The quilts in this exhibition were selected from the impressive collection of Etsuko Terasaki. She has been fascinated with colors and designs in fabric since her childhood in Japan. More than thirty-five years ago, she saw her first American quilt and soon after became an avid collector. With an eye for quality in design and craftsmanship, she built a stellar collection over the years that at one time numbered nearly three hundred quilts. We are pleased to be able to show some of the highlights, featuring pieced quilts made in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Quiltmaking has a long tradition and is still practiced widely today. The earliest surviving European bed quilts were made in Sicily in the fifteenth century. The earliest example of a pieced cotton quilt is in a set of bed furnishings at Levens Hall in England, made in 1708. American women made quilts from the time of their arrival in the colonies. Fabrics were hard to get on this side of the ocean, and when quilts were made they were used, and used up. It was this scarcity of materials, and the need to provide warm bedding for homes, that fueled innovation and led to the uniquely American pieced quilts, so varied in pattern and form. Women saved every scrap of fabric, parsed the square, and developed block patterns inspired by the world around them. In the nineteenth century, when factories in the United States began printing fabric, women had easier access to affordable materials in a range of colors and patterns. The creative possibilities multiplied. Thousands of quilt patterns emerged with colorful names inspired by nature, religion, politics, and daily life.
Out of necessity almost all women—and some men—made quilts. It is hard to imagine how many American quilts were created prior to the twentieth century, but estimates reach into the millions. Only a fraction survive today. Of these, many were made for special occasions and were lovingly cared for. A number of them stand out as exceptional, made by women with an innate sense of design and color who took their creations beyond the traditional and expressed their individuality. While they were made to grace a bed and not hang on a wall, these quilts were imagined in much the same way an artist might conceive a painting on a canvas, with careful consideration of composition, the effects of color, line, form, and texture, and the expressive qualities of the materials. Making quilts was one of the few creative outlets for women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In a groundbreaking show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971, curated by collectors Jonathan Holstein and Gale van der Hoof, quilts were looked at for their formal design qualities apart from their function, and valued as works of art in fabric. The best American quilts embody a highly personal engagement with design and color. The works in this exhibition are of this ilk. Sophisticated in design and uniquely expressive, they remind us of the timeless human impulse to create order and beauty in our surroundings, with whatever resources available, for utility and for pure visual pleasure. We are grateful to Etsuko Terasaki for sharing her collection with us, and to members of the Tompkins County Quilters Guild for their enthusiastic assistance in preparing the quilts for display.
Associate Director for Programs/Harriett Ames Charitable Trust Curator of Education