War and Pieced

War and Pieced

War and Pieced quilt detail

The theater of war is an unlikely backdrop for the making of quilts of dazzling beauty. Stitched with varying degrees of skill by soldiers, sailors, and regimental tailors, from a distance they seem exemplars of disciplined precision, each small piece of heavy wool aligned to the next with military regularity. As one draws near, though, it is hard not to sense the beating hearts of men in uniform striving for normalcy—even jaunty optimism—as they braved death and duty amid volatile landscapes in the Crimea, South Africa, India, and in Prussia, Austria, and France.

The quilts in this exhibition are drawn primarily from the unparalleled collection of quilt historian Dr. Annette Gero, assembled over a period of more than thirty years from fewer than one hundred known examples. Quilt is used as a term of convenience to refer to these textiles that are not quilted, have no batting, and are almost never backed. Many were intended to be wall hung, or they were used as table covers rather than as bedcovers; others functioned as portable game boards. The end use was less critical than the act of creation itself either during a campaign or upon return to the safe harbor of home.

Complex geometric quilts associated with conflicts of the Victorian British Empire sometimes documented personal engagement in battles, regiments, and accoutrements of war. They followed an earlier tradition of pictorial inlaid quilts dating from the Prussian and Napoleonic wars of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. All are made from felted woolens used in tailoring regular military and dress uniforms. The quilts offer a mixed metaphor: One truth is the soldier’s pride in service and love of country. Another is his mute acknowledgement of the atrocities that must be expiated by fracturing a uniform and reconstructing it into something else.

Quilts made in response to war attempt to reconcile the morality of the empathetic soldier and the immorality of his deeds enacted under dire circumstances. The uniforms, associated with the best and the worst of humanity, are thus rehabilitated as an act of redemption for those darker human impulses. The uniforms are metamorphosed into testaments of ordered sanity and beauty, even as the highly organized geometry grants the soldier an illusion of control over the predations of war in which he has both witnessed and participated.

Stacy C. Hollander, exhibition cocurator
Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs and Chief Curator, American Folk Art Museum

© 2017-2018 - This exhibition's information and photographs may not be reproduced without permission.

Collector's Statement

Collector's Statement
Collector's Statement

These extraordinary textiles, all made by men, demonstrate that some beauty can come out of the horrors of war. The emotions and the pleasures provided by these pieces—in particular, the intarsias, which tell stories of kings and other brave men—have meant that they have survived and been treasured for three hundred years by subsequent generations. We may not know for what purpose they were used or even why they were made, but they are still exemplary works of great beauty. Although the quilts are all somehow related to war, to me, they are about passion. The makers thought about their children and loved ones at home, the celebration of kings and victories, and most importantly, the feeling of hope through centuries of wars.

Dr. Annette Gero, exhibition cocurator
International quilt historian, collector, and author
Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts, London

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition

Intarsia Quilt with Soldiers and Musicians
Artist unidentified; initialed “J.S.J.”
Prussia
c. 1760–1780
Wool, with embroidery thread; intarsia; hand-appliquéd and hand-embroidered
The Annette Gero Collection

The musicians, soldiers, and potted tulips that distinguish this intarsia relate strongly to motifs seen in Germanic folk arts from textiles to ceramics and the calligraphic form known as fraktur. The quilt includes typical Prussian fort blocks and blocks that depict a court jester, couples, and a stork, the symbolic bringer of children.

The soldiers at the top of the quilt wear the red, blue, and white uniforms of musketeers of a Prussian infantry regiment, and the soldiers in white are Prussian cuirassiers, the heavy cavalry regiments who wore uniforms of this kind in the period of Frederick II (1712–1786). The presence of musicians may be a nod to the king’s love of music and patronage of the arts. Frederick the Great, as he was known, reigned over the kingdom of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, modernizing the nation economically and culturally. His military success during the Seven Years’ War against the allied forces of Austria, Russia, France, and Sweden, resulted in Prussia’s emergence as a world power in the shifting geopolitical landscape.

