Saturday, November 19, 2011

What is a Masterpiece Quilt?

During my collecting journey, I gained an appreciation for
wool quilts. This one was made roughly 100 years ago
but there's something very modern about it.
Earlier today, I did a lecture for the Columbia River Gorge Quilters Guild in Hood River, Oregon, and the subject was masterpiece quilts. I've done variations on this lecture before, and today I focused on the idea of a masterpiece quilt and how my idea evolved.

Block detail: cotton pieced quilt, unknown maker, c. 1850, Kentucky
In the program description, I asked, "What is a Masterpiece quilt? Masterpiece is a term that's usually associated with the fine arts, such as painting or sculpture. In the world of art, a masterpiece is a work of outstanding artistry, skill, or workmanship - an artist's best piece of work. People don't always think of quilts as works of art, but they are! 

Detail, Album quilt by Mary Couchman Small, West Virginia, c. 1850
We started with "best" quilts, the type of quilt collectors were collecting in the 80s, leading up to the time when I bought my first quilt in 1989. The level of skill, dense quilting, expert construction and detail left no doubt that these quilts were masterpieces. They spoke for themselves. Coincidentally, 1989 is the year  I saw my first quilt exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, featuring masterpiece Applique quilts from their permanent collection. 

Economy Patch, c. 1810, New England
Around 2001, wool utility quilts from the late 1800s and early 1900s started to catch my attention. Compared with the early-to-mid 19th century cotton quilts, the wool quilts were a whole different animal. The bold geometry, modern looking designs and often earthy combinations expanded my understanding of what a masterpiece quilt could be. More recently, I've developed a true love for the early 1800s wool quilts, which are often extraordinarily modern looking and visually sophisticated.

Block Detail: scrap quilt, c. 1970 - I call it "Wild Thing"
Toward the end of the lecture, I talked about one of the biggest revelations I had as a collector. In 2002, I saw The Quilts of Gee's Bend at the Whitney Museum in New York. It was just the second major quilt show I'd seen. The exhibition opened my eyes to all types of quilts, in any condition, and expanded my definition of a masterpiece quilt way beyond the wool utility quilts. It even led to what I'm collecting right now- primarily 1970s quilts. 

"Wild Thing" - I think I love you...
The last quilt I showed is a quilt I call "Wild Thing" - and it represents a point at which I was drawn to a quilt, but needed to figure out why. Sometimes the things that are most difficult to understand are most worth getting to know. 1970s quilts, many made of materials such as double knit polyester, are not widely appreciated or collected right now, but I believe some day they will be. 

So, it was a wonderful morning with a great group! And they put on a fantastic quilt show annually in September, so mark your calendars! To check out the Columbia River Gorge Quilters Guild, click here.


  1. Sounds like a great program...masterpiece know 'em when you see 'em!

  2. It was fun! I tend to think of quilts more like art than history objects, but they're really both. Quilters seem to enjoy hearing about the old quilts and learning more about the tradition they are part of, and of course, I learn new things every time I hang around with quilters.

  3. I absolutely love the first quilt. Anymore information as to where it was made, size etc?

  4. I love the Economy Patch... the quilt hanging on a wall must be stunning. I love the graphic nature.

    I wish to respecitivly disagree about the polyester double knit quilts.... I do not think the 70s DBL-KNITs will ever be valued. I have yet to see one that held up or looks good then or now. The fabric was hard to work with and did not quilt up or made nice patchwork or applique.. it was tough and unbendable. That was when quilters started demanding COTTON!

    Nonnie's Quilting Dreams - Blog

  5. I forgot to mention I really liked your article and have it bookmarked for a podcast I am planning to record in the future.

    Nonnie's Quilting Dreams- Podcast

  6. Mary - it is 60" x 70" and is from Wisconsin. That's all I know.

    Nonnie - I started with the same idea about double-knit polyester quilts, but when I really began to look at them I was surprised in a good way. The museum where I will be showing 40 of these quilts in 2013 signed on to do the show after seeing just five of the quilts. :)

  7. I've been trying to find out information on the glazing process on antique wool quilts. Do you know anything of the how-to, why, and with what tools and supplies were used? I like wool and it would be fun to experiment using a glazing process.

  8. Hilary - I'm probably not the best person to ask, but the most common procedure I've heard about is called "calendering" - a process of applying heat and pressure with metal plates or rollers to a worsted fabric. I've also heard of people applying sizing such as glue or egg white. I'll be interested in hearing what you learn from your experiments!

  9. Thanks Bill for your help. I've got some experimenting to do! Making glazed wool in a Minnesota Winter...what a perfect way to spend my cozy time at home in the studio! Oh my, the wheels are a spinnin'! I'll keep you posted!

  10. There should be a sunglass warning before the close-up of Wild Thing! Never say never, but at least for now feel free to collect all the polyester wild ones with no interference from me.
    Thank you for adding both of my blogs to your blog list, I'm honored to be included.

  11. Hi Bill - These quilts are just eye candy! I would love to talk to you privately about putting images of some of your collection on high-quality phone cases. My new venture is, an organization whose mission is to get more exposure for quilts and quilt collections, especially vintage. I'm on Facebook (Cathleen Savage) and Twitter (@QuiltmyPhone) or you can reach me by email at How can I best contact you to discuss?