have been made by a convalescing soldier. While the top right and left squares are identical, each of the others are slightly different. Even though it dates from the mid to late 1800’s, this piece feels very op-art to me.
This is a very small sampling of the wonderful pieces in this show.
There’s also a detailed 240 page catalogue that accompanies this exhibit. The museum is offering lectures and workshops around this exhibit – you can find the full schedule here.
War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics was co-curated by Dr. Annette Gero, international quilt historian, author, and collector, and Stacy C. Hollander, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum, and organized by the American Folk Art Museum, New York, in collaboration with the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Lincoln–Nebraska.
The exhibit will be at the American Folk Art Museum until January 7, 2018. However, get there now, as I’m sure you’ll want to go back. More than once. I did.
Editor’s note: This post was edited on October 4th to correct the title of the exhibit; to include information on how the exhibit was organized and curated; and, in the photo credits, to add information on the ownership of the quilts.