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Prussian Army Intarsia Quilt 
Samuel Sadlowski (dates unknown)
Prussia or Silesia
Dated 1806
Wool from military uniforms, with embroidery thread; intarsia; hand-appliquéd and hand-embroidered
The Annette Gero Collection

This quilt was made by Samuel Sadlowski, a tailor in civilian life, who was taken prisoner by the French while serving in the Royal Prussian Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Sadlowski utilized his needlework skills to sew officers’ uniforms during his internment. Remarkably, he also created this and two additional quilts from leftover scraps of the material. The initials “S.S.” on the quilts are his own, and “E.W.S.” are those of his wife, Eleanora Wilhelmina Schaar. The date 1806, worked in chain stitch, is the year in which the Holy Roman Empire, a complex of Central European territories, was dissolved when Emperor Francis I of Austria yielded his authority to Napoleon Bonaparte.

A double-headed eagle figures prominently in this centerpiece, flanked by a golden thrush and a sparrow. The quilt also includes a series of blocks known as “fort blocks,” which are unique to intarsias. Made using the inlaid technique sometimes called Silesian piecing, they may represent aerial views of eighteenth-century fortresses of the region, especially star forts. Surprisingly, a border along the bottom is illustrated with the folktale of a fox being hunted after stealing a goose, on which a German-language children’s song is based. It translates as “Fox, you’ve stolen the goose.

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Holy Roman Empire Intarsia Quilt
Artist unidentified
Prussia or Austria
1846–1851
Wool, with embroidery thread; intarsia; hand-appliquéd and hand-embroidered
Collection International Quilt Study Center & Museum
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2011.068.0001

Intarsia quilts often relied upon copy prints as sources for their imagery. This is certainly the case for this example, which is remarkable for the four impressive architectural images on each side, only one of which has been identified with some certainty. It contains words in German that translate as “Austrian (Holy Roman Empire)” and “Started 1846 and finished 1851.” Several layers of now undecipherable German Gothic writing embroidered on each edge may further identify the structures.

The quilt may have been made as a tribute to King Frederick William III of Prussia (1770–1840), whose long reign encompassed the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. The center contains a crest representing the coat of arms of the kingdom of Prussia. The crest was adopted in 1815, after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, when the Congress of Vienna redistributed contested lands among the involved nations. Two additional crests are each shown twice in the four corners of the quilt: the coat of arms of the Empire of Austria, created in 1804, and the coat of arms of the kingdom of Saxony, created in 1806. Both were in use until 1918. 

In 1793, Frederick William married Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1776–1810), who bore him ten children and tragically died at the age of thirty-four. The queen was immensely popular with the Prussian people because of her staunch nationalism during the Napoleonic Wars and her womanly virtues. After her death, the Order of Louise was created to honor women who had contributed to the Prussian defense during the Napoleonic Wars.

The mounted figures appliquéd on the quilt may represent King Frederick William III and his wife, Queen Louise. They are placed in the celebrated Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule), which was built in Vienna, Austria, between 1729 and 1735. The school was famous for its highly trained white Lipizzan horses, which performed the difficult classical dressage movements. King Frederick William IIII was an accomplished horseman, and he chose an equestrian pose for his well-known portrait by Franz Kruger.

The low, colonnaded temple appears to be a faithful representation of the Maison Carrée (square house) in Nîmes, France, once a Roman city. Built around 47 CE, it is the only completely preserved temple of the ancient Roman world.

This complex image may be the Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin, Germany, commissioned originally by Sophia Charlotte of Hanover (1668–1705), wife of King Frederick I of Prussia, and substantially expanded during several subsequent reigns. King Frederick William III and Queen Louise spent a great deal of time in the east wing and are buried in the mausoleum erected on the grounds.

