Quilts in Common

Quilts in Common

Quilts in Common: Around the Globe & Across Centuries

Quilts in Common was one of two inaugural exhibitions in the new galleries of the International Quilt Museum. This exhibit curated by Carolyn Ducey, curator of collections, and Marin F. Hanson, curator of exhibitions, not only showcased many of the Center's masterpiece quilts, but was organized in a novel and thought provoking way: unique commonalities bring together quilts from around the world and across the centuries rather than isolating them in geographical or historical groupings.

This organizing construct emphasizes the connections of American quiltmaking traditions to others across the globe; it also ties quiltmaking traditions to other forms of visual art across time and space.

While the quilts must be viewed in person to fully appreciate the vibrant patterns and highly detailed craftsmanship, the images below provide a preview

Featured Media

Featured Media
Featured Media

The Individual Mark

The Individual Mark
The Individual Mark

Like the many individual brushstrokes that form a magnificent Impressionist landscape painting or the repeated cuts that create a wood-block print, the basic “marks” in quiltmaking--the quilting stitches--combine to create an image or concept that is greater that the sum of each individual stitch. 

Richly textured figural images created with quilting stitches cover the surface of the Welsh wholecloth quilt, including spirals, leaves, trefoils and “Welsh pears” (paisleys). In the Indian kantha, the stitches hold the layers of recycled cotton sari and dhoti (women’s and men’s wrapped garments) together, while at the same time covering the surface with a carefully planned and densely quilted herringbone design. Contemporary Canadian artist Dorothy Caldwell draws inspiration from the quilting stitches of Indian kanthas in her piece Four Fields Meet as she makes a statement about humankind’s mark on nature. 

Dynamic Lines

Dynamic Lines
Dynamic Lines

The zig zag, a universal decorative motif, turns a simple line into something that is alive with movement. In quilted textiles as well as in many other worldwide craft traditions including basketry and pottery, the dramatic line creates tension, often through use of contrasting light and dark values.

The Norwegian Streak of Lightning Log Cabin quilt is a vibrant example of the use of color and value – the narrow strips of fabric are grouped into lights and darks, forming strong lines that continuously tilt up and down. The Chevron quilt’s erratic strips are separated by thin vertical lines and a strip of crazy patchwork in the center, yet maintain an irregular rhythm across the surface of the quilt. Artist Michael James masters the use of contrasting colors and values in the multitude of irregular lines in his quilt Bias Cut. The lines break, dead-end, and reconnect, but their sense of movement is relentless.

Universal Shape

Universal Shape
Universal Shape

The spare, powerful form of the square has long occupied the attention of artists such as Josef Albers, who created more than 1000 pieces of minimalist art in his Homage to the Square series, and quiltmakers who recognized the drama inherent in the contrast of colors used to form their vision of the solid shape.

A burgundy square appears to float above a green background in the classic Amish Center Square quilt. The tension between the two complementary colors calls attention to the square-in-a-square format. In a similar way, the lustrous hot pink and emerald green silks of the French vanne (decorative bed topper) create intense visual interplay. In contrast, German artist Ruth Eissfeldt’s quilt Atlantis brings to mind the cool tones of the sea. Eissfeldt’s rippling quilting stitches suggest waves covering the mythical island of Atlantis as it sinks into the ocean. 

Concentrated Color

Concentrated Color
Concentrated Color

Blue is associated with everything from the bright summer sky, to the rhythmic sounds of the Blues, to the comfort of a favorite pair of blue jeans.  A color symbolic of wealth and prestige in many cultures, blue was one of the most common colors on Chinese and Japanese porcelain, an artform highly coveted in the West in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a time when indigo-dyed fabrics were also cherished.

The love affair with the color blue spurred development of fabric dyeing and printing technology in the nineteenth century. The Whole Cloth quilt of floral baskets is made with a dying process that is unusual and complex - the white areas were covered with a paste before the cloth was dipped repeatedly in a vat of indigo dye. The blue and orange Star of Bethlehem is composed of a popular style of fabric of the nineteenth century that was printed in endless yardage for clothing and quilting. Similarly, Shizuko Kuroha incorporates different shades of traditional Japanese fabrics in her quilt The Sea of Japan in Winter.

Novel Technique

Novel Technique
Novel Technique

Papercutting, an art that likely began in China, the birthplace of paper, has been adopted by many cultures over the centuries.  Today, even children learn to use the fold-and-cut method to create paper snowflakes to adorn their wintertime classrooms.

Quilters have used the same technique with fabric, making intricately cut and stitched symmetrical designs. German immigrants to the United States adapted their art of scherenschnitte (“scissor cuts”) to appliqué quilts, like the Pennsylvania Mennonite example seen here. American missionaries may have introduced scherenschnitte-style quilts to the indigenous Hawaiians in the nineteenth century, who then combined it with their quilted textile tradition (kappa moe) to create a completely new style of quilt. In the quilted ralli from the Sindh region of southeastern Pakistan, the maker used a simple twist of the scissors to create variations on each of her appliqué designs.

Ancient Symbolism

Ancient Symbolism
Ancient Symbolism

The tree of life symbol represents immortality, protection, knowledge, and healing in cultures ranging from ancient India, to China, to Scandinavia. Various religions, including Judaism and Christianity also find spiritual symbolism in trees.  The tree of life motif entered European high fashion in the 1600s when traders began importing luxury textiles directly from the Orient. Indian printed panels, called palampores, with tree of life designs adapted for the western market, began to appear in American and European quilts in the late 1700s.

