A little bit of American history is on display at the Wichita Art Museum. Five quilts – three of which date to the Civil War era – begin a two-part exhibition from the museum’s permanent collection. The quilts feature historic patterns and were assembled using hand-piecing and hand-quilting.
“Once a quilt pattern is developed and gains popularity, it continues to be used and passed down,” said Annette LeZotte, the show’s curator who holds a doctorate in Renaissance art.
The five quilts on display demonstrate the history of the patterns used during this time in our nation’s history.
“Quilts reflect a lot of local and aesthetic trends,” said Carolyn Ducey, curator of collections at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The center has the largest publicly held international quilt collection in the world, featuring more than 3,500 pieces – including 80 quilts from Kansas. “Quilts offer a lens through which we can look at what is important to these individuals. They reflect a lot of local and historic trends.
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“Quilts represent a group who has been historically underrepresented,” Ducey said.
Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, women used quilts to depict the country’s social and political environment and to commemorate historic events.
“Quilts also offer a significant commentary on the economic values of late 19th- and early 20th-century America,” LeZotte said.
The art of thriftiness, using scraps of fabric to create a work of art, and beauty sometimes went hand-in-hand. Women exchanged ideas and patterns. Many patterns were published in magazines and newspaper columns.
“The patterns evolved and took on new associations,” LeZotte said. “Quilts have a life beyond a certain person.”
Mary Ann Lyman (1813-1907) made three of the quilts on display at the Wichita Art Museum. She was a native of Goshen, Conn. In 1872, she moved with her family to a farm in Goddard. One of the quilts that uses the pineapple pattern dates from between 1865 and 1880. The pineapple was used as a symbol of hospitality in the U.S. Decorative renditions of this tropical fruit were used as a welcome symbol for guests.
In addition to her pineapple quilt, Lyman’s log cabin and rambler pattern quilts also are on display. Log cabin quilt patterns had a square in the center. The square usually was red or gold and symbolized the home or hearth. Surrounding the centerpiece was a collection of rectangles. The rambler quilt pattern commemorated the first battle of the Civil War, LeZotte said.
Like Lyman’s quilts, the other two quilts on display at the Wichita museum were crafted with muted colors. The quilt with the drunkard’s path pattern was hand-stitched in 1928, while the one with the crazy quilt pattern was handmade in 1900.
Members of Wichita’s Prairie Quilt Guild understand the importance of quilts. More than 500 members strong, the group gathers monthly to exchange patterns, hear speakers and talk about quilts. Throughout the month, members meet in small groups to carry on the quilting tradition. Guild members still use many of the patterns on display at the museum.
“The log cabin pattern has gone real modern,” guild member Shirley Prouse said. “The crazy quilt is more of a hand project than a sewing machine one, but it comes out good with the sewing machine, too.”
By examining the century-old quilts at the Wichita Art Museum, viewers can reminisce about their grandmothers’ or their great-aunts’ quilts, or they can think about what it would have been like to live on a Goddard farm in 1875.
By examining the fabrics, patterns and colors, viewers can look back at both the quilter and the history of the time.
A second quilt show will showcase additional quilts at the Wichita Art Museum between June and September.
A variety of events are being planned to go along with these shows, including book readings and lectures.
“It’s a dazzling show,” LeZotte said. “It’s visually spectacular.”