NEW YORK – At first glance, commemorative quilts seem like a narrow niche of quiltmaking. After some research though, they are far more far-ranging than they appear. Quilts provide warmth and comfort but they are symbols of personal expression. Quilts have been made to commemorate graduations, births, retirements, U.S. presidents, special events, politics and social activism, military victories, branches of the armed forces and much more.
Pamela Weeks, the Binney Family curator of the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Mass., noted in a past exhibition she curated here, “Campaigns & Commemoratives: Quilts for Presidents,” that fabrics commemorating the American Revolution and featuring George Washington date back to 1776.
Weeks, author of two books: Civil War Quilts and Deeds Not Words: Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage, explains that the quilting tradition continues from the past through today. The Deeds exhibition features new art quilts by nearly 30 art quilters celebrating women’s activities to get out the vote. In 2019 in Hampton, Va., dozens of quiltmakers replied to a national call to help create the Hampton 2019 400-Year Legacy Quilt, commemorating the first recorded arrival of African-Americans to North America in 1619.
Commemorative quilts have an important place in quilting because unlike many 19th century and even 20th century quilts where the makers did not inscribe their names on the quilts that they made, Weeks said commemorative quilts are nearly always inscribed with the maker’s name. “If it is a quilt that includes multiple signatures, you can track down the place, the date and the reason for the quilt being made.”
Civil War-era commemorative quilts are perhaps the most cherished and historically significant of this genre. Several notable examples are in museum collections as well as private collections.
In 1846, a group of over 20 women in Belfast, Maine, made a flag bed quilt, the Belfast Civil War Soldiers’ Quilt, which they sent to a Washington, D.C., military hospital. On the quilt they inscribed their names and puns relating to the Civil War. The quilt’s whereabouts were unknown until discovered in a Montana home and returned to the Belfast Historical Society in 2011. In 1917, one of the quilt’s makers, Augusta Quimby, wrote that “the names of all the members (quilters) were written in the white stripes, appropriate mottoes where in every star and where some pun or play upon the Union Officers’ names could be made, it was quickly incorporated.” While the ink has faded somewhat over the years, the import of this handiwork has only grown stronger.
In Portland, Maine, a Civil War soldier’s quilt made in 1864 is inscribed with patriotic sayings, poetry, and Bible verses. “This quilt is important because it tells so many stories,” said curator Laurie LaBar in an article on the website of the Maine State Museum, which now owns the quilt. Through studying the quilt, one can learn how life was on the homefront during the war as well as how women were educated and their interests from temperance to activism.
During America’s early wars, women often sent bits of silk or cotton cloth to be signed by presidents and generals and included these in commemorative quilts, Weeks said.
By the early 20th century, many Red Cross fundraising quilts were made and Modern Priscilla magazine published a pattern for this quilt, Weeks said. Quilters would collect signatures, charging about 10 cents a signature; some of the quilts raised hundreds of dollars for the cause.
Author Sue Reich has documented several commemorative examples in her books on World War I and II quilts, including Victory Garden quilts. “There’s a quilting pattern with a great big V in it and I think each of the arms of the services had a quilt pattern that was published,” Weeks added.
Quilting largely declined in the 1950s in most of America, except perhaps the Midwest, until a few things in the ’60s and ’70s from the hippie culture to the Bicentennial merged to inspire people to take up crafting again.
Quilts commemorating activism are diverse. While surprisingly there are few historic ones for women’s suffrage, a notable example is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The circa 1870 quilt made by Emma Stahl, the Women’s Rights Quilt or Suffragette Quilt, has pictorial blocks showing a woman involved in the suffrage movement. Environmental activism was also quilting fodder, such as the Hudson River Quilt, made 1969-72 (collection of the American Folk Art Museum in New York), which brought attention to the plight of the Hudson River and the environment. The quilt was made by Irene Preston Miller (1917–2007) and The Hudson River Quilters. In the 1980s just before the end of the Cold War, people in Boise, Idaho, began a quilt exchange project with Russia and the first Boise Peace Quilt said to be made as a gesture of peace in 1982.
Key moments in a person’s life have also been frequently commemorated in quilts from birth to death and every major milestone in between. High school graduations were common. A quilt in Weeks’s personal collection marks her first wedding. “My shower was celebrated by one of my cousins who got everybody who attended that shower to sign a slip of cotton, which she embroidered and I have a commemoration of the women who were very important to me in that time of my life.”