Identical palampore panels were used to make a quilt brought to the United States in 1749 by John Fisher, a German immigrant who settled in Pennsylvania. One hundred years later, the tree of life design inspired Polly Nesbitt Squire of Pennsylvania to make her own stylized appliqué version of the motif. The symbol continues to hold meaning for contemporary audiences, as seen in M. Joan Lintault’s quilt Uncoiling Snakes. The artist draws upon the Hebrew account of the Tree of Knowledge that acknowledges both good and evil (need to explain this a bit more).

Expressions of Identity

Expressions of Identity
Expressions of Identity

In searching for the meaning of our unique individuality among our fellow humans, artists have explored personal identity through a variety of media: quilts, photographs and painted self-portraits, to name a few. In 1867 Lucinda Ward Honstain of Brooklyn, New York, made what has become known as the Reconciliation Quilt. In it she reveals aspects of both her individual and social identity in the time immediately following the Civil War. Vignettes featuring her family and neighborhood are placed among blocks that portray Honstain’s hope for the healing of the divided nation. One block depicts a former slave declaring “Master, I am Free” while another portrays the reunion of Confederate President Jefferson Davis with his daughter, Margaret, after the conclusion of his post-war prison term.

Faith Ringgold uses a combination of paint and fabric in her quilt, The Women: Mask Face Quilt No. 1. The disjointed faces and torsos express how stereotypes of race and gender can misrepresent personal identities. Barbara Watler’s Fingerprint Series enlarges the tiny whorls and lines of the finger to represent the basic, physiological distinctions between humans; in doing so, she says she is honoring those who feel a loss of identity in today’s technological world.

Mysterious Origins

Mysterious Origins
Mysterious Origins

Baltimore Album quilts are a unique style of quilt made in and around Baltimore, Maryland between 1845 and 1855. Identical designs, fabrics and inked details suggest strong community, religious, or familial connections between those who contributed to the quilts, yet the precise link is unknown.

The three quilts hanging here have obvious connections. There are six identical motifs--some made with identical fabrics--in the two Baltimore Album quilts. The third quilt, a Feathered Star, shares with one of the Album quilts a spectacular red feathered plume border made with a difficult reverse appliqué technique. But who made these quilts? Why were these quilts made? Even with these shared characteristics, the common link remains hidden by the passage of time.

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Four Fields Meet
Dorothy Caldwell
70.5 x 65.5 in.

Whole Cloth
Circa 1900-1910
Made in Carmarthenshire County, Wales, United Kingdom
79 x 69 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2005.036.0003

Circa 1975-2000
Probably made in Bihar, India
81 x 52.5 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2007.004.0024

Bias Cut
Michael James
66.5 x 88 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 1997.007.1068

Zig Zag
Circa 1880-1900
Possibly made in Pennsylvania  
77 x 76 in.
Jonathan Holstein Collection, 2003.003.0016

Log Cabin - Streak of Lightning setting
Mathilde Schjander
Circa 1870-1880
Oslo, Norway
72.5 x 49 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2006.010.0002

Center Square
Circa 1910-1930
Probably made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania  
73.5 x 74.5 in.
Jonathan Holstein Collection, 2003.003.0103

Circa 1850 
59 x 50 in.
Kathryn Wilson Berenson Collection, 2005.018.0018

Ruth Eissfeldt 
59 x 59 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 2006.043.0010

Star of Bethlehem
Circa 1845 
Possibly made in Eastern Pennsylvania  
93.5 x 93.5 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection , 1997.007.0660

Whole Cloth - Blue Resist
Circa 1790-1830
Probably made in Eastern United States  
95.5 x 87.5 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 1997.007.0914

The Sea of Japan in Winter
Shizuko Kuroha
79 x 78 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 1997.007.1091


Cut-out Design (Scherenschnitte)
Circa 1870-1890 
Probably made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania  
89 x 87 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 1997.007.0777

Beauty of Hilo Bay
Circa 1930-1950
74 x 74 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2005.015.0001

Circa 1960-1975
Middle Sindh, Pakistan
81 x 47 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2006.001.0007

Tree of Life
Polly Ann Squires Nesbitt
Dated 1850 
Probably made in Kortwright, Delaware County, New York  
90 x 79 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2006.018.0001

Uncoiling Snakes
M. Joan Lintault
97 x 86 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2007.036.0001

The Women: Mask Face Quilt #1
Faith Ringgold
69 x 61.5 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 1997.007.1082

The Reconciliation Quilt
Lucinda Ward Honstain
Dated 1867 
Brooklyn, New York  
97 x 84.5 in.
Gift of Robert and Ardis James, 2001.011.0001

Fingerprint Series: #6 Detail Oriented
Barbara Watler
Hollywood, Florida  
35.5 x 35.5 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2005.030.0002

Fingerprint Series: #8 Centering In
Barbara Watler
Hollywood, Florida  
35.5 x 35.5 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2005.030.0003

Fingerprint Series: #9 Triple Bypass
Barbara Watler
Hollywood, Florida  
35.5 x 35.5 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2005.030.0004

Baltimore Album Quilt
Dated 1850 
Baltimore, Maryland  
106.5 x 107 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 1997.007.0319

Feathered Star
Circa 1840-1850
Possibly made in Maryland or Pennsylvania  
96 x 93 in.
Ardis and Robert James Collection, 1997.007.0534

Baltimore Album Quilt
Dated 1846 
Baltimore, Maryland  
102 x 102 in.
Purchase made possible through James Foundation Acquisition Fund, 2005.039.0001

Works in the Exhibition

Gallery Photos

Gallery Photos
Gallery Photos
This exhibition was made possible through funding from the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has supported this exhibition through its matching grants program funded by the Nebraska Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment. Visit www.artscouncil.nebraska.gov for more information. Additional support provided by Friends of the International Quilt Museum. Additional support provided by Friends of the International Quilt Museum.
Event Date
Sunday, March 30, 2008 to Sunday, August 17, 2008