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National Museum of American History displays luxury 19th-century silk quilts
Detail of Eva Shaw’s Crazy-patch Piano Cover. Photo: Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.


WASHINGTON, DC.- The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is displaying nine silk quilts from the national collection along with related needlework artifacts dating from the late 19th into the early 20th centuries in the exhibition “Everyday Luxury: Silk Quilts from the National Collection.” This rare showing of silk quilts is on view July 30 to January 2020 in The Nicholas F. and Eugenia Taubman Gallery.

From the 1870s through the 1920s, the silk industry flourished in America. Paterson, New Jersey, then known as America’s “Silk City,” produced miles of silk fabric while Connecticut housed many silk-thread factories. Manufacturers marketed silk by giving away pattern booklets and thread holders. As industry competition increased, prices decreased, so much so that by the 1880s, even the girls and young women who worked in the factories could afford a silk dress for “Sunday best.”

Inspired by the availability of inexpensive silks, a new fad emerged nationwide in the 1880s for ‘crazy patchwork’ quilts. Quilt makers adopted asymmetry and layered patterning, moving away from the rigid geometric piecework of traditional quilts. Silk embroidery added dimensions and texture to the quilts. These quilts were never meant to be used as bedding. Instead, they were a statement of status and style at the turn of the 20th century. They tell a little-known story of art, industry, trends and marketing in American history.

“The quilts on display demonstrate individual imagination and skill,” said exhibition curator, Madelyn Shaw. “But beyond that, they represent America’s silk industry: thousands of mill workers, hundreds of companies, business people and designers. The quilts offer us a unique perspective on this period of industrialization in American history.”

Silk is the continuous filament a silkworm makes to create its cocoon. About 3,000 cocoons make one pound of raw silk. To turn silk filaments into yarn, cocoons are placed in simmering water to dissolve the gummy substance binding the fibers together. A worker (reeler) whisks up the ends of several filaments and draws them off the cocoons together, forming a very fine thread called “raw silk.” A process called “throwing” combines several raw silk strands into yarns strong enough for sewing, embroidery, weaving and knitting. American yarn and fabric manufacturers bought cocoons and raw silk primarily from Japan, China and Italy.

Personal sewing kits, needlework books, tools, embroidery samples, models of silkworms and educational posters are on view in the gallery. The nine quilts on display include Mary Watson’s “Biscuit” Parlor Throw, 1890–1900; Eva Shaw’s Crazy-patch Piano Cover, 1880–1890; Laura Clark’s Silk Patchwork Table Cover, 1855–1885; Martha Jane Taylor’s Parlor Throw, 1870–1880; a Commemorative Ribbon Parlor Throw, 1880–1895; a Crazy-patchwork Parlor Throw, 1880–1900; Aimee Hodge’s Crazy-patchwork Parlor Throw, 1877–1946; the Bates Family Crazy-patchwork Silk Parlor Throw, 1890–1900; and Marian Frick’s Log Cabin Parlor Throw, 1870–1890.

The National Quilt Collection now numbers more than 500 quilts and quilt-related items. Most of the collection is accessible online here.





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