Review by Andrea Valluzzo,
Photos by Gavin Ashworth, Courtesy of Skira Rizzoli
Red & White Quilts: Infinite Variety by Elizabeth V. Warren with Maggi Gordon; Skira Rizzoli, www.rizzoliusa.com; 2015, hardcover, 352 pages, $60.
The simplicity of a two-color quilt is far from understated when it comes to Joanna S. Rose’s collection of red and white quilts, mostly from the Nineteenth Century. Bold and graphically striking, these labors of love — wrought by women in quilting circles or stitched alone, perhaps by candlelight in the wee hours, long after a full day of work ended — are prized today by textile historians and folk art collectors alike for their craftsmanship and simple elegance. Rose herself says she did not set out to be a collector, and at one time did not know how many red and whites she had amassed over five decades.
The subject of a stunning exhibition at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory in March 2011, in honor of Rose’s 80th birthday as a gift from her husband to her and, in turn, her gift to New York City, the 653 quilts in Rose’s collection were mounted as an exhibition under the aegis of the American Folk Art Museum that ran for six days, free to visitors per Joanna’s insistence. It drew some 25,000 people, many of whom flew in from around the world just to see the quilts, and was critically and publicly acclaimed.
Response to the award-winning exhibition, known for its innovative design that calls to mind spiraling DNA helix strands or the playing card soldiers in Alice in Wonderland, was favorable and three years later is still generating interest in quilt scholarship and collecting. This just-published book details each of the quilts shown in the exhibition, and museum curators have gone into great detail researching and providing more information about this genre and each quilt. As a point of fact, Alice in Wonderland was an inspiration, and in meetings with the design firms the exhibition job was pitched to, museum curators cited John Tenniel’s engraving of Alice fending off a pack of red and white playing cards thrown in the air, and frozen mid-air in the moment, that was published as a book illustration.
Insightful essays have been contributed to the book by exhibition curator Elizabeth Warren, Joanna Rose, museum director Anne-Imelda Radice and senior curator Stacy C. Hollander, as well as Tom Hennes of Thinc Design, which designed the exhibition.
In her foreword to the book, Martha Stewart notes she met Joanna more than 20 years ago when they lived across the street from each other in Long Island. Stewart recalls her awe at seeing the quilts installed at the Park Avenue Armory when she arrived to film a segment for her TV show. “We marveled at the genius of the idea, and the genius and expertness of the women who labored weeks and months to sew each and every one of the 653 American quilts over a period of 300 years. And we were astonished that although some of the quilts were based on similar themes, not one quilt was really anything like any other quilt. Each was differentiated by fabric, stitchery, number of pieces, color, design and size. Each was beautiful in its own personal way, a reflection of the woman, or women, who labored with needle and thread and scissors and cloth to create original and beautiful and meaningful everyday covers for someone’s bed.”
The subtitle of the book, Infinite Variety, is absolutely appropriate here as each quilt is unique. Even among the same patterns, there are minute or great variations. The book is lavishly illustrated and the reader will find this a feast for the eyes, comparing one quilt to another as well as enjoying each for its own beauty and its workmanship.
Chapters are devoted to the following types of quilts: wholetop, log cabin, pictorial, traditional patchwork (squares, strips, rectangles, stars and triangles), decorative appliqué, redwork, and crib and other small examples. Most of the examples featured are geometric pieced patterns incorporating unusual combinations of rectangles, diamonds, triangles and circles. Though there were printed patterns and kits which helped standardize patterns, the personal expression of the quilter ensured that no two quilts were ever alike, even if on first glance they appeared to be.
Among the most unusual are the sampler quilts, which often combined patterns, and sometimes both piecework and appliqué techniques. Lovingly worked, these were often gifted to friends, family members or to celebrate a birth or a wedding. Especially treasured today are those that include text, from The Lord’s Prayer to names of loved ones, and messages, stitched or pieced so carefully into the quilt.
While the exhibition was a riotous sensory experience, the book allows one to study at length the quilts in a more intimate fashion and is an excellent addition to one’s reference library. Readers will learn much about how these quilts came to be as well as the different patterns available.
In her essay, “A History of Red & White Quilts,” Warren notes that red and white has been a traditional color pairing in American quilts since the early Nineteenth Century. “The popularity of this deceptively simple color combination can be traced beyond its intrinsic aesthetic appeal to a basic scientific reality: the extraordinary colorfastness of Turkey red dye. In a time when most colored fabrics tended to fade or run when exposed to sunlight or washing, cloth dyed Turkey red was remarkable for its reliability.”
The book is likely not the last chapter in the story of Rose’s quilt collection. People who saw the exhibition continue to write letters to the museum with stories about the quilts, including the granddaughter of then 8-month-old Frank Allison Smith (b 1881) who was named on one of the quilts. There have also been many inquiries for “Infinite Variety” to become a traveling exhibition.
And just how did an exhibition and a book arise out of a birthday? In her essay, Rose says, “When my husband asked what I would like for my eightieth birthday, I said, ‘Something I’ve not seen before and something that would be a gift for New York City.’ Seeing all of these quilts at the same moment would be the ideal gift.”
And it is a gift that has kept on giving…