Yikes! Stripes

Yikes! Stripes

The quilts in this exhibition celebrate the eye-catching visual effects that makers create using stripes. The quilts illustrate the dynamic, appealing nature of the stripe. Medieval history scholar, Michel Pastoureau suggests that the striped surface calls for attention in a way that other surfaces don’t. Referring to the ambiguous relationship between foreground and background that stripes create, he asks, “Does the eye see that which fools it more clearly?” Are eyes attracted to striped surfaces because they are more complex? The quilts in this exhibition silently but clearly address this question and let the viewer decide.

The quilts in this exhibition are organized according to the arrangement of their stripes. Diagonal stripes, concentric stripes, and vertical stripes are grouped in order to call attention to some of the basic ways the stripe functions. The quilts are also grouped to show the visual effects that can be produced with variations in color, value, and intensity. The information that accompanies each quilt highlights one of three dimensions that make the stripe such a popular surface treatment. These three dimensions—cultural, historical, and visual—illustrate the multitude of lenses through which one can examine a striped surface. Each quilt references either one of the four cultural traditions previously mentioned, a historical use of stripes, or a visual property of the striped surface. 

Why Stripes?

Why Stripes?
Why Stripes?

Why do zebras have stripes?  Why do cars and shoes with stripes look faster? Why do quiltmakers use stripes? 

A zebra’s stripes protect it from predators. Scholars suggest that stripes camouflage zebras when they graze in tall grasses and confuse their predators when they travel in a herd. Imagine what a lion, leopard or cheetah would see when 30 or 40 zebras standing close together all moved in different directions. Confusion!  Additionally, every zebra has its own unique pattern which helps them recognize each other. The high contrast between a zebra’s black and white stripes and the zebra’s familiarity with the stripes of the other zebras in his or her herd makes it easy for the animals to locate each other when danger arises.  

We associate striped cars and shoes with speed because, as Michel Pastoureau explains, the stripe is a “dynamic surface structure . . . The stripe doesn’t wait, doesn’t stand still. It is in perpetual motion.”  “Go-faster-stripes” have been used on racecars and athletic gear for many years. It has been suggested that the first event to feature striped racecars was the 24-hour endurance race in Le Mans, France in 1950. 1949 was the year in which the Adidas sporting goods company’s iconic three-stripe design first appeared on footwear. The company has since guarded their trademark stripes jealously, as its gear became a favored choice among exceptional athletes. 

Quiltmakers employ stripes for various reasons. Some are attracted to the eye-catching appearance of a striped surface; others make striped quilts because the stripe allows them to create a variety of striking designs with simple construction techniques.  Quiltmakers may be inspired to use stripes like those they see in nature, architecture, paintings, sculpture or any of the other visual arts. Some quilters create striped quilts because there is a tradition of doing so in their community. Amish, African-American, English, and Indian traditions include particularly strong and sustained examples of striped quiltmaking

Traditions of Striped Quilts

Traditions of Striped Quilts
Traditions of Striped Quilts

The Bars pattern is one of three major quilt patterns associated with Amish communities, particularly those found in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Characteristics of Amish Bars quilts include diagonal quilting lines in parallel, intersecting lines; one or more borders, occasionally including corner squares; heavily saturated, solid colors in striking combinations; and machine (treadle) stitched seams. 

The Strippy quilt is a traditional quilt style from Britain. Quilts pieced in strips were made in a few distinct locales, including Wales and Counties Northumberland and Durham in northeastern England. Quilts from Northumberland and Durham are frequently quilted in designs that fit into the pieced strips, whereas quilts made in Wales more often display quilting in a medallion pattern like that found on whole cloth quilts.  A distinctive feature that many British strippy quilts share is the "knife edge" binding method. The edges of both the top and back of these quilts are typically turned in towards each other, rather than bound with applied fabric. It has been suggested that the development of the sewing machine made it easier to piece together long strips of fabric into utilitarian bedcovers. The presence of machine stitched seams on the majority of strippy quilts supports this theory.   

Kantha and Ralli quilts are traditional bed coverings from the Indian subcontinent. In Bengal, an ethno-linguistic region that includes the present day state of West Bengal, India and the country of Bangladesh, kantha  quilting has a long history. In the western region of the Indian subcontinent, in the present day provinces Sindh, Punjab, and Baluchistan in Pakistan, and the Indian states Gujarat and Rajasthan, ralli quilts are prevalent. These two traditions encompass many different styles of embroidery and quilting that differ according to the cultural heritage of the maker.  Stripes in piecing and stripes formed by embroidered and quilted designs are used in many different ways in both of these types of quilts.  

