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.