Many people think of quilts primarily as exercises in rigorously geometric repeat patterning. Yet a great free-wheeling tradition exists in quiltmaking in which improvisation, asymmetry, and experimentation are the norm. This creative and original artistic impulse can be documented back to the early years of quiltmaking in this country. For at least two hundred years, American women artists have made quilts in which off-beat color placement and manipulation of printed textile patterns have combined with bold experimentation in block formation and appliqué.

Quilts have come to be recognized as a fundamental source for understanding women’s history; moreover, the study of quilts and quiltmaking practices yields great insight into the subtleties of social interactions among women, and of economic interrelations among different social classes, and even among different industries and nations.

Yet one aspect of quilts has remained comparatively understudied since Jonathan Holstein first called attention to it in his ground-breaking exhibit “Abstract Design in American Quilts” at the Whitney Museum in 1971: their aesthetic dimensions. Holstein put forth the radical proposition that, in their quilts, 19th century American women were “painting with fabric” and that their works demonstrated “the highest degree of control for visual effects.”

At the beginning of a new millennium, the making, the study, and the exhibition of quilts continues to preoccupy us. It continues to serve a number of purposes in our collective psyche, to link us to the past, and to affirm a female-centered art. Meanwhile, for more than two centuries, American artists have steadfastly continued their explorations in piecework and appliqué, proving that fabric is an inexhaustible medium for innovation in color, abstraction, figuration, and other modes of expression. The selection of works illustrated and discussed here affirms that American quilt artists’ greatest aesthetic legacy is that their work is, in every sense of the term, wild by design.

The book Wild by Design: Two Hundred Years of Innovation and Artistry in American Quilts written by Janet Berlo and Patricia Cox Crews (Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 2003) was published to accompany the exhibition.