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Quilt with Inlaid Chessboard
Artist unidentified
Silesia
Mid-nineteenth century
Wool from military uniforms
The Annette Gero Collection

Letters written by soldiers during the Crimean War often included detailed accounts of the ways in which they spent their time between military engagements, when tensions were high and conditions difficult. One healthy way for soldiers to occupy themselves, expend energy, reinforce a sense of camaraderie, and sharpen their senses was through games of strategy, such as chess and draughts, or checkers. Playing games offered relief from the anticipation of battle and provided a sense of normalcy and connection to home. A number of boards that were seemingly pieced from fabric salvaged from military uniforms have survived. These may have traveled with the soldier from encampment to encampment. The physical presence associated with such an object is undeniable, a visceral sense of intimacy and memorializing, whether it was fashioned from fragments of cloth that became available through wear or through death. This quilt was pieced with no seam allowances, and it is identical on both sides.

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The Intellect and Valour of Britain Intarsia Quilt
Michael Zumpf (c. 1819–1891)
London, England, and Bohemia
c. 1870
Wool from military and naval dress uniforms, with silk embroidery thread; intarsia; hand-embroidered
The Annette Gero Collection

Intarsia quilts were made in Central European nations—¬notably Prussia, Saxony, and Silesia—over a relatively brief time, and their transmission to Victorian England remains obscure. The technique most probably migrated with skilled immigrant tailors, such as Hungarian-born Michael Zumpf, who produced a number of intarsias intended for public exhibitions. Three spectacular examples were valued at 300 British pounds. The brightness and variation of color in this quilt indicate it includes woolens used in the splendid regimental dress uniforms that were worn for a wide variety of pomp and ceremony. The inlaid outer border, profusely embellished with brilliant, multicolored flowers and embroidered with colored silks, may have been made in Bohemia.

The central image of this masterwork is based upon an etching, The Intellect and Valour of Great Britain, after a painting by the English artist Thomas Jones Barker (1815–1882). It is thought that the print served as the actual pattern for the scene in the central panel because all of the pictorial elements are the same size as those in the engraving. Each person figured in the quilt has been identified, including Benjamin Disraeli, William Ewart Gladstone, and a large gathering of the most important soldiers, statesmen, and writers in England during this period. They appear in a colonnaded interior beneath a portrait of Queen Victoria.

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The House of Commons, 1860 Intarsia Quilt
Michael Zumpf (c. 1819–1891)
London, England, and Bohemia
1872
Wool from military and naval dress uniforms, with silk embroidery thread; intarsia; hand-embroidered
The Annette Gero Collection

This master quilt by professional tailor Michael Zumpf was based upon a well-known etching of the House of Commons, engraved by Thomas Oldham Barlow after The House of Commons, 1860, an oil painting by artist John Phillip (1817–1867). The etching appears to have been used as a template for the expertly embroidered representation. The individuals featured are instantly recognizable: Lord Palmerston in the House of Commons with Benjamin Disraeli, the leader of the opposition, on the opposite side of the table. On the table are the mace and the dispatch box on which “1872,” the date the quilt was completed, is inscribed. Lord Palmerston was appointed prime minister in 1855, after widespread public discontent concerning the Crimean War brought down the government. He remained in office until his death in 1865.

Both textiles, made as table covers according to nineteenth-century newspapers, feature elaborate inlaid and embroidered floral borders. They appear to be more closely related to Central European traditions than English aesthetics. In fact, it is believed that Zumpf had these borders made in Bohemia rather than London.

