- American Quilts in the Industrial Age, 1760-1870: The International Quilt Study Center and Museum Collections ed. by Patricia Cox Crews and Carolyn Ducey
In this second book of a multivolume catalog of the collections of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum (IQSCM), the contributors provide in-depth analysis of American quilts ranging in date from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. The book is arranged with chapters focused on style groupings of quilts. Each chapter contains essays that provide close readings of a few quilts, emphasizing the importance of careful, deep study of individual objects.
The introduction is an excellent display of how such close reading can be used to create interesting data that reveals patterns when analyzing quilts. The editors give detailed information about how they thought through terminology to define objects that often cross multiple categories of analysis or that come with limited contextual information. Geographic area of origin seems straightforward, and only 5 percent of the quilts studied for this book were made in the South according to the defined regional categories. However, the slave state of Maryland, home to distinctive styles of applique quilts in the first half of the nineteenth century, is categorized under the mid-Atlantic region.
The book's strength is in the individual quilt stories told throughout. For example, by examining the seams of the main portion of an early-nineteenth-century red wool quilt, researchers determined it was made from a hooded cloak that was deconstructed, with the bedcover's borders made from a recycled quilted petticoat. [End Page 154]
While the authors excel in the physical reading of objects, they provide an outdated nationalist narrative of the triumphs of westward expansion and industrialization. The consequences of the first on indigenous peoples and the relationship of the second to chattel slavery are completely absent from the book. The authors note numerous times that the availability of cheap cotton in the early nineteenth century allowed for the expanding popularity of quilting. At no point do they explain that these cottons were cheap because the labor system of chattel slavery supported industrialization. The authors draw only on connections between Western European art and aesthetic movements when analyzing the quilts.
The exclusion of slavery and of enslaved people from this book is striking, particularly since it is framed as a catalog representing the IQSCM's examples of American quilts. In the preface, the editors state that African American quilts are not included because they will be presented in a separate volume of the series. Yet a close reading of one quilt made in Kentucky references a second quilt of similar rococo revival style that is "[a]ttributed to enslaved 'sewing women'" from South Carolina (p. 388). The only detail about the construction of the quilt attributed to the black makers is that it is of lesser quality than the Kentucky quilt. Were the enslaved women not African American quilt makers? Were black people not making American quilts during this period? Did aesthetics such as the strip weaving techniques of West African cultures not influence pieced quilts made in the United States? These are important questions that remain understudied in textile history.
This book makes valuable contributions to the field of quilt scholarship through the physical reading of the objects. But romantic stories of quilts as commendable survivors of the Confederacy or of intrepid pioneers carrying textile heirlooms across the Great Plains do not help us to fully understand the complexities that objects hold as historical sources.