"A Piece of Her Mind"

Written by: Alden O'Brien, DAR Museum Curator of Costumes and Textiles
March 21, 2019

The DAR Museum’s new exhibit is open! “A Piece of Her Mind: Culture and Technology in American Quilts” will be open in our main gallery through December 31, 2019.

The exhibit explores how women in the 19th century created quilts that reflected their makers’ involvement in the world around them. Today’s culture makes it easy for American women to engage, thanks to advances in both women’s rights and technology. But between 1820 and 1920, many women chose to respond to current events and trends through one of their prescribed activities: needlework. Quilts allowed women to engage in the world while conforming to their era’s gender roles, which restricted middle-class women to the private, domestic sphere.

Eighteen quilts plus a woven coverlet and an Indian printed Tree of Life palampore (painted Indian cotton bedspread) are displayed in the exhibit. Cases in the gallery display related objects, since the societal trends expressed in quilts were also found in other decorative arts. For example, a quilt made with presidential campaign ribbons from Henry Clay’s unsuccessful run in 1844 is accompanied by a plate depicting Clay’s home in Kentucky; a campaign ribbon similar to one in the quilt; and sheet music from a song played at some of his rallies. Two crazy quilts depict popular culture crazes of the 1880s including a high-wheel bicycle and Japanese fans and vases; examples of all these objects sit nearby.

In addition to addressing quilts with political statements and popular culture images, the exhibit looks at the influence of botanical developments in the 1800s. Quilt designs often included beautiful printed floral chintzes. But as many new flower varietals were introduced into American gardens, needle women created new quilt designs based on such plants as the moss rose and the prince’s feather. Examples of chintz appliqué quilts, moss rose album blocks, and “princess feather” (the corruption of prince’s feather which became the quilt pattern name) are all in the gallery. 

Another section looks at the influence of technology, which made so many new colors and fabrics available and affordable to quilters. Careful examination of the hexagons in the quilt top displayed in a nineteenth-century quilt frame reveals that several dozen different printed cottons were used, testifying to the proliferation of fabrics made possible by the new roller-printing machinery. A quilt made in Texas features white blocks sewn with the newly-invented sewing machine, showing off its maker’s access to the latest technology.

Lastly, the coverlet and palampore are examples of the influence other types of textiles had on quilts. Quilters drew inspiration from other items in their homes, and Tree of Life quilt designs were popular early in the century. A quilt with birds feeding their young in their nest is displayed next to a coverlet whose bird design must have inspired the quilt maker.

All the objects in the gallery and many others are in our searchable online database.  To search for objects in the exhibit, click on “Search the Collection” and then “Search.” Into the text box, type “A Piece of Her Mind” and click on the green “Search” button.

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