Quilts of Emotion

Quilts of Emotion

Sewing is ageless. The act of using a needle and thread to join two pieces of cloth together stretches back centuries. For some, sewing will always be associated with enforced tedium and drudgery, but for many, stitching has provided space for entertainment and friendship or time for meditation, reflection, and consolation. Quilting offers makers a chance to share happy times with others and to come together as an act of friendship or through a common cause. Some find refuge in their solitary sewing releasing them for a few hours from other tasks. 

This exhibition will not offer the viewer a cohesive collection of quilts connected by a common style, color, technique or provenance. What unites the work here are the emotions to be explored within them. Makers have rarely recorded the benefits they derived from the act of sewing, but they are stitched into each piece seen here. However, interspersed throughout the gallery are some selected quotations from other makers that suggest the range of the emotions imbedded in the stitches. 

We invite you to view the exhibition and discover the emotions that can be experienced on three separate levels. The makers were driven by a variety of feelings to begin their projects, and their thoughts and musings evolved while they worked. As they sewed, they valued the time that allowed them to be sociable or the peace when they quietly stitched. The finished pieces now evoke a response from the viewer who is drawn to the design and color or touched by the stories behind their making.   

The quilts in this exhibition are from the International Quilt Museum’s Permanent Collection

About the Guest Curator

About the Guest Curator
About the Guest Curator

Bridget Long is a textile historian. A Visiting Research Fellow in History at the University of Hertfordshire and a past President of The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles, she is an advisor to The Quilters’ Guild Collection. Long is an Associate Fellow of the International Quilt Museum and curated Elegant Geometry: American and British Mosaic Patchwork at the museum in 2011. 

Long became interested in the history of emotion while researching her history doctorate examining British patchwork in the eighteenth century. When she uncovered needlewomen’s thoughts about sewing recorded in diaries and reminiscences, she appreciated that emotions felt then were no different from those experienced by quilters today.

Social Sewing

Social Sewing
Social Sewing

Sewing together allows time for the give and take of conversation while stitching pieces of patchwork or bent over a quilting frame. We should never ignore the support and comfort experienced in a group when working toward a common goal where stitchers can harness the power of cooperative thinking to solve problems, give advice, counsel the worried or make plans for the future. Social sewing provides time for enjoyment too. Sarah Hurst’s experiences of riotous quilting parties in eighteenth-century Britain were likely to be no different from those in western Texas in the twentieth century.



Craftivism was coined by Betsey Greer in 2003 to encompass a form of activism that is centered on practices of crafts to encourage collective action and expression. British craftivist Sarah Corbett later described it as the art of gentle protest used to engage, empower, and encourage. Quilts have long been used in a form of gentle protest and some of the group-made quilts in this exhibition are the embodiment of craftivism from the Seamsters Union’s campaign to protect their town’s historic buildings to the German quilt group’s efforts to highlight the lack of progress in the campaign for universal human rights.

Solitary Sewing

Solitary Sewing
Solitary Sewing

Sewing alone allows time for inner conversations. The repetitive nature of passing a needle and thread through cloth leaves the mind to run free. Authoress Jane Austen was described as doing needlework while she worked out plots for her latest novel and Ernest Haight used the creative process of quilting to distract him from his financial and family problems.  Joy Saville worked on Event Horizon while she came to terms with the loss of her husband whereas Mary Strickler celebrated her three sons’ safe return from war in her Crazy quilt.

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Event Horizon, 2008
Joy Saville
Princeton, New Jersey
Gift from Joy Saville and Friends, with special support from the Lincoln High Class of 1953, IQM 2011.005.0001

Quilt artist, Joy Saville, worked on this quilt after the death of her husband, and she says that it is “…filled with emotion and passion.” Her son named it after the surface of a black hole, which Saville felt was a perfect description of her mental and emotional state at the time, “as,” she says, “I was working hard at developing a new relationship with Dudley in the absence of his physical presence.” 

How do you feel when you look at Event Horizon?

