30 November 2017

"War and Pieced" - antique quilts made by soldiers

Soldier's Mosaic Quilt, c. 1880. Made in India or Great Britain, detail.

As a fourth-generation quilt maker, and long-time student of patchwork and applique, I assumed I was familiar with most branches of this textile art. Wrong.  Just before the Thanksgiving holiday I made a beeline to the American Folk Art Museum and discovered a whole new - to me -  area of quilt history.  The exhibit War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics is  on view from September 6, 2017 until January 7, 2018 and if you are in New York City for the holidays it's well worth a visit.  The 29 quilts and other items in the show are from the era of Europe's continental wars, as well as 19th century British colonial incursions.

First, the word "quilt" is a bit of a misnomer, as these textiles are not comprised of three layers - top, batting, backing - nor are they quilted in any way.  Although some may have been used as "bed rugs" - similar to coverlets - these creations were not made so much for practical use as for decoration and commemoration.  All were made by men using wool fabrics sourced from military and dress uniforms; unless otherwise stated, the makers are unknown.

Exhibit entrance.

According to exhibit wall text:
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 [British] 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.

Gallery installation of quilts made during continental wars.

"Turkish Wars" Intarsia Quilt, dated 1719, possibly southeast Europe.

The quilt above celebrates the end of  Austria's two-year campaign against the Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire.  The center of the quilt features a double-headed eagle, symbol of the Habsburg dynasty; other imagery includes Turkish war tents, Hungarian hussars in red pants and white tunics, and stags and dogs, symbols of piety and loyalty.

One unusual feature of the textiles is their construction, which the exhibit calls intarsia, or inlay.  The many tiny pieces are not appliqued onto a foundation fabric, nor are they are stitched with a seam allowance, in the manner of more familiar pieced quilts. Instead, the precisely-cut pieces are butted together and joined with whip- or over-stitching.  The military fabrics from which the pieces are cut are heavily fulled - the weft and warp are tightened through shrinkage, and the nap is raised to such a degree that the woven broadcloth looks almost like felt.  One characteristic of such processed cloth is that it does not easily fray or ravel when cut.  You can get an idea of this construction in the detail below. (Sorry for the slightly blurry quality of the image, due to low light levels in the exhibit).

Quilt with Inlaid Checkerboard, Silesia, mid-19th c., detail.

Some of the quilts do feature traditional applique, such as the one below, with soldiers, military musicians and entertainers.  Made during the reign of King Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), known as Frederick the Great, this quilt references Germanic folk art motifs.  The inclusion of musicians may reference Frederick's love of music; he played the flute and performed his own compositions, at times accompanied by C. P. E. Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach.  (White dots in images below are simply glare from overhead lights.)

Intarsia Quilt with Soldiers and Musicians, c. 1760 - 1780.

Intarsia Quilt with Soldiers and Musicians, detail.

Many of the quilts were made by military personnel stationed in India during the era of the Victorian British Empire. According to exhibit wall text:

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.

Soldier's Quilt, probably India, c. 1850 - 1880.

Soldier's Quilt, detail.

More from the exhibit wall text:
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 the 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, embellishment, and attention to detail.  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.

Beaded Soldier's Quilt, India, c. 1860 - 1870.

Beaded Soldier's Quilt, detail.

Quilt With No Seam Allowance, India, 1860 - 1890's.

Quilt With No Seam Allowance, detail.

Every piece in the quilt above is attached to its neighboring pieces with tiny whip-stitching and, moreover, every seam is covered with braid on the front of the textile.

While some of the quilts are known to have been made in India, others may have been made by British soldiers  involved in the Crimean War (1854-56) or by servicemen upon their return home to Great Britain. 

Soldier's Quilt, Crimea, India or United Kingdom, 1850 - 1875.

Soldier's Quilt, detail.

Soldier's Mosaic Quilt, India or United Kingdom, c. 1880.

The Crimean War revealed incompetencies in the traditional British military system, resulting in embarrassment and a public relations problem for the government.  The state of military hospitals was deplorable, contributing to  the rampant spread of cholera and other diseases among the troops.  Florence Nightingale was called in, and what she encountered cemented her life-long commitment to improving health care.

