Quilts: An American Art Form

Part of the Piper Classics Series on Country Quilts

When people use the phrase “a uniquely American art form,” they’re usually talking about jazz.

We’ve also seen the term applied to baseball, to hip-hop and to comic books. Today we’d like to add another member to the list of American art forms: quilts.

While the practice of quilt-making began in Europe, it was America that turned quilting from a craft to an art. Like the country quilts in your home, these items can serve a purpose – keeping people warm, decorating a room – while also telling a story.


“The Story of a life”

“Examining a quilt is like reading a historical document,” said Stacy C. Hollander, senior curator at the America Folk Art Museum, speaking to the Huffington Post in 2010. “The quilt tells the story of a time and the story of a life, sometimes multiple lives.”

Visitors to the National Homestead Monument of America in Nebraska can get a sense of the types of stories quilts could tell. Just as some painters drew inspiration from the world around them, these frontier quilters based their patterns on what they saw every day, whether it was a local schoolhouse, a windmill or a country fence.

Even though it is located in New York city, The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a number of American quilts in its collection. As the museum notes on its website, quilting began to move from a craft to an art form around the country by the mid-1800s:

“Quilts were produced that were not intended for use as everyday bedcovers; instead, their primary purpose was to commemorate an event or relationship. As such, these special quilts were preserved and treasured by their owners.”

Quilts as an outlet

Quilting offered women a chance to socialize, and a way to express themselves. As the Huffington Post story put it:

“At a time when society felt that there were limits on what was appropriate for women to say or do, the fact that women could gather together to create a quilt that expressed their patriotism, their support of the temperance movement or their religious beliefs provided an outlet that did not ruffle society.”

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Quilts become respectable

Quilting remains an art today, although – as the International Quilt Study Center & Museum says – there is some debate about its place in the art world.

One school of thought says art quilts occupy a unique space where craft, art and design come together.

As art evolved, so did quilting. After World War II, a number of new factions emerged. There was the back-to-the-land movement, which focused on the traditions of pre-industrial America. Pop Art changed people’s perceptions about what could be art.

iStock_60792240_SMALL.jpg“Female pop artists of the 1950s and 1960s used textiles and patchwork in their work as an early feminist connection to handicraft traditions,” says the International Quilt Study Center.

In the 1970s, the respected Whitney Museum presented Abstract Design in American Quilts, an exhibit that’s credited with putting a spotlight on the idea of quilts as an art form.

It was a risky move, although one helped by the evolving definitions of art. Critics loved the exhibit, and its creators were asked to host similar exhibits in venues around the country.

“The lavish attention…signaled a new era, as artists, critics and the general public began to see quilts as much more than bed covers,” the Quilt Study Center says.

Quilting also got a 1970’s boost thanks to the Bicentennial and a national nostalgia for early Americana décor. Today art quilts are part of exhibits at museums around the country.

But a quilt doesn’t have to be something that impresses the critics. It can be something that sits in your home and offers you comfort and warmth. If that’s what you’re looking for, visit Piper Classics. We have a wide selection of country quilts that can be your home’s new work of art.