Strip quilts made by African-American quilters of the rural South often have a distinct aesthetic quality. Variations in placement, orientation and length of strips create ample  room for visual interest in these quilts. One informant in an oral history interview recalled that a strip pattern was called “Lazy Gal” and that it was the first pattern taught to young girls, presumably because it was easy to piece.

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Log Cabin, Straight Furrows setting
Circa 1890-1910
Possibly made in Pennsylvania
75 x 73 inches

Stripes similar to the diagonal stripes of this quilt were used during the 14th century to identify and segregate sex workers from the general population, as evidenced by the image in this mural from Northern Italy. Contrary to the more neutral connotations that stripes hold today, stripes clearly held negative associations in medieval times.

An interesting bit of folklore about diagonal stripes is related to the fact that the ubiquitous red, white, and blue striped barber’s pole supposedly originated in the days when barbers also served as surgeons and dentists. Tradition indicates that during surgery, strips of cloth were used to soak up blood, and following the procedure the strips were hung from a pole to dry. As the blood-soaked strips wrapped around the pole in the wind, the pole acquired the spiral-striped look we are familiar with today.

Roman Stripe
Circa 1915
Possibly made in Ohio
83 x 59 inches

Diagonal lines are associated with movement and action. Paintings with diagonal compositions have a restless feel. Action, liveliness, and even noise can be expressed through the use of intersecting and zigzagging lines in paintings.

Diagonals in fashion are associated with energy and youthfulness. Imagine a dress with an asymmetrical hemline—the hemline darts across the body in an unexpected way, suggesting the carefree nature of youth.
The diagonal lines in this quilt are especially lively because of the bright colors and unsettled nature of their arrangement.

Circa 1890-1910
Made in Wales, U.K.
84 x 71 inches

The strippy quilt, a vertically-striped quilt without borders, was extremely popular in Wales, as well as Counties Northumberland and Durham in northeastern England. Strippy quilts from England and Wales are often machine pieced because they call for long straight seams that are easy to stitch with a sewing machine. Additionally, strippy quilts are often finished using the “knife-edge” binding method whereby the edges of the quilt top and back are turned in towards each other and stitched together. Strippy quilts from Wales, like this one, differ slightly from quilts made in northeastern England. Welsh quilts typically feature large medallion quilting designs like those found on whole-cloth quilts, whereas English quilts from Northumberland and Durham feature quilting designs contained within each strip.

Circa 1920
Probably made in Pennsylvania
76 x 75 inches

One of the most popular pieced patterns among Amish quiltmakers is called “Bars.” Amish Bars quilts typically have one or more borders and occasionally include corner squares. They are constructed on treadle sewing machines from solid fabrics in heavily saturated colors. Frequently, the color choices result in striking combinations. A grid of diamonds is often used as the quilting design.

Strict guidelines, which vary from community to community, define many elements of Amish life, among them dress and decoration in the home. Amish quilts, while not always expressly subject to restrictions, tend to feature simple design elements that are in keeping with the Amish inclination to lead simple lives, separate from the mainstream secular world.

Circa 1860-1880
Probably made in Wales, U.K.
76 x 75 inches

The twelve vertical strips of coordinating, printed brown-and-white cotton fabrics lend this quilt its soothing monochromatic appearance. Vertical stripes give stability and permanence to a composition. The alternating and unevenly spaced brown-and-white strips echo the appearance of solid winter tree trunks in a snowy forest.

Circa 1860
Quilted initials: “AAM”
Made in United States
93 x 85 inches

Exceptional quilting distinguishes this quilt from many of its striped companions. Broad stripes such as these, pieced together to form the quilt top, require minimal planning and minimal time to construct. Quiltmakers who prefer quilting to piecing will find stripes pleasantly suited to their desire for a striking, yet simple-to-make canvas upon which to showcase their fine quilting stitches. The straightforward, architectural stripes in this quilt call to mind the carved marble pillars that support ancient buildings like the Parthenon in Greece. Stripes in architecture can take many forms. Another striking example is the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain. Red and white bricks are used in the arches that support the roof. The result is a dramatic ceiling surface reminiscent of candy-stripes.

Split Bars
Circa 1880-1900
Possibly made in Pennsylvania
85 x 84 inches

Though this quilt features stripes of multiple colors and widths, the alternation between dark stripes and light stripes resemble the black and white stripes of 19th century prison uniforms. Striped prison uniforms were employed to distinguish prisoners from civilians. Michel Pastoureau, medieval history scholar and author of the book The Devil’s Stripe: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, proposes that prison stripes also serve to “straighten out,” through a process of aesthetic osmosis, the flaws of the individual who wears them. Pastoureau theorizes that the prison stripe may have been the inspiration for stripes as symbols of freedom. Using the confining bars of the prison uniform as a symbol for their break from tyranny, American revolutionaries, and shortly thereafter French revolutionaries, rallied behind striped flags. The leader of the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror,” Maximillian Robespierre, wore a striped overcoat to express his solidarity with the revolution.