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Military or Tailor’s Inlaid Quilt with Thistles
Artist unidentified
Crimea or Scotland
c. 1850–1860
Suiting woolens, wool from military uniforms, embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-appliquéd and hand-embroidered
The Annette Gero Collection

Based upon the expert skills evident in the piecing, embroidery, and stuffwork, this quilt was probably made by a professional military tailor. The presence of thistles among other flowers suggests an association with one of the many Scottish regiments that fought in the Crimean War. They included the Royal Scots Greys, Scots Guards, Royal Scots, Royal Scots Fusiliers, Black Watch, Highland Light Infantry, 72nd Ross-shire Buffs, Cameron Highlanders, Sutherland Highlanders, 90th Perthshire Light Infantry, and Gordon Highlanders, among others. The bravery of the 93rd Highlanders Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Balaclava on October 25, 1854, was immortalized by war journalist William H. Russell when he described the brilliant red of their uniforms, as the men formed a shallow line of defense against almost certain death from the Russian cavalry, as a “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel.” “Thin Red Line” still connotes bravery against impossible odds. 

An unusual note in this quilt is the incorporation of black and gray suiting woolens in addition to the red and black wools from military uniforms. It suggests that the quilt may have been made after the wars, once the soldier or tailor had returned home.

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Soldier’s Hexagon Quilt
Artist unidentified 
Crimea or United Kingdom
Late nineteenth century
Wool from military uniforms
The Annette Gero Collection 

This soldier’s quilt is constructed from hexagon-shaped patches of fulled or felted wool that are one-and one-fourth inches across. The use of hexagons is unusual because the majority of soldier-made quilts are comprised of squares and diamonds. The red, navy, and cream hexagons are abutted in a relatively simple pattern. There are no seam allowances at the back where the pieces are joined. The straightforward construction and rudimentary needle skills support the premise that some quilts were made by soldiers who were convalescing in a military hospital.

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Anglo-Zulu War Army Quilt
Artist unidentified 
South Africa or United Kingdom
Late nineteenth century
Wool from military uniforms, with embroidery thread; hand-embroidered, with pointed and pinked edges
The Annette Gero Collection

The majority of embroidered motifs on this quilt, comprised of thousands of tiny diamond patches cut from military uniforms, show images of African huts, stabbing spears, shields, and even a drum. They suggest that the quilt was made in memory of the Anglo-Zulu War, fought in 1879 in Zululand, South Africa. The war was especially notable for the first major battle at Isandlwana, which stunned the world. At the time, it was unthinkable that a “native” force, armed substantially with close-range stabbing weapons, could overwhelmingly defeat the troops of a Western power outfitted with modern rifles and artillery. The news of the decimation of the First Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, was sent by telegraph to Britain, transforming the nation’s attitude toward the war. Archibald Forbes, a British war correspondent for the Daily News, later wrote, “. . . to come suddenly on the spot where the slaughtered battalion of the 24th Regiment and others were lying at Isandlwana, was . . . appalling. Here I saw not the bodies, but the skeletons, of men whom I had known in life and health . . . mixed up with the skeletons of oxen and horse, and with wagons thrown on their side . . . showing how furious had been the onslaught of the enemy.

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Soldier’s Quilt
Artist unidentified
United Kingdom
c. 1855
Wool
Collection International Quilt Study Center & Museum
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2005.044.0001

The straightforward block, or grid, composition of this Soldiers quilt distinguishes it from the primarily mosaic style found in numerous other Soldier’s quilts. It is linked stylistically however, by the use of beading, primary-colored wool squares set on-point and the inclusion of heraldic symbols of the British monarchy and the Prince of Wales. The blocks, set in a symmetrical design separated by black and white squares that act as sashing, or divisions between each square, frame an intricate beaded center medallion.

The medallion holds an elaborate tribute to the British government, including the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom which is anchored by a circular shield announcing the motto of the chivalric Order of the Garter in French, “Honi soit qui mal y pense” (Shame on he who thinks evil). The motto originated with King Edward III, who ruled from 1327 to 1377, when Norman French was a common language in the UK.  The motto of English monarchs, “Dieu et mon Droit” (God and my Right) is stitched below the shield while above is the Prince of Wales’ heraldic badge - three white ostrich feathers emerging from a gold coronet. A pair of initials is stitched on both sides of the badge – A.E. and A.C. – likely representing Prince of Wales Albert Edward and his bride Alexandra Caroline of Denmark. Elaborate star designs decorate the blocks in the four corners of the medallion. 

