Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Infinite Variety

I am still awed and inspired by the American Folk Art Museum's fabulous show, "Infinite Variety, Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts". It was at the Park Avenue Armory March 25-30.  The show was a gift to the city from Joanna S. Rose. Mrs. Rose has collected over 650 red and white quilts over the past 50 years. This show was free to the public, and just amazing.. I heard audible gasps when people entered the great room.
The quilts were suspended from the ceiling and seemed to float in mid-air. They glowed.

The name of the exhibit was certainly apt. The endless variety of pattern and design that these women created from two colors of cloth was incredible. And think of it. Many of these quilts were made entirely by hand. The sewing machine was not patented until the 1850's. Probably most women could not afford them for many years afterwards.

Look at the tiny quilting stitches on this quilt. Gorgeous.

Red. What is it about this color that is so enticing? It is the color of blood and the color of fire. Perhaps it stirs some archetypal emotion in us. It is the color of desire and anger, life and death.

In the 21st Century, we take red cloth for granted. But for the 18th and 19th C women who made these quilts, cheap, red fabric that did not fade was a relatively novel invention.

Throughout history, the color red was very prestigous. For centuries, clothing made in the color red was worn only by royalty and the very rich. Very few could actually afford it.

Traditionally, natural dye stuffs were used to create red cloth. Madder, the root of a shrub, makes a weak and fugitive red. Kermes, an insect which feeds on the Kermes oak tree was used for centuries in Europe to dye cloth red. Kermes was so valuable that it was used as a tribute to Roman soldiers in exchange for protection. By the 14th Century, kermes red was the most expensive, exclusive color that one could wear.

When Europeans discovered the New World, they also discovered a new dye that was to have a huge impact of European history. Native Americans used cochineal, a beetle that lives on the nopal cactus, to produce a vivid, less fugitive red. The Spanish government was soon importing tons of it to Europe. They maintained a monopoly on this bug for 250 years. (If the concept of using dead beetle bodies to color cloth is disturbing to you, consider that red food dye #E120 contains cochineal, and is used in Skittles and Cherry Coke.)
It was not until the 1870's that red dyes were created synthetically, lowering the cost and allowing anyone to enjoy this gorgeous and desirable color.

This quilt was one of my favorites. What is the meaning of these symbols? So mystical.

Love this one. Who's names are these? Family members?

I could have photographed every single quilt. But the battery on my cell was running low. I can't wait to buy the catalogue when it becomes available.

Thank you, Mrs. Rose!