Menschen, 1998
Gisela Rikeit, et al
Graben-Neudorf, Germany
Gift of Robert and Ardis James, IQM 1998.008.0001

This quilt was created to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. One of the makers, Gisela Rikeit, explained that, “The bright colors demonstrate our positive emotions, born by the knowledge of the achievements in the fight for human rights. The black border, in places with barbed wire, expresses our sadness, knowing that torture, imprisonment, and atrocity are still reality in some countries.”

Boro Futon Cover, circa 1875-1900
Maker Unidentified
Gift of the Robert and Ardis James Foundation, 
IQM 2009.017.0007

The Japanese religious belief of Shinto attributes spiritual value to all inanimate things, including textile artifacts. Cloth is valued highly and extending the life of a textile by patching, repairing, or recycling can be regarded as admirable. Boro originated in rural Japan where poverty necessitated the thrifty use of fabric, often hemp cloth dyed with indigo. The term is derived from boroboro, meaning something tattered or repaired. Boro clothing and household textiles are now highly regarded for their aesthetic quality and valued for their ethic of thriftiness and economy. 

Star of St. Louis, 1972
Ernest B. Haight
David City, Nebraska
Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, IQM 2014.075.0004

Ernest Haight (1899-1992) began quiltmaking around 1934. Trained in engineering, mathematics, and mechanical design, he challenged himself to make quilts of complex geometric designs while working out new, efficient machine-pieced methods. Haight quilted through a period of personal losses and financial reversals and found solace in his work. His eldest son, Aubrey, recalled, “He’d unwind, he'd come home after chores and milking cows; that's how he'd relax. He'd sit there at the sewing machine for a while and then go to bed. He didn't do it from necessity..., but he was artistic…, and he liked to do it.”

Douglas County Bank Building, 1987
The Seamsters Union
Lawrence, Kansas
Gift of Linda Claussen, IQM 2002.008.0001

Angered by the demolition of several old houses in the Old West Lawrence Historic District to provide parking for a bank, the Seamsters Union sewed their outrage into a quilt. Their gentle protest drew much media attention and helped encourage the issuing of an order by the Attorney General that, “Cities must notify the Kansas State Historical Society of proposed changes in zoning or planned demolition near a historical site.” In this quilt, the Seamsters’ protest had a significant influence on the development of future planning policy for their town. 

Do you think that this could be the case elsewhere?

Wild Goose Chase, circa 1980-1990
Boligee, Greene County, Alabama
Robert and Helen Cargo Collection, IQM 2000.004.0110

The Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) is the United States’ largest volunteer network for people aged 55 and above. Members of the Greene County, Alabama RSVP Club gathered to quilt together, socialize, and serve community needs. 

Can you imagine the kind of conversations that were held across the quilting frame when news of families and friends was exchanged and advice sought and given?

Album, 1930-1932
Members of the Royal Neighbors
Detroit, Michigan
Gift of Royal Neighbors of America, Rock Island, Illinois, 
IQM 2016.057.0001

Royal Neighbors of America, established in 1895, is one of the largest women-led life insurers in the country with a dual mission of financial protection and an ethic of “neighbor helping neighbor.” Its organizational structure divided its members into camps. This quilt is inscribed with the names of members and camps in the state of Michigan. It is possible its making is related to the 18th Quadrennial Supreme Camp held in Detroit in 1933, which was attended by 275 delegates representing 601,062 members across the country. The quilt could have been a fundraiser for the event.

Album, 1995-1998
Carol Joyce Thomson Falk
Nebraska City, Nebraska
Gift of Laurence Falk, IQM 2009.009.0002

Carol Joyce Thompson Falk (1929-2009) began quilting after her retirement when she lived in Nebraska City, stitching more than 50 quilts. In this quilt, she celebrates her female ancestors, many of whom were born and raised in Boone County, Iowa. In doing so, Falk looks back across the generations of women who helped settle their families across the United States and maintain the tradition of sewing wherever they went. 

So many pieces of needlework or even needlework tools have been passed down through families. Is there something in your family that connects you to your past?