The quilt was possibly made by an English soldier serving in India.

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Soldier’s Quilt with Incredible Border
Artist unidentified
India
c. 1855–1875
Wool from military uniforms, with beads; hand-applied beadwork and layer-appliquéd border
The Annette Gero Collection

This extraordinarily complex quilt with embroidered appliquéd layers and intricate beadwork features the regimental colors of the 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot. Originally formed in Ireland as Meredyth’s Regiment in 1702 by Thomas Meredyth, an experienced Protestant officer, the regiment was formally renamed in 1751. It was stationed in India at various times beginning in 1846, notably seeing action during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The regiment returned to England in 1875, moving on to Ireland in 1880.

The quilt is a mosaic of brilliant colors. The mid-blues were specific to uniforms worn by British regiments in India, which also had yellow facings. The crossed flags in the center represent the coat of arms of the regiment. The four corners of an inner border alternate between beadwork crowns and Prince of Wales plumes. An extraordinary feature of the quilt is the outer border. This is comprised of elaborate appliqués with crimped edges that are built up in multiple layers to create a three-dimensional effect.
Many of the quilts that were made in India feature tiny fabric discs stitched to the surface as decorative embellishments. These discs seem to be the bits of fabric ejected from the cloth as buttonholes were inserted into the uniform. Buttonholes were fashioned using a special punch tool that became very sophisticated over time and could punch out many different shapes, such as those at the edge of this quilt. As they are all identical in shape, the punch might have been able to cut multiples of these at one time.

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Soldier’s Quilt
Artist unidentified
Probably India 
c. 1850–1880
Wool, probably from military uniforms, with embroidery thread, rickrack, and velvet binding; inlaid; layer-appliquéd and hand-embroidered
Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York
Gift of Altria Group, Inc., 2008.9.1

Every seam of this Soldier’s Quilt is outlined in chain stitch, and rickrack is expertly applied around each concentric border framing the central medallion. Circular cartouches and innumerable stars are further embellished with elaborate layered appliqués whose fancy-cut edges suggest that they were stamped using a special die or tool. In its square format and covered seams, the quilt is consistent with other examples that are thought to have been made in India. Compass designs and four diagonal elements in the corners of the center medallion, which resemble pie crimpers or jagging wheels, also suggest a seafaring association.

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Beaded Soldier’s Quilt
Artist unidentified
India
c. 1860–1870
Wool, with beads; inlaid; hand-appliquéd and hand-applied beadwork
The Annette Gero Collection

India has an ancient history of beadmaking, so it is not surprising that military quilts made during the period of British occupation often incorporated tiny glass beads and other colorful decorations. This quilt is enhanced by a myriad of beads sewn into intricate designs in the central panel and applied over the seams of appliqués. Each bead is attached to a miniscule circle of fabric, probably the material cut from uniforms to form buttonholes using a special machine. The use of beads as surface embellishment may have been influenced by local traditions, as many Indian textiles were decorated with beads, mirrors, and other elements. A colonel’s orderly, who may have been Indian rather than British, often made quilts like this one.

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Quilt with No Seam Allowance
Artist unidentified
India
1860–1890s
Wool, with braid; inlaid
The Annette Gero Collection

The complexity of design and technical virtuosity of this quilt suggest that a regimental tailor made it. It is a riot of squares, diamonds, and triangles arranged in series of concentric frames around a center Diamond in the Square. This includes a border of stars and an optical middle border of tumbling blocks. As is characteristic of many quilts made in India, every seam is covered, here with a tiny strip of braid. Except for the braid, the back is identical to the front because there are no seam allowances in the inlaid technique.