Portrait of Private Thomas Walker, 1856, with anonymous soldier's quilt in display case.

Private Thomas Walker was seriously injured during the Crimean War. While convalescing, he made quilts from military uniforms, a skill he may have learned from the wife of another soldier when she visited her husband in hospital. Queen Victoria evidently acquired one of his quilts. In 1856, artist Thomas Wood was commissioned to paint Walker's portrait as he stitched.  This portrait became a piece of propaganda; the painting implied that, through exemplary medical care and what we would now call occupational therapy, Private Walker would recover and look forward to a bright future.  This image disseminated the idea that military quilts were made as part of a wounded serviceman's convalescence.  Today, thanks to work of collector Annette Gero and the exhibit curators, we know the quilts were created in a variety of circumstances.

Studying material culture - the life of artifacts - has helped me better understand aspects of history that were formerly a bit opaque.  Traditional military history conjured images of biographies of generals, maps of maneuvers, etc., that I found not very engaging.  However, this exhibit gave me insight into the life of the everyday foot soldier, an individual without much agency, but able, even compelled, to make art.

Private in uniform, 18th c.

13 October 2017

Knitting and Mark Rothko at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Knitters with No. 1, Mark Rothko in the background.

On Friday, September 22, I joined a large group of women at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for "Knitting in the Galleries" a novel way of engaging with art.  For about two hours, with casual oversight by two museum staffers, we sat, chatted and knitted, surrounded by an installation of Mark Rothko paintings.

Knitter communing with paintings.

Unfortunately, the area given to the knitters was rather underlit and, as I brought dark-colored yarn, I moved to another spot, directly beneath a light, in the gallery. See me in the right hand edge of the image above, working on my Paris Toujours shawl?  The better to devote  myself to both knitting and that peculiar state  of quiescent awareness which Rothko's work elicits.

Below is a brief video taken by my husband of the activity.

Another view of knitters at work.

I also learned, from staffer Anne S., that it is perfectly acceptable for knitters to sit in the galleries at any time and work on their fiber projects.  

Mulberry and Brown, 1958.

13 September 2017

Sequence Knitting Workshop with Cecelia Campochiaro

Scarves by Cecelia Campochiaro.

On 10 September, 2017, I joined 13 other knitters for an all-day workshop led by Cecelia Campochiaro, author of Sequence Knitting, held at my local yarn store, Black Sheep Knitting. Knitting is binary - it's either knit or purl - and Ms. Campochiaro has developed her own approach to combining knits and purls.

A scientist by training and employment, Ms. Campochiaro has an eye for color and a taste for luxury yarns. Her items are covet-able simply because of their fiber lusciousness and rich colors, in addition to the wonderful design and workmanship. I've knit one of her patterns, the Broken Garter scarf, available for free from Purl Soho.  This project is a very good introduction to the concept of sequence knitting.

The workshop covered a lot of material, almost too much for one day.  Some of the take-aways:

Suggested yarns
The focus of sequence knitting is on texture, and to establish the field of texture there needs to be many repeats of the pattern.  So stay away from bulky yarns, even worsted weight.  Also avoid most yarns with a strong tweedy flecking - the flecks may fight with the texture of the pattern.  And while the overall textures in the body of the knitted item are delightful, the inherently irregular selvedges not so much, and this will be accentuated in heavy yarn.

Ms. Campochiaro prefers to blend thinner yarns; for example, to knit with two strands of Isager alpaca merino held together, using size #7 needles, for the Weldon cowl.  Combining finer yarns reduces the likelihood of pilling, too.

Scarf knit in a dark, rough-ish yarn - harder to see the pattern.

Needles and gauge
When blending yarns, size for the heavier yarn weight - "sticky" yarns, such as alpaca, which have some fuzziness to them, will be fine worked with bigger needles.  Ms. Campochiaro has little faith in the needle size ranges on the bands of balls or skein, and has become a committed gauger - one who loves to knit gauge swatches.

Ms. Campochiaro with gauge swatch.

She casts on 20 - 25 stitches, starts with small needles, and moves to successively larger needles.  Selvedges of 3 garter stitches border the stockinette rows, and there are 3 garter stitch rows between each needle size.

