In an 1856 portrait by Thomas William Wood, Private Thomas Walker is shown sitting up in a neat bed. Clean white bandages shroud his head, hiding scars from numerous surgeries to extract skull fragments from a wound sustained in the Crimean War. On the bed is both his bright red uniform, and a quilt the British soldier is stitching from the same wool fabric. The painting simultaneously depicted Walker as a military hero and a civilian man, regaining his independence, using the traditionally feminine craft of quilting to convalesce. It was also a bit of propaganda for the British military, presenting their hospital and soldier as orderly and competent. It was even reported in the Morning Chronicle on December 25, 1855 that Queen Victoria had acquired one of Walker’s geometric uniform quilts.
A reproduction of the painting is included in War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics at the American Folk Art Museum. The widely shared painting promoted quilting as occupational therapy, and contributed to the later belief that all military quilts were made by recovering soldiers. Yet as the exhibition demonstrates through its 29 examples, these “soldiers’ quilts” or “convalescent quilts” as they’re often called, were created for diverse purposes. What they share is that they were made by men, and utilize the wool fabric of military uniforms.
War and Pieced was curated by Stacy C. Hollander, chief curator at the American Folk Art Museum, with quilt historian Annette Gero, author of Wartime Quilts. Many of the quilts, some on public view for the first time, come from Gero’s collection, with loans from private collections and institutions like the Museum of Military History in Vienna and the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Following the exhibition’s run in New York, it will travel to the Nebraska museum and open May 25, 2018. It’s the first exhibition in the United States to showcase these quilts, almost all made by British soldiers.
Some of the soldiers learned to quilt while in a hospital, or at home after the war was over, making heirlooms from their uniforms. Along with the portrait of Private Walker, pictures of soldier-quiltmakers were disseminated by temperance periodicals around the United Kingdom during the Crimean War. These visuals portrayed the needlework craft as acceptable for men, and a healthy activity that kept idle hands — which might otherwise be filled with liquor or playing cards — occupied. Others were skilled tailors before they enlisted, such as Samuel Sadlowski of the Royal Prussian Army, who was taken prisoner by the French amid the Napoleonic Wars. He repaired officers’ uniforms during his internment, and used the leftover scraps to make quilts. One on view, dated to 1806, features a double-headed eagle at its center, with his initials and those of his wife nestled into the blocks of pattern.
These wartime quilts are incredibly rare, and Gero states in the release that “there are fewer than one hundred of these quilts in the world, and no two are alike.” War and Pieced highlights their diversity, whether in the distinctive beadwork on quilts made by soldiers stationed in India in the 19th century, or the motifs of African shields and spears embroidered on a late 19th-century quilt, likely made in tribute to those killed in the Anglo-Zulu War. A quilt made in India between 1860 and 1870 has its beads connected to small circles of fabric, the discs probably left over from punching buttonholes into uniforms. Although the conflict may be unnamed on the quilt, the patterns, needlework, and, above all, uniform materials, can place these fabric works in time.
They’re moving relics of the bloody battles that stretched across the globe in the mid-18th to 19th centuries, from the Prussian and Napoleonic wars, when elaborate intarsia quilts featured pictorial inlays of soldiers, to the Crimean War with its dense geometries. One from that mid-19th-century engagement has a checkerboard at its center, an example of the boards made from scraps of military uniforms to fend off boredom. The spare fabric that formed the checkerboard may have been from uniforms of the dead or wounded, thus adding a somber memorial to an otherwise vibrant wool quilt.
Although there is a vision of hope in making something beautiful out of horror, there’s an eerie echo of the suturing of wounds in each stitch of the quilt. The intense labor of some of those made in convalescence — one from 1890 involves 25,000 blocks, hexagons, and diamonds — represents the incredible amount of time these men spent recovering. Viewed together, the quilts in War and Pieced are haunting reminders of the lives given and maimed in the British Empire’s global conquest, and those that continue to be lost to war.
War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics continues through January 7, 2018 at the American Folk Art Museum (2 Lincoln Square, Upper West Side, Manhattan).
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