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Soldier’s Mosaic Quilt
Artist unidentified
India or United Kingdom
c. 1880
Wool, with embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-embroidered, with silk binding added later
Collection International Quilt Study Center & Museum
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2009.039.0035

Based upon the workmanship and colorful palette, this quilt was probably made in India or upon the soldier’s return to the United Kingdom. The square format and concentric frames are typical of the India-made quilts, as is the presence of chain stitch embroidery around the edges of the motifs where they are inlaid, and the expert detail of a narrow strip of wool separating each seam. The center diamond contains a starburst radiating around a small crown, a symbol often found in British colonial Indian quilts.

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Regimental Bed Rug
Sergeant Malcolm MacLeod (dates unknown)
India
c. 1865
Wool, mostly from military uniforms, with embroidery thread; inlaid; hand-embroidered
The Annette Gero Collection

In 1865, Sergeant Malcolm MacLeod entered this “bed rug” in the Glasgow Industrial Exhibition where it won a medal, attesting to his exceptional workmanship and outstanding embroidery of regimental colors, foliate designs, urns overflowing with flowers, and the distinctive Highlanders headgear with long, black, tail feathers. The catalog entry listed the textile as “Item 619. Fancy Bed Rug by Malcolm MacLeod, color-serjeant, 72nd Highlanders, Stirling Castle.”

MacLeod served with the 72nd Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, as proudly noted several times on the textile. The Scottish regiment received many military honors and had a rich history of service throughout the British Empire, including action in Africa, France, India, and Crimea, some of which is recorded in embroidery on this textile: “Cape of Good Hope,” “Slvastopol” [sic], “Hindoostan” [sic], “Central India,” and “MHOW18 Serjeant 72 Highlanders, E. Indies 65.” Mhow was a cantonment in India where the regiment was deployed in 1861. An embroidered stag’s head flanked by the letters “Fe” is the Caber Feidh (Scots Gaelic for “stag’s antlers”) and refers to the regiment’s origins in Clan MacKenzie and the armorial insignia of the first Earl of Seaworth, who raised the 72nd in 1778.

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Soldier’s Quilt: Square within a Square
Artist unidentified
Crimea, India, or United Kingdom
c. 1850–1880
Wool, probably from military uniforms
Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York
Gift of General Foods, 1986.7.1

Although this quilt descended with no history, it belongs in the military quilt tradition based upon fabric, palette, and construction of tiny geometric squares set on point. Despite the appearance of symmetry, each block of concentric squares in the quilt is slightly different, with the exception of the top left and top right blocks, which are identical. The simple construction and limited palette lend credence to the idea that convalescing soldiers made such quilts as a form of occupational therapy. What appear to be four Christian crosses are included in the block at bottom center, as though marking the graves of fallen soldiers.

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Soldier’s Mosaic Quilt 
Artist unidentified
Crimea, India, or United Kingdom
c. 1850
Wool with applied cording; inlaid; hand-corded
Collection International Quilt Study Center & Museum
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2017.002.0001

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Soldier’s Mosaic Quilt
Jewett W. Curtis (1847–1927)
United States
1880–1890
Wool
Collection International Quilt Study Center & Museum
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2016.033.0001

This is believed to be the earliest of three quilts identified as the work of Jewett Washington Curtis, the only American soldier known to have made mosaic quilts from wool in the British tradition. Curtis was born in Montpelier, Vermont, in 1847. He joined the army at the age of fourteen, enlisting as a drummer in Company K, 104th Regiment New York Infantry. Curtis served at various times throughout the Civil War and was hospitalized for a short time at Gettysburg in July 1863. He became a career soldier and was stationed in Alaska to maintain order during the Gold Rush between 1898 and 1899. It is not clear where or how he was introduced to quiltmaking; it is possible that he learned the art from British soldiers during the years that he was in Alaska. However, based upon the dates 1888 and 1893 contained in one example, it is more likely that they were made during periods when he was confined to a hospital, first from 1885 to 1891 for rheumatism, and again from 1892 to 1893, recovering from a finger amputation. He died on March 20, 1927, in Walcott, New York, and is buried in the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

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Soldier’s Mosaic Stars Quilt
Artist unidentified
Found in Germantown, Pennsylvania
Late nineteenth century
Wool
Collection International Quilt Study Center & Museum
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2009.039.0062

The maker of this quilt is not identified; however, it bears strong similarities to those made by Jewett Washington Curtis, the only American soldier known to have made mosaic quilts similar to those stitched by British military men.

