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Charmed Life

Sew Fine

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 6/27/2001

I am staring at mid-19th-century Baltimore, trying to figure out what it is trying to tell me. Or, more to the point, what the Baltimore ladies of 150 years ago are trying to tell me.

Maybe it's me. Or perhaps the cultural context has been lost in the translation as I search the Baltimore album quilts hanging on exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society (MHS), looking for the narratives that make these quilts more than mere decorations but a part of the city's history.

Fortunately, I had previously visited Margaret Hluch's quilting class at Towson University. The students were wrapping up a semester of creating fabric pieces to be sewn into their own quilts. At first, the connection between the students' free-form work and the family heirlooms created by the long-gone ladies seemed remote. But Hluch (whose own woven work can be seen in the exhibit Fiber Reflections 2001 at Towson's Holtzman Art Gallery) assured me that when I went to the MHS show I would recognize the common creative process.

"They take from what's around them and put it in their quilts," she said. "That's what they did, and that's what [the students] do now."

The Baltimore album quilt, actually a staple of the larger Chesapeake region, dates to the mid-1800s. It consists of a series of appliquéd squares, each with an image, painstakingly sewn in a grid formation onto the quilt's backing. The series of frames reflect the lives their makers lived.

At least, they're supposed to--depending, I suppose, on how savvy the audience is. During a recent tour of the exhibit, I pepper poor Barbara Weeks, MHS' associate curator, with question after question. Why aren't there more faces in the quilts? And how did they get them so puffy?

Weeks points out that before the emergence of the Baltimore album quilt wealthy women favored a more English tradition: quilts made with the imported fabrics, featuring large floral or geometric centerpieces, and bordered in bright chintz. The Baltimore album quilt represented a breakthrough in the evolution of quilt-making, using a form that had previously been primarily decorative as a medium for expressing something about the creators' lives. These quilts were products of the middle class, less likely to feature the finest foreign fabrics than the contents of a rag bag, artfully tucked and sewn and given new life.

"We certainly realized through studying these quilts how much they represented the experience of people," Weeks says. "By studying them, we've been able to learn more and more about the people who made them."

To the untrained eye, used to processing information in straightforward fashion, the narrative qualities of these quilts is inconsistent at best. Weeks does her best to point out the ships, the churches, the Bibles, the fraternal and patriotic symbols, the animals. There are some faces too--for example, a fabric portrait of Samuel Ringgold, a local war hero who died in the 1848 conflict between the United States and Mexico. But for every war hero or clipper ship, there are dozens of floral squares, artfully woven wreaths and bouquets. They are impressive, but what do they say about 19th-century life? After viewing the 10th quilt or so, I begin to picture their creators as domestic prisoners.

But even the most common patterns, taken together, have stories to tell. Weeks explains that most of the Baltimore quilters were Methodists who believed in creating things of beauty as a way to celebrate God's work. This was a major change in thinking from earlier Methodists, who considered focusing on beauty to be materialistic and ungodly. "Women were not always focused exclusively on domestic things, as you might think," Weeks says--these quilters were communicating something about their society.

I can't ask the old-time Baltimore quilters to tell me more, but I did take advantage of the opportunity to pester Hluch's students about their work. Visually, the Towson students' quilts do not follow the album-quilt tradition. But as I recalled those conversations while observing the MHS exhibit, the connection Hluch told me about became clear. Even though the students' work bears little resemblance to the rigid grids of their quilting forebears, they also are pulling from their own experiences.

Some of the students say their quilts have no narrative, that the pieces are clues about their lives. Asked why she has made a zebra for her quilt's centerpiece, Mireille Miller laughs. "I work at the zoo," she says.

Megan DuPree transferred images of women in photos and drawings onto fabric to create a commentary about "the middle stage of life," she says. "Basically, a lot of my work [is] self-portraits, a lot of symbolism."

So what if it flies over the heads of the artistically challenged, or isn't the clean, direct narrative I'd perhaps foolishly expected? Dupree, like the quilters of yore, is using symbols of her world to tell stories about her life. If it survives long enough to hang in an exhibit, here's hoping someone more savvy than me will be around to interpret it.

The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition is on display at the Maryland Historical Society through Sept. 9. Call (410) 685-3750 or go to www.mdhs.org for information.

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