A Quilt Exhibit Pieces Together a Story About American History

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Shirley Griffith. This week on our program, we visit a quilting exhibit at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Quilts are colorful bed coverings made by sewing together pieces of cloth into different designs. These finely crafted works of art celebrate the creativity and skill of generations of women.


The Renwick exhibit is called "Going West! Quilts and Community." It includes fifty quilts made from around the eighteen thirties to the nineteen thirties in the area of what is today the Midwestern state of Nebraska.

Robyn Kennedy is the chief of the Renwick Gallery. She says the guest curator of the exhibit, Sandi Fox, wanted to look at the quilts that settlers in a certain area of the United States brought with them, then later made. Sandi Fox looked at more than two thousand quilts before she chose the ones to show.

Starting in the eighteen forties, three major paths leading to the western territories of the United States ran alongside each other. The Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail and California Trail came together along the Great Platte River. This area by eighteen fifty-four was called the Nebraska Territory.

Settlers in their wagons pulled by horses followed these trails to find land and create a new life for themselves. Some settlers continued on to areas further west. But others decided to settle in Nebraska. The Renwick exhibit explores quilts made by settlers and later generations of quilters in this part of America known for its severe winters.

A few of the quilts in the "Going West!" exhibit were treasures that families brought with them from Europe as reminders of the life they left behind. For example, one family from Sweden who settled in Nebraska in the eighteen sixties brought with them a whole cloth quilt made from red silk.

The quilt is remarkable for its richly detailed stitching. Looking at this quilt, you can imagine how the family enjoyed its warmth and beauty while building a new life in America.

Robyn Kennedy explains how some quilts in the exhibit tell a story about the groups of people who settled in Nebraska.

ROBYN KENNEDY: "Well, it really gives you an idea of the sense of community that these people had. Many of these were done as fund raisers for a variety of different projects. And sometimes they were auctioned several times. People would pay twenty-five cents to have their name on it, but then once the completed quilt was done, then that would be auctioned off."

For example, one red and white piece called the "Omaha Commerce Quilt" was made in eighteen ninety-five by a women's aid group at a Lutheran church. Local businesses bought advertising space on the quilt. Different women in the church group stitched each cloth advertisement.

The quilt was probably set out to create publicity for the businesses that gave money to the women's cause. It might also have been sold to raise more money.

Robyn Kennedy points to a quilt that shows a community coming together for another reason.

ROBYN KENNEDY: "This is an anniversary quilt for this couple, for their fiftieth anniversary, nineteen-oh-seven. But they first got married in eighteen fifty-seven. So this is their community celebrating."

This shiny blue quilt with yellow stitching also represents a change in the technology of quilt making. One area of the quilt was clearly sewn by hand by different friends and family members of the married couple being honored.

But the words sewn into the center of the cloth proudly announce that they were stitched with a sewing machine made by the New Home company.


Other quilts tell a story about an individual's life. Edith Withers Myers made a quilt called "You Are the Darling of the Earth" in about eighteen ninety-eight. This crazy quilt is like a written journal of this young woman's social life.

Crazy quilts are a popular form of quilt design. There is no set pattern. A quilter can use her imagination to piece together cloth in whatever form or shape she wishes.

Edith Meyers stitched onto her quilt words describing parties and dances she attended. She stitched in the names of her friends as well as popular slang words at the time, including "toots" and "buzz."

For a quilt made in about nineteen ten, a woman named Azuba Read recreated the objects found in a hat maker's store. She was a professional hat maker herself. She covered her spirited crazy quilt with flowers and feathers like the ones she might have placed on the hats she made for women.

By definition, a quilt is made from two layers of fabric with a soft material such as wool or cotton batting in between. The two sides of fabric are sewn together to keep the filling from moving around inside the quilt.

The stitches can be made in such a way as to form detailed patterns or designs on the quilt. A quilt made from a solid piece of fabric on top is called a whole cloth quilt.

Patchwork quilts are made from many pieces of different colored fabrics that have been sewn together, or "pieced," in a design. Often the small pieces of fabric that make up the quilt come from old pieces of clothing.

A quilter can also sew different pieces of fabric onto the top of the quilt to form designs. This method is called appliqué.

Quilting in general is not American. Through history, cultures around the world have created quilted coverings and clothing. But quilting in the United States developed qualities that are now very much American, such as patchwork.

Quilts were more than warm protection against cold winters. Quilt making provided women with an important form of creative expression and invention. Quilting is also a social activity. Quilters come together at quilting bees to work on coverings together and to enjoy socializing.

There are many traditional American designs that appear on quilts. These include the double wedding ring, bear's paw and honeycomb patterns.

Some patterns like the wagon wheel, log cabin and lone star represent the experiences of settlers on the American frontier.

Quilt exhibits are very popular in the United States. The Smithsonian has had several quilt exhibits over the years. People enjoy the expressive colors and inventiveness of the art. And quilt exhibits are especially popular among the large and active quilting communities around the country.

Every Tuesday and Friday, for the exhibit, several members of the Annapolis Quilting Guild set up their materials in the Renwick Gallery. The quilters are there to answer the questions of museum visitors and to show them how quilts are made.


One quilt in the exhibit tells a story about a life other than that of the person who made it. In fact, historians do not know who made "The Civil War Quilt." In eighteen sixty-one, a young soldier in the American Civil War was ordered to visit nearby farms and ask for warm blankets for the troops.

One family gave Joseph Miller this extraordinarily detailed appliqué quilt covered in red flowers and leaves. He kept the quilt throughout the war. It became black with dirt, but somehow remained in one piece. After the war, he cleaned the quilt and kept it with him for the rest of his life.

Looking at the beautiful condition of the quilts at the Renwick Gallery, you might find it hard to believe many are well over a hundred years old.

Robyn Kennedy explains that to help preserve the quilts, the Renwick shows them in rooms that have low lighting. The quilts are hung from the walls in such a way as to permit air to move behind them. Also, museum workers always wear white gloves when touching the quilts. The oils or dirt on a person's hands could harm the cloth.

Ms. Kennedy says the museum sometimes has a problem with visitors who want to touch the quilts to look at how they were made. So the Smithsonian offers public "white glove" events where visitors can look up close at the methods used for each quilt.

When the quilts travel, they are gently folded, wrapped in acid-free paper and placed in acid-free boxes.


Some quilts in the show are made from more unusual materials. For example, one is made out of the cloth from men's suits. Another quilt, from nineteen thirty-five, is made from men's neckties. "The Holen Boys Ties Quilt" is made from almost one hundred silk ties.

They form a striking pattern and radiate outwards like the rays of the sun. Robyn Kennedy says that ninety-three relatives of the Holen family plan to visit their ancestral quilt at the Renwick.

The Holen quilt helps show that generations later, the personal stories and experiences captured by these skillful works of art are still powerful. The quilts remain as expressive and lovely today as they were when they first were stitched.

Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Shirley Griffith.

And I'm Steve Ember. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at voaspecialenglish.com. We also have pictures of some of the quilts in the exhibit. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.