© 2017-2018 - This exhibition's information and photographs may not be reproduced without permission.

Works in the Exhibition

Uniform Fabrics

Uniform Fabrics
Uniform Fabrics

The red coat of the British soldier, formally adopted in 1645, formed an integral part of his identity. Before the era of modern warfare and weaponry, a red coat was also an effective means of recognizing a fellow soldier through the chaos of battle and the thick, acrid, and obscuring smoke of black gunpowder. A military hierarchy was strictly enforced through the type of dye used and the resulting brilliance and purity of the color. Uniforms worn by infantry, for instance, were dyed with inexpensive madder, a natural agent that produced various hues and might turn pink or purple over time. Non-commissioned officers, some cavalry regiments, volunteer corps, and infantry sergeants were permitted to wear an intermediate “mock scarlet,” which was achieved through a variety of dyes, whereas officers wore coatees colored scarlet with the most expensive cochineal dyes. Through the nineteenth century, the uniform facings of collars and cuffs were dyed in the regimental colors, including black, blue, buff, green, yellow, white, and sometimes even orange or purple.

The majority of quilts in this exhibition were pieced from milled wool broadcloth, used in the production of British military and ceremonial uniforms. The milling process served to increase the warmth and durability of the plain-woven cloth, which was important for soldiers serving in the field, but made it difficult to pierce the cloth with a needle and thread. The cloth was further fulled or felted to produce a raised nap. The byproduct of this finishing was the ability for the cloth to be cut without fraying, a characteristic that allowed soldiers and military tailors to create fantastically complex piecework without bulky seam allowances and to hide the overstitches in the nap.

Intarsias

Intarsias
Intarsias

Intarsia is a piecing technique especially suited to creating finely detailed pictorial representations, using woolen broadcloth that has been fulled or felted to create a raised nap. The technique was practiced in such Central European countries as Prussia, Saxony, Austria, and Silesia, during periods of changing national borders, alliances, and aggressions from the early eighteenth century through the early nineteenth century. Indeed, the imagery is often related to such complicated conflicts as the Prussian and Napoleonic wars, and features soldiers, symbols of empire, and references to specific battles. Other examples, not included in this exhibition, were made as hangings for churches and displayed religious themes using this technique.

Unlike the more familiar appliqué, in which shapes are cut from one fabric and stitched on top of another fabric foundation, intarsia requires the pieces to be placed directly next to one another, creating a continuous rather than layered surface that is identical on the front and the back. The pieces are whip- or overstitched from behind without a seam allowance (made possible because the material did not fray when cut), and the stitches were hidden in the fuzzy nap of the cloth. Because of the high degree of skill required, intarsia was largely limited to the province of professional tailors who might be commissioned to make special textiles commemorating heroic military or historic achievements as wall hangings, table covers, bedcovers, and even for use as teaching tools. Inlay is a related technique in which a shape is cut from a block of fabric, leaving a hollow that is replaced by the same shape in a contrasting color, as in the “fort” blocks that may represent overhead perspectives of eighteenth-century fortresses.

Intarsia was revived in the United Kingdom from around 1830 to 1880, most probably through the arrival of immigrant tailors from Central and Eastern Europe familiar with the technique. Tailors continued to use the richly dyed broadcloth associated with military uniforms to fashion their pictorial masterworks. In this new iteration, intarsia became a vehicle for the demonstration of great skill in the needle arts and a source of additional income through the display of such cloth pictures in public fairs, exhibitions, and traveling shows. In this later production, the imagery was often based upon copy prints available through a variety of published sources.

