Book Reviews/Comptes rendus de livres - Hanson, Marin F. and Patricia Cox Crews. American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940.

Book Reviews/Comptes rendus de livres

Hanson, Marin F. and Patricia Cox Crews. American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940.

Cynthia Boyd
Memorial University
Review of
Hanson, Marin F. and Patricia Cox Crews. 2009. American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Pp. 490, black and white and colour illustrations, endnotes, bibliography, cloth, ISBN 978-0-8032-2054-6, $90.00.

1 From Log Cabin quilts to Colonial Revival quilts to quilts created from patterns and kits, American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940 is truly a quilt reference of grand proportions—both in its physical heft and the quantity of information found between its covers—whose fascinating and highly visual text will be a boon to quilt historians, folklorists and textile and museum specialists alike.

2 This work delves much deeper than most quilt histories, for its main focus is an impressive collection of quilts held at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The editors, Marin F. Hanson and Patricia Cox Crews, have assembled quilts from the collection into separate chapters that decipher the inherent characteristic features of specific quilt designs by way of examining, in vivid detail, numerous examples. Their descriptive essays on individual quilt patterns are further enhanced by “galleries” (i.e., beautiful photographs) that depict those particular patterns. Just a cursory glance through any one chapter’s gallery and the reader, researcher and/or quilter will be bowled over by the magnificence in quilt designs that have been extensively documented and preserved by members of the International Quilt Study Group.

3 While Hanson and Crews have provided a fundamental introductory chapter recognizing the significance of quilts from this particular period in history, readers will be interested to know that several other quilt historians and scholars have made substantial contributions to various chapters. In the first chapter, “American Adaptation—Block-Style Quilts,” Hanson and quilt fabric historian Barbara Brackman discuss the origins of the Kansas Sunflower quilt created and worked upon by four generations of quilt-making women from Nebraska, Minnesota, and several states in between (54-57). Brackman reveals evidence not only of the quilt’s extensive family history, but also of its fabric history:

Many of the fabrics in the sunflower blocks are typical of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: they feature vibrant, neon prints on black backgrounds, white prints on indigo and claret grounds, and woven plaids and ginghams, all of which were common from the 1880s through the 1920s. (55)

4 This quilt’s intricate story is just one of multitudes of fascinating narratives surrounding the hundreds of quilts featured in this book. In another chapter, contributor Beverly Gordon assists Hanson in examining a plethora of amazing Crazy quilts. Crazy quilts’ wide range of applied needlework techniques and infinite fabric choices and colour combinations have allowed for this quilt style to appear as a “mere hodgepodge” in design. As Gordon indicates, however, “the busy and seemingly random quality of the quilts often masks skilful planning and compositional treatment. Many Crazy quilts were veritable showpieces and true labors of love” (131). Perhaps one of the most eye-catching Crazy quilts featured from the collection is an example from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, dating 1880-1890 by an unknown quilt maker. Entitled simply Crazy Quilt, with only the initials “K” and “K. G.” to identify the quilter(s), this example was made predominantly from dress silks, and it fairly shimmers off the printed page. Floral embroidered embellishments throughout the quilt but especially along the entire border are evocative of a blowsy cottage garden on a summer’s day (140-41).

5 Toward the end of the book, the editors draw attention to the proliferation of quilt patterns and kits whose popularity and commercial success can be directly linked to advertisements for such kits in women’s periodicals and mail-order catalogues. One of the more well-known patterns discussed in chapter six, “Repackaging Tradition: Pattern and Kit Quilts,” is Grandmother’s Flower Garden from the 1930s, a pattern that made use of colourful pastel fabrics and exhibited symmetry throughout. Regardless of their origin as commercial patterns and kits, these quilts were made in a traditional manner and provided beauty, pleasure and warmth to women and their families during the difficulties of the Depression Era (334-47).

6 This book features more than 800 colour photographs of more than 587 quilts; many examples are extremely well documented, with memorable narratives alongside striking photographs of whole quilts, as well as full page photographs depicting specific details. The editors have provided a useful and effective quilt glossary following extensive “notes” from the text. A selected bibliography, contributors’ page and well-organized index are also provided. My only criticism, and it is a minor one, of this otherwise thorough reference work is the lack of representation of African American and Native American quilts and quilt-making traditions. In all probability, this is because very few examples of such quilts existed in the collection. American Quilts in the Modern Age, 1870-1940 is highly recommended to university libraries, museum special collections, quilter’s groups and individual quilters and/or researchers for its extensive photographic and contextual record of quilts from the International Quilt Study Center and Museum. If you cannot make a special trip to Lincoln, Nebraska, to see this collection first hand, Hanson and Crews’ phenomenal work is a particularly excellent alternative.