For the red swatch below, worked in Catherine Lowe's Merino #4, Ms. Campochiaro began with 2.00mm needles (US 0) and worked up to size 3.5mm (US 4).  A befits a scientist, she prefers metric nomenclature, but I will translate.

Swatch, with key tag label.

Swatches are labelled with key tags (available at many hardware stores) attached to the knitting with coilless safety pins, available from Catherine Lowe's website.  (I think regular safety pins would work almost as well).  Ms. Campochiaro also uses these pins for blocking.

Key tag listing yarn used and needle sizes.

The swatches below are done in a variety of weights of June Cashmere; it was a treat just to stroke all these wonderful yarns. If I have a quibble, it's that I wish the scarf and shawl samples had been labelled with yarns used - Ms. Campochiaro mentioned them but I was  furiously knitting on my samples and it was hard to listen, write notes and knit all at once.

Swatches in June Cashmere.

Labelled swatches.

Ms. Campochiaro has taken workshops with knitter and color guru Kaffe Fassett (his first name is pronounced like "waif") and is a quick study, as she understands value and hue.  While I personally prefer the sequence patterns in solid colors,  there's no doubt that variegated yarns work well too. Generally, when using two colors, she recommends yarns that are close in value - not a sharp contrast.  The one exception to this is the broken garter patterns, where high contrast colors can work well. Ms. Campochiaro is partial to gray and black tones, which work well with her salt-and-pepper hair and fun orange specs.

When knitting back-and-forth, change colors every two rows; when working the round, swap colors every row.

Andrus sequence in solid cream  - displays texture beautifully.

The texture is more subtle with these color blends.

First, before any big project, do a swatch - cast on at least 24 stitches and knit for 3".  How many stitches do you need to cast on for any particular accessory?  A scarf needs to be 7" - 9" wide, so cast on anywhere between 30 - 60 stitches, depending on yarn weight (check your swatch) and desired final width.  (I would say that above 50 cast-on stitches is approaching a shawl, but the scarf/shawl boundary is fluid.)

Beyond the scarf
Ms. Campochiaro's methods work best for rectangles, cylinders, triangles and parallelograms - items with shapes that don't require asymmetrical increasing or decreasing, such as a neckline. Hats are basically cylinders up to the crown portion, so her methods work for these items.

Hat samples.

Close-up of hats.

One thing I like about her work is that Ms. Campochiaro is a fan of color tipping - adding a few rows of contrasting color at the edges of an item, as seen in the Delta Wing shawl below, with its chartreuse edging adding some punch to the gray.

Delta Wing shawl.

The 14 students in the workshop each received a useful handout and we worked on three "Practicums."  If you'd like to try a pattern, here's the directions for one of our samples:

Try this at home
It's hard to explain sequence knitting; better just to try it.
This pattern is knit back-and-forth, not in the round.

Cast on 26 stitches (or any multiple of 8 and add two more stitches)

The sequence is [K3, P3, K1, P1]
The pattern multiple is 8 + 2

Start knitting, and where-ever you end up in the sequence at the end of the row, continue exactly where you left off at the start of the next row. This is the essence of sequence knitting. The sequence of knits and purls is NOT a multiple of the number of stitches cast on, so the pattern shifts, repeating every 4 rows.

Now, this can feel like the knitting equivalent of bungee jumping off a bridge. So Ms. Campochiaro gave us a "cheat sheet", writing the pattern out for each row in the four row repeat. This information is not given in the book, unfortunately, but readers can figure it out for themselves and make their own cheat sheets.

The row-by-row pattern for the sequence is:
Row 1: [sequence], K2
Row 2: K1, P3, K1, P1, [sequence], K3, P1
Row 3: P2, K1, P1, [sequence], K3, P3
Row 4: K1, P1, [sequence]

Below is one of my samples in worsted weight yarn (bad choice) but you can see the diagonal pattern, emerging after 12 rows of knitting, in the bottom half of the sample. If you would like the sequence and "cheat sheet" for the pattern in the top half of the sample, kindly email me.

Sequence knitting sample and handout.