Military Quilts

Military Quilts
Military Quilts

In 1872, Joseph Rawdon, a British soldier stationed in India, wrote that it took, “…all of six years on and off to make the quilt from different uniforms, more than a few pieces from poor fellows that fought hard for their country and fell in the struggle.” Despite such poignant testimony, military quilts made in India give no evidence of the traces of battle that one might expect—blood, gunpowder, and oil—though some show signs of recycling in stitch outlines and even buttonholes. The same may not hold true for the military quilts associated in the popular imagination with the Crimean War (1854–56), though several examples contain documentation indicating regiments and deployments in various regions of conflict in the Victorian British Empire. These quilts are characterized by thousands of tiny geometric patches, usually not larger than one inch in any direction, and were most probably made by regular soldiers who were serving in or convalescing from the war, rather than officers who used watercolor, pencil, and pen and ink to capture their experiences. Although regimental tailors were assigned to each unit and may have made quilts, soldiers were encouraged to attain some level of skill with a needle and thread in order to maintain their kits.

The Crimean War revealed inherent weaknesses in the traditional British military system, leading to reforms enacted between 1868 and 1874. Among the many failures were the deplorable lack of adequate clothing, shelter, and food. Death was rampant from the spread of cholera and other diseases. The men themselves sent voluminous letters to friends and relatives detailing the ineptitude of the military leadership, the carnage of soldiers and horses alike, and the very real challenges of everyday survival in a harsh environment. As one soldier wrote to a friend on January 3, 1855, “…The weather here is both wet and cold, and we are still under canvass yet, with nothing to cover us at night only our blanket and cloak; and when we get up on a frosty morning, you would think that we had been sleeping in the open field; … we have received nothing but one flannel shirt, one pair of drawers, and one pair of socks: they are very slow in giving out those that are sent for us, but never mind. I hope that I will be able to pull those through all, with the help of God.”

Made in India

Made in India
Made in India

For the British soldier, the situation in India was considerably more stable than the Crimean campaign, which was conceived as short term and strategic, yet it posed its own challenge in filling time in a manner that was not destructive or unsavory. With the exception of the brutal Indian Rebellion of 1857 and a number of earlier frays, only sporadic military action occupied the soldiers who might be stationed for years at a time. The extreme heat, as well as the stress of inactivity in a foreign land, took a tremendous physical and psychological toll. In response to the lassitude imposed by inactivity, the government offered industrial exhibitions and professional workshops by the 1860s, often with prizes awarded for a variety of skills including needlework. Raw materials were more readily at hand than in a combat situation, and a greater variety of colorful woolens in addition to regimental colors might be available from established tailoring shops.

Some quilts made in India between 1850 and 1900 share characteristics that distinguish them from others made throughout the British Empire. They are often constructed in the inlaid technique, whereby the pieces are joined with little or no seam allowance so they are virtually identical on the front and back. The patterns are considerably more complex with intricate blocks of stars, compasses, and the like interspersed among the more usual and less demanding geometric piecework. But what really sets quilts made in India apart are the masterful technique, attention to detail, and embellishment. A close examination reveals that each seam is expertly covered with rickrack, braid, or embroidery. Surface embellishments might include glass beads and spangles, or more commonly, the tiny discs of fabric ejected as buttonholes were pierced into woolens during the tailoring process. Each of these elements was hand-stitched to the surface of the quilt to further enhance its beauty. Because of the high degree of skill evident in these quilts, it is thought that the majority may be the work of professional regimental or Indian tailors.

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Additional Media

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Click here to read an article about the exhibition on The New York Times.

Click here to view a video from The Quilt Show.

The exhibition is a collaborative effort by the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, Annette Gero, and the IQSCM. It is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Nebraska Arts Council, Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Friends of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Equilter and the IQSCM-Nebraska State Quilt Guild Fund.
Event Date
Friday, May 25, 2018 to Sunday, September 16, 2018