Thursday, March 8, 2012

Masterpiece Quilts Lecture in Newport

Diamonds, c. 1890 - all silk!
Today, I was in Newport, Oregon doing a lecture for the Oregon Coastal Quilters Guild. It was my second visit to the guild, and this time I did the Masterpiece Quilts lecture. Couldn't decide what to bring, so I showed ten quilts, and probably sounded like a fast-talking auctioneer at points.

Wholecloth Linsey Woolsey Quilt, pre 1800, New England
Economy Block, c, 1810, New England
I started with two very old wool quilts- the Wholecloth and the Economy Block, both from New England. The Wholecloth served as an example of masterful, decorative quilting, and the Economy Block suitably demonstrated the strong, modern looking graphic design seen in early pieced quilts.

Album with Lyre, c. 1850, Mary Couchman Small, WV
We then jumped ahead to the mid-19th century and I told the story of Mary Couchman Small's Album with Lyre. I also showed two "New York Beauties"from Kentucky. Earlier, during the announcements, I shared some news about another New York Beauty, which I also showed. That quilt will be exhibited and possibly published later this year. More news to follow at a later date.

Pieced and appliqued quilt, c. 1870, Kentucky
MacMillan Family Quilt, 1868, Monroe County, Kentucky
Part of the talk was about the qualities of a masterpiece quilt, such as workmanship, design, provenance, condition, cultural value and dollar value. Toward the beginning of the program, I talked about Shelly Zegart's book "American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces" and how it helped shape my ideas about having a quilt collection. Shelly is the first person I ever heard call a quilt a masterpiece. Anyone who wants to know more about what makes a quilt a masterpiece should read the book, particularly the essays at the beginning.

Applique Quilt, c. 1870, Pennsylvania
Crossroads, c. 1870, Found in Texas
Moving forward chronologically, I showed the applique quilt seen in The Quilt Digest, and the Crossroads quilt purchased from an eBay seller in Texas. After that, I wrapped it up with two quilts from the Victorian period to the turn-of-the-century. The first was the "OCD" silk Diamonds. Quilters really love that one! And the last was the bold "Frugal Housewife" quilt - people are still shocked when I tell them the quilt was listed as a cutter!

"The Frugal Housewife" c. 1900, Wisconsin
It was a whirlwind tour of American quiltmaking through the 19th century, and I had fun with it. At one point, someone asked if Mary Couchman Small had made other quilts, and another audience member made a funny comment about how the one quilt would've taken her whole life to do. Talk about truth in jest!

When considering what makes a masterpiece quilt, it's important to hold the object to standards similar to that of a masterpiece painting or other fine art object. Is it unusual? Does it grab your attention? Is it a superlative example of fine technique? Does it capture an important historical event or embody a moment? Did it come before its time, and does the object transcend the form? At the end of the day, the most provocative works of art in any medium stir the same questions. That's precisely why I think of quilts as fine art objects, and the best ones, masterpieces.


  1. I bet it was wonderful! You ought to be getting very comfortable with public speaking these days:)

  2. You may be right, Lori. I'm definitely having a lot more fun now that I've done a few of these talks. Anyone in Central Oregon need a speaker? :)

  3. In my brain-dead state when writing this blog, I left out another key ingredient that I look for in masterpiece quilts - originality! If it's something I've never seen before, or something I see very rarely, it interests me. :)