Crosses, 1844
Amwell First English Presbyterian Church
Hunterdon County, New Jersey 
Ardis and Robert James Collection, IQM 1997.007.0317

Women of the Amwell First Presbyterian Church, Reaville, Raritan Township, Hunterdon County came together to stitch a gift for their pastor, Rev. David Hall, to present at his leaving service in April 1844. The quilt contains thirty-two signatures from the Greenville and Cloverhill congregation. During Rev. Hall’s nearly seven years of service, the church membership grew from 88 to 173.

Women in Struggle Quilt, 1983
Genny Guracar
Mountain View, California
Gift of Needle and Thread Arts Society, IQM 2007.008.0002

Genny Guracar was the originator and coordinator of three quilts made by the Needle Arts and Thread Arts Society. In this quilt, the makers highlighted themes that directly affected the lives and well-being of women across the world. A twist was that one of the group stitched a block (in the middle row, fourth from the right) emphasizing the conditions experienced by women working in textile sweat shops. The DÓNDE ESTÁN block, in the row above, portrays the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Argentina, who campaigned for the return of their loved ones from illegal imprisonment. Estela Barnes de Carlotto, the leader of the Grandmothers who inspired the design of the block, was reunited thirty-five years later in 2013 with her grandson born to her “disappeared” daughter while in prison.

Negative Space, Positive Time, 2017
Sara Impey
England, United Kingdom
Gift of Sara Impey and Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, IQM 2017.089.0004

Trained as a journalist, Sara Impey uses words to convey feelings through her work. Her themes often feature ironic views of the world’s current culture, politics, and social networks, but also reflect on the act of sewing. Impey’s way of working may be time-consuming, but she does not begrudge it because it enables her thoughts to run free. She recognizes the timeless nature of sewing. “We may not know their names and we can’t hear their voices, but when we stitch, we are picking up threads of those who stitched before us.’” 

Weeping Willow, circa 1860-1880
Maker Unidentified
Probably made in Berks County, Pennsylvania
Linda Giesler Carlson and Dr. John V. Carlson Collection, 
IQM 2010.008.0006

The weeping willow tree has long been associated with emotions of sadness and grief because of the shape of its downward hanging branches. It is often used symbolically on gravestones and in mourning pictures. The unidentified maker of this quilt added a gravestone and raven under the central willow tree at the bottom suggesting this was made to signify a bereavement.

Sujani, circa 1970-2000
Maker Unidentified
West Bengal, India
Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, IQM 2015.027.0001

Sujani is a form of embroidery originally practiced in the Indian eastern state of Bihar. It was traditionally made using layers of old cloth stitched together with bright threads to provide a soft covering for a newborn baby; today, it is used with different imagery to convey social or political messages. The theme of this design is marriage and relationships, with groups of women in each corner standing closely together as friends or family. Such imagery is repeated in different styles across the world, but always reflects the same feelings of love and friendship.

Crazy quilt, 1898
Mary Elizabeth Strickler Phillips
Seward County, Nebraska
Mary E. Phillips 1898 Crazy Quilt given by The Alice Phillips Stephen Family, IQM 2013.053.0001

Mary Elizabeth Strickler Phillips moved with her husband to Seward Country, Nebraska in 1871. After the unexplained explosion on the USS Maine in Cuba, three of their sons—Wilmer, George, and Joseph—served in the Spanish American War of 1898 in the 22nd US Infantry, 8th US Cavalry and 4th US Artillery, respectively. In honor of their sons’ service and expression of her gratitude that all three survived the war, Mary embroidered their initials on a band across the center of the Crazy patchwork blocks. 

Works in the Exhibition

Virtual Tour

Virtual Tour
Virtual Tour

Textile Talk with the Guest Curator

Textile Talk with the Guest Curator
Textile Talk with the Guest Curator
Support for this exhibition has been provided by the following sponsors, and by contributions from visitors like you. Thank you to Friends of the International Quilt Museum, Nebraska Arts Council / 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.
Event Date
Friday, December 4, 2020 to Saturday, March 27, 2021