The women are familiar in the way a child’s worn blanket or a mother’s favorite perfume is familiar. They are dressed comfortably, in slacks and soft shoes or sneakers. They walk in pairs or threes, reading the informative plaques and occasionally peering behind the quilts mounted on the walls, trying to see the backings. Unlike the other museum visitors, they are talkative. They compare notes on their impressions and question some of the official descriptions. Also unlike the rest of us, they lean in close to the quilts, their shins brushing against the ropes designed to keep viewers at arm’s length, their faces an inch or two from the stitches and cloth. They are used to touching, and I can almost feel their fingers yearn to feel the centuries-old fabric.
They are quilters. I am not a quilter. I lack the patience. But my mother was a quilter, and I can spot one anywhere. Walking through the Milwaukee Art Museum’s American Quilts exhibit on Sunday, I couldn’t stop thinking, Mom would have loved this.
The exhibit features 40 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century quilts from the Winterthur Collection of American antiques. Just as interesting (to me, anyway) as the quilts themselves were the excerpts from early nineteenth century letters that are the organizing force of the exhibit. This Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review explains:
A constant thread through the 57-piece show is a series of quotations by Mary Remington of Warwick, R.I., from letters to her beloved fiancé/husband, Peleg. Written in the early 1800s, they provide fascinating insights into her world and, at the same time, the larger one around her. One great quote will answer visitors who will ask with awe as to how long these magnificent creations took to make: “You may circumnavigate the Globe before it’s done,” she wrote. In an age of sail, that was a year or more.
The Winterthur site offers an extensive digital collection of their quilts. If anyone reading this is in or close to Milwaukee and you love art or fabric or history, be sure to see the exhibit before it closes September 6.
The Mad Men era photo of her, above, is from 1960.