The National Museum of American History is giving visitors unique access to rarely seen American threads in its new exhibition Everyday Luxury: Silk Quilts from the National Collection. It’s a small glimpse into the Smithsonian’s National Quilt Collection—a collection that contains 500 quilts and related needlework artifacts—and highlights an underrepresented part of the American textile industry: 19th century silk quilts, also known as parlor throws.
The exhibition showcases nine throws from the museum’s extensive collection. The pieces represent each decade of the parlor throw’s popularity from the 1870s to the 1940s and span from Iowa to Virginia. The intimate walls of the Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Gallery are lined with the encased quilts and quilting-related artifacts like personal sewing kits, needlework books, tools, embroidery samples, models of silkworks, and educational posters.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American silk industry began to flourish. Paterson, New Jersey, became the country’s “Silk City,” supported by various factories in Connecticut. As silk became more popular, industry competition increased and drove the once-high prices down. By the 1880s, even the women and girls working in the factories could afford silk dresses of their own.
The decreased price and increased availability of such a desired commodity inspired a new fad in the 1880s—“crazy patchwork quilts.” Unlike most quilts of the time, these decorative silks were not meant to be slept under. Sometimes used as table toppers and piano covers, the quilts were often displayed in the parlor to serve as statements of status and style.
Each decorative top is pieced together from irregularly shaped bits of silk fabrics. Quiltmakers adopted asymmetrical patterning to deviate from the geometric uniformity of traditional quilting. Accented by ornamental stitches and elaborate embroidery, these colorful tapestries have both texture and dimension.
The quilts in the exhibition offer more than their apparent beauty. Between the seams are the stories behind the lives of their creators. Some quilts have known and detailed histories, while others are left up to interpretation and the imagination.
Quilts often reveal the living circumstances of the women who made them and disclose traits, such as wealth, access to goods, education, skills, and personal identity. Some throws reveal the makers’ personal sentiments toward their own life experiences and the ongoing societal concerns of patriotism, anti-slavery, war, and peace. In addition to larger themes, some quilts are individualized to include personal mementos such as campaign ribbons, embroidered poems, significant phrases, or meaningful dates or initials, so the creators could leave distinctive stamps on their work.
One parlor throw in the collection tells the story of Aimee Elkington Hodge, a Toledo, Ohio, native who began her decorative piece when she was just 12 years old right as the crazy quilts started to gain traction in 1877. Almost 70 years later, Hodge finished her life’s project in 1946 shortly before she died, without enough time to finish adding the border and lining she had intended. Composed of 25 patched and embroidered blocks, Hodge’s work displays the vibrant colors and silk, satin, and velvet fabrics that were typical of the period. She included a variety of natural motifs—cattails, sunflowers, and spider webs. Some blocks were even used to memorialize friends. Her crane design is said to represent a friend of hers named Crane. Each block on the quilt surrounds her initials “A.E.” in the center of the work. Her whimsical use of color, shape, and pattern memorializes her, sharing her life’s story through art.
While some of the collection’s quilts embody the frenetic nature of Hodge’s work, others, like the work of Marian Frick, appear to have more rhyme and reason. The Pennsylvania native was a dressmaker, and spent 20 years working on her project at the end of the 19th century. Her diamond-shaped pattern is made of samples from many different silks, including plain, pattern-woven, ribbed striped, plaid, dotted, and watered—likely scraps she collected from her dresses and combined to make into one magnificent piece. The 324 square pieces come together in a diagonal grid-like pattern.
Everyday Luxury displays a little-known slice of American history, inviting museumgoers to explore a turning point in needlework. But it’s more than silk threads: Also on display are the powerful stories of women at the time, and their battle for self-expression.
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