Tree Everlasting
Circa 1880-1900
Possibly made in Pennsylvania
88.5 x 90 inches

Brilliant cheddar orange and dark green strips with tiny triangles on the sides form stripes with jagged edges, creating a dizzying effect. As the eye processes the light that reflects from this object, the two intense and contrasting colors produce extremes of retinal stimulation that result in a blurring effect at the boundary between the two colors. The visual distortion caused by the contrasting colors further accentuates the blurring caused by the saw-tooth edges. Navajo Native American weavers were also attracted to this effect and created stunning woven blankets and rugs in a style called “eye-dazzlers.”

“Backgammon Quilt”
Circa 1950-1960
Lucile Young
Tuscaloosa, Alabama
82.5 x 67.5 inches

Pink and blue diamonds in this quilt create dazzling stripes similar to those found on the “Razzle Dazzle” warships used in WWI and WWII. These ships were intended to confuse the lookout on enemy ships. The stripes, painted in bright colors and deceptive patterns, disguised the shape of the ship and prevented other ships from determining the direction in which the ships were traveling.

Circa 1970-1990
Pakistan or India
84 x 58 inches

From the western region of the Indian subcontinent, in the provinces of Sindh, Punjab, and Baluchistan in Pakistan and the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan in India, come ralli quilts. Rallis can be emroidered, pieced, or appliquéd. This ralli quilt exhibits multiple embroidered borders forming an allover design. The extensive embroidery and the stitches highlighting the right angles formed as each border meets in the four corners are characteristic of quilts made by people of the Saami group or tribe. Ralli quilts are used as sleeping surfaces and sleeping covers. They are sometimes made and offered as part of a woman’s dowry.

Strip Quilt
Circa 1993
Eva Burrell
Green County, Alabama
85 x 74 inches

Many striking examples of strip quilts have been stitched by African-American quiltmakers. Maude Southwell Wahlman, art historian and author of the book Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts, interviewed African-American quiltmakers from the rural South. One informant, a woman identified as “Pearly,” recalled that a pattern made of long strips was called “Lazy Gal.” Pearly claims that this pattern, presumably one that is easy to piece, was taught to young girls who were just learning to quilt. Like the pattern Pearly calls “Lazy Gal,” this strip quilt is made from long strips of fabric. These strips however, are composed of numerous pieces stitched together. Perhaps this striking variation should be called “Industrious Gal.”

Chinese Coins
Circa 1930-1950
Probably made in Holmes County, Ohio, by a member of the Yoder family
46 x 31.5 inches

Chinese Coins is a pattern frequently used by Amish quiltmakers. The construction technique, which employs short strips of fabric pieced together to form longer strips, is very similar in construction to the African-American strip quilt next to this one. Both are examples of simple, striped quilt patterns that produce deceptively complex and extraordinarily appealing surfaces. The pattern name is thought to have derived from the fact that in ancient China, the single-holed coins were counted and held together in stacks on long strings.

Rising Sun variation
Circa 1915
Probably made in Gettysburg, PA
77 x 73 inches

Concentric rings appear everywhere. Tree rings, dart boards, the paintings of mid-20th century artist Kenneth Noland, and the logos for Tide laundry detergent and mass-market retailer Target, all feature repeating circular stripes. This quilt, in a variation of the Rising Sun pattern, reminds us that the sun, from which it takes its name, is another familiar, round radiating object.

Spider Web
Dated 1936
Probably made in Union County, Ohio
78 x 70 inches

Strip construction techniques like the one used in this Spider Web quilt were popular with American quiltmakers during the second half of the 19th century. Log Cabin quilts in every possible variation proliferated. Perhaps surprisingly, this quilt is a Log Cabin variation itself. Starting with the Pineapple variation of a Log Cabin block, the maker of this Spider Web quilt continued adding strips until the octagon reached nearly 80 inches across. The quilt was then cut to form a rectangle and borders and binding were added.

Though Log Cabin style quilts were at the height of popularity during the second half of the 19th century, this quilt was made much closer to the middle of the 20th, in 1936. None of the typical, “pretty” 1930s design elements such as pastel colors and floral motifs are present. Instead, the maker used darker, heavily saturated colors reminiscent of the earlier Victorian era. However, the quilt does not have a somber look. Rather its unconventional appearance has an exuberant quality that would have made a lively, heartening addition to the home of its Depression-era owner.

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.
Event Date
Friday, January 16, 2009 to Sunday, April 5, 2009