Published: October 10, 2017
NEW YORK CITY – “War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics” is the first exhibition in the United States to highlight quilts made by men during times of war, using wool from military uniforms. The exhibition is on view at the American Folk Art Museum through January 7.
Twenty-nine quilts – many never before on view – are drawn primarily from the collection of Australian quilt scholar Dr Annette Gero and augmented by significant examples from Austria, England and private and public collections in the United States. The exhibition is organized by the American Folk Art Museum in collaboration with the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Lincoln-Nebraska. It is co-curated by Gero, an international quilt historian, author and collector, and Stacy C. Hollander, deputy director for curatorial affairs and chief curator of the American Folk Art Museum.
“What is extraordinary about the quilts in this exhibition is the range of techniques used and the painstaking detail in their creation, and the fact that they are made by men,” says Dr Anne-Imelda Radice, executive director, American Folk Art Museum. “Men, who are not usually raised learning the sewing arts, show both design acumen and manual dexterity as they sewed pieces of military uniforms, blankets and other bits of fabric into quilts of great beauty. These quilts offer an insight into military life and the need for creative expression even during times of war.”
The earliest textiles in the exhibition are pictorial quilts made during the Austro-Turkish, Prussian and Napoleonic wars in a technique known as intarsia. In this challenging method, practiced primarily by professional tailors, shapes are cut out and assembled with no seam allowance using an overstitch, like fitting together the pieces of a puzzle. The stitches disappear in the felted nap of the heavy woolens.
Most of these textiles refer to war and the shifting geopolitical landscape. A rare example dated 1719 illustrates the triumph of Austria over the incursions of the Ottoman Empire. Others of these early works depict soldiers, musicians, the Habsburg double-headed eagle, folk tales and architectural monuments of the Holy Roman Empire. One unusual quilt was made by a Prussian prisoner of the Napoleonic War, who used scraps from military uniforms.
Immigrant tailors, such as Hungarian-born Michael Zumpf, introduced the intarsia technique into Great Britain. Two masterworks, exhibited to great acclaim in London during the late Nineteenth Century, feature minutely detailed representations of British military and political leaders, and members of the House of Commons. These elaborate pictorial panels were made using popular etchings of those subjects as templates.
Perhaps the best-known quilts made by soldiers and regimental tailors are the complex geometrics fashioned from felted military uniforms. Hand-stitched by Nineteenth Century British soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors during periods of conflict in the Crimea, South Africa and India, some of these mosaiclike quilts contain as many as 25,000 pieces of fabric. They were once called “convalescent quilts”; it was believed they were made as occupational therapy by wounded soldiers recovering in hospitals. Quilts pieced in simple geometric patterns may indeed have been made in such circumstances, but it is now recognized that the most elaborate quilts were most probably stitched by tailors and soldiers to pass the time and stay out of mischief, to give as gifts to loved ones at home or were made upon a soldier’s return.
“There are fewer than 100 of these quilts in the world, and no two are alike,” says Gero. “Treasured as family heirlooms, these quilts have rarely seen the light of day – until now. The incredible beauty of these quilts is amplified by the facts of their creation. Stitched while recovering from the wounds of war or while interned in prisoner of war camps, the quilts show man’s determination to create beauty out of the fear and dread of war.”
The exhibition will travel to the Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Lincoln-Nebraska, May 25-September 16, 2018.
The American Folk Art Museum is at 2 Lincoln Square. For additional information, www.folkartmuseum.org or 212-595-9533.
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