Spotlight Columns

Spectacular exhibit of historical East Coast quilts at the Crocker

By From page B2 | August 20, 2014

Medallion Quilt, attributed to Elizabeth Welsh (American), circa 1830. Cotton, 110 ½ x 109 in. (280.7 x 267.8 cm). Part of the Brooklyn Museum collection, Gift of The Roebling Society. Photo by Gavin Ashworth, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

As August draws to a close, this is the perfect time to take in the last weeks of an amazing, historical exhibit on loan from the Brooklyn Museum in New York to the Crocker Art Museum.

“Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts” is an exhibit of 35 of the oldest and remarkably well-preserved quilts I’ve ever seen.

This is another one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities that the Crocker is able to bring to our community.

Curators at the Crocker chose to display many of the quilts in a unique way — horizontally. Most quilt aficionados are used to seeing quilts hung up on walls as a display, or carefully folded inside glass cases.

Not so at the Crocker. Some quilts are hung up on the walls, but just as many are displayed on broad tables, with silhouetted “headboards.” Curators carefully researched each quilt and then created an era-appropriate headboard for those that would be displayed in this unique fashion.

The result: You get to see the quilts as they were intended to be seen — on a bed. The only difference is that none of the quilts hangs “over the edge.”

One quilt that really fascinated me dates from 1795. This quilt uses a combination of cotton printed fabrics and embroidery. The thing about this quilt that fascinates me is the quilter’s many scenes of country life. Animals and elaborately dressed people populate the borders of this quilt. Their costumes are quaint and charming. You get a glimpse into the life of a woman who lived more than 200 years ago.

I found myself wishing I could have met her, to ask her more about her inspirations for this work of art — a work that she probably intended entirely for the purpose of beautifying her home in a practical way.

The exhibit spans over two centuries of quilt making. There are some superlative examples of quilting techniques, including appliqué, piecework and quilting. Not to mention styles and design, including “Flying Geese,” “Log Cabin,” “Garden Basket” and “Rose of Sharon.” Lovers of Baltimore Album quilts will find new favorites here. There is even a beautiful example of an Amish quilt in the “Sunshine and Shadow” style.

Combining social and quilt history, the exhibition includes a remarkable early 19th-century patchwork “Liberty Quilt” attributed to Elizabeth Welsh of Warren County, Virginia (now West Virginia) that exemplifies how women created and disseminated iconic American revolutionary symbols. The stitching on this quilt is very tiny and fine. The applique work is some of the most spectacular I’ve seen. Elizabeth must have had very fine eyes to create such a quilt.

Also on display are quilting magazines and books dating from the early 20th century.

If you are a quilter or a collector, you will want to see this exhibit before it closes on Sept. 1.

A few caveats: Take a notebook to jot down memories or impressions. There is no photography allowed. The guards are particularly alert to cell phone photos. Don’t even attempt it, or you will be escorted out of the building. (I had a press pass and I wasn’t allowed to photograph one quilt).

Also, there is no book to accompany this exhibit. The Brooklyn Museum was supposed to provide copies but failed to do so. The Crocker gift shop apologizes for this inconvenience. The book is currently out of print. If you are able to find it, the title is “Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts” by Catherine Morris (2013, hardcover). It would be a good addition to any quilter’s library.

“Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts” runs through Sept. 1 at the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, located at 216 O St. Bring quarters to feed the parking meters. Visit for admission fees and museum hours.

Send your event for consideration in Susan’s column to [email protected]

Susan Laird


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