04 August 2017

Circular Abstractions: Bulls-Eye Quilts at the Fuller Craft Museum

Sue Ritter Milling, Ole.

The Fuller Craft Museum, in Brockton, Massachusetts, hosted an exhibit of 25 quilts, selected from a larger show curated by Nancy Crow.  An invitational show, Ms. Crow asked over 40 of her students and colleagues to consider the Bull's Eye quilt; the exhibit is on display from May 13, 2017, through October 22, 2017. 

Ms. Crow interprets this traditional design very broadly, as a four-quadrant composition featuring circular motifs.  The exhibit is something like a workshop pin-up; many of the quilts selected for the Fuller show are similar in design and color.  Some of the more interesting works move beyond the restrictions of a four-block design, which, despite the circular motion inherent in the curved piecing, can end up being rather static.

Exhibit entrance.

Kerri Green, Sunshine.

In her quilt Sunshine, Ms. Green electrifies the "four quadrant" stricture by introducing incomplete circles and playing with figure-ground relationship; the jagged-edge black diamonds vibrate between the circle segments.

Sunshine, detail.

Susan K. Willen, Off-Target.

Ms. Willen uses hand-dyed, as well as commercially dyed fabrics, in Off-Target, adding texture and interest to her work. Few, if any, of the quilts used commercial prints; for some reason many folks in the "art quilt" movement use solid or hand-dyed fabrics exclusively.

Valerie Maser-Flanagan, Growth Rings #1.

A limited color palette - basically orange, blue, brown - wisely deployed in a sequence of gradient values gives Ms. Flanagan's tight composition a lot of impact.  The quilt below, Twister by Marina Baudoin, introduces a fifth block imposed on the quadrant. The black and off-white slashes do, indeed, twist, and even shout.

Marina Baudoin, Twister.

Catherine Beard, The New Whirled.

The colors in the quilts above and below are quite different but both quilts rely on high contrast: black, white and red in The New Whirled and charcoal gray and muted tones in Discharging the Bull.  Ms. Costley hand-dyed over 100 fabrics then selectively removed dyed from many of them, a process known as discharge, for use in this quilt.

Cheryl Costley, Discharging the Bull.

In the gallery.

Gael O'Donnell, Fallen.

Circles are stretched into ovals, and offset, in the quilt above.  The piecing pattern of thin vertical segments through the oval centers makes an effective design celebrating two hues, purple and orange.  The bull's-eye motif becomes even more vestigial in the quilt below which, with typography and color, suggests a narrative without being too literal.

Carol Hazen, Danger - Wrong Way.

Finally, the bull's-eyes become atomized - reduced to miniature size - and grouped in arcs of color in Outrageous Cells, a study in the effect of disruption on pattern.

Nancy Cordy, Outrageous Cells.

Outrageous Cells, detail.

All of the quilts can be seen in the catalog, ISBN 9780985297251.

28 July 2017

Delectable Mountain fabrics, Brattleboro, Vermont

Delectable Mountain Cloth sign in window display.

An errand brought my husband and I to southern Vermont a few weeks ago; we revisited a favorite store in Brattleboro.  "Store" doesn't quite convey the immersive experience at Delectable Mountain Cloth, where the shopper is enveloped, and practically swaddled by, bolts, bundles, and rolls of luxury fibers, all  murmuring "touch me."

Owner - really, curator - Jan Norris has been sourcing the finest in silks, velvets, linens and cottons for 35 years.  Wares are displayed beautifully in a profusion of baskets and pressed glass dishes, which are in turn deployed on doilies or glimmering mirrored trays.  There's a theatrical quality to the displays, which is fitting as these fabrics are ready to make an entrance once transformed into special garments and adornments.

Bundles of fabrics in creamy tones.

Pearly buttons.

This store is an amazing resource; worth a special trip if you find yourself within striking distance.  Jan also stocks buttons of all descriptions, scarves made from her fabrics, and fun jewelry. 

Jan Norris (foreground) and assistant.

Buttons in my favorite colors - violet and lavender.

Silks are a specialty.

The quilt in the background is by Jan, who is also a talented artist.

A delightful display of special textiles.