Many of you may be aware that the Quilters’ Guild Collection’s historic 1718 patchwork coverlet is currently being exhibited at the American Museum in Britain, Bath. Read on to hear Kate Hebert, Chief Curator, tell you about the Museum, its founders and the quilts in their collection.
We are delighted to be displaying the 1718 patchwork coverlet from The Quilters’ Guild Collection at the American Museum alongside our world-renowned collection of American quilts. Many of the quilts within our own collection were made by British emigrants to America and the people who made them employed the same techniques as those used in the 1718 coverlet. The coverlet is on display in our Folk Art Gallery and is surrounded by weathervanes, shop signs, and folk art paintings. The motifs of animals, people, and geometric shapes resonate with those that can be found on the textile.
The American Museum opened its doors to the public in 1961. The Museum founders – Dallas Pratt and John Judkyn – wanted to create a museum that showcased American decorative arts through the display of domestic interiors. To this end, they sought and acquired American rooms (floorboards, panelling, windows, and doorways), furniture, and furnishings. The inclusion of textiles, and especially quilts, was of paramount importance to them. They wanted the rooms to look lived-in and understood that this could only be achieved if they displayed a variety of different objects within them.
As well as furnishing period room displays with a variety of textiles – including quilts on beds – the founders wanted to showcase different collections around the Museum. They understood the value and appeal of quilts and to this end created the Textile Room, which enables us to display and enjoy a selection of quilts, coverlets, and rugs all within one room.
The objects on display in the Textile Room are changed annually in order to limit the amount of light they are exposed to and to offer a new selection to returning visitors. With such a wealth of treasures to choose from, it is often difficult to decide which pieces to show. There are over 250 quilts in the collection, which includes early wholecloth quilts, appliquéd designs (including the stunning Baltimore Album Quilt), pieced designs (like the iconic American Log Cabin Quilts), Amish quilts and quilts made by enslaved African Americans on the plantations of the South.
We display examples from as wide a time period as possible and that demonstrate a variety of techniques. As a quilter myself, I know how frustrating it can be when you visualise a design and for one reason or another it doesn’t quite turn out in the making. For this reason, I delight in displaying some of the less than perfect quilts in our collection – particularly if they have an uneven edge. When faced with museum examples of perfection it is often easy to believe that all historic quilters were masters of the needle. It is worth reminding ourselves that as well as being things of beauty, these items served a practical purpose and were made by people of differing skill.
The earliest dated quilt in the American Museum’s collection is Miss Porter’s Quilt, which has a central block with a cross-stitch inscription, ‘R___ Porter, her bed quilt, made in the year 1777’. The top is composed of pieced blocks (4½ in wide) with small eight-pointed stars that alternate with plain white or patterned brown squares. The blocks are surrounded by an inner border (9½ in wide), which contains appliquéd swags and vases of flowers in blue and brown fabric. The appliqué border is surrounded by a pieced border (10½ in wide) of white squares, set on point, between brown triangles. This border is quilted with scallops in the triangles and diamond filler in the squares. The rest of the quilt has minimal quilting.
As well as displaying her skills as a quilter, Miss Porter also demonstrates her embroidery skills on her bed quilt. Fine birds and a teapot are illustrated in stitches. The quilt has an appliqué border – common in early pieced tops – but some of its other features are anything but conventional. The small areas of white visible on the baskets decorating the border have been made using reverse appliqué, whereby areas of the basket’s blue patterned cloth have been cut away to reveal the plain fabric beneath.
In addition to early examples of patchwork, we have a few contemporary pieces. The Museum has a long history with renowned textile artist Kaffe Fassett. As a young designer he struck up a friendship with Dallas Pratt. As well as producing line drawings of the period rooms for an early guide book, he has exhibited his work at the Museum on a number of occasions, including the breath-taking retrospective exhibition of his work here in 2014. This close relationship continues and we are delighted to be working on another exhibition with him for 2019, which will celebrate this affiliation with a display of new work inspired by quilts in the collection here.
The American Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-5pm (closed Mondays except during August and Bank Holidays). The quilts are on display during our main season (mid-March until end of October) and during our Christmas season (end November until mid-December). More information about admission to the Museum and its quilt collection can be found on the website, here.
By Kate Hebert, Chief Curator at the American Museum in Britain, Bath.
For more details of items in The Quilters’ Guild Collection and where to see them, please visit the Collection blog here.