Gift #1118: Lincoln’s Quilts

Last weekend my mom and I went to our state museum for the afternoon.  Our main object was the poison exhibit (our second visit and completely fascinating), but there was a smaller exhibit on Lincoln’s quilts that would be ending in February and we wanted to make sure we had a chance to see them.  These are a collection of quilts that were connected in some way with Abraham Lincoln’s life.  Some were made by women he knew, others incorporated memorabilia of his life, but all were unique and special.  I’ve pulled some pictures of a few of my favorites to share with you.  This first one was made by a close friend of the Lincoln family.  In fact, according to family history,  Lincoln first met Mary Todd (whom he would later wed) in this woman’s home.

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The quilt is still unfinished.  You can see that the border is left unfinished along the left and bottom.  I think it’s rather sad that no one ever completed the quilt on her behalf.    However the design is still quite graphic.  The hexagon pattern gained in popularity at this time.  Women would cut the shapes from paper and wrap the fabric around these paper pieces to create elaborate designs.  In December I had gone to a quilt exhibit in Cincinnati that featured these types of quilts and they were so complex and ornate!  The fabrics used in this quilt are believed to have been acquired through swaps of leftovers with friends.

Cultural history from the time period was woven into the quilts and signage of the exhibit.  As today, politicians campaigned hard and concocted imaginative ways to win the votes of the people.  It was typical for candidates to print thousands of campaign ribbons on pieces of silk that were handed out at rallies and speeches.  Many of these souvenirs were given new life and function in quilts.  In the example below, Margaret Frentz dyed campaign ribbons from all the candidates in the 1860 election and fashioned them into the focal point of the quilt.

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She dyed the campaign ribbons fushia and arranged them into an American flag.  The star field is made entirely of Lincoln ribbons dyed blue.  The background is a colorful riot of bright triangles.  She completed this quilt in 1876 in honor of the nation’s centennial.

The next was my favorite quilt as it was designed and made by Mary Todd’s dressmaker, the reknown Elizabeth Keckley.  Mrs. Keckley was born a slave in Virginia.  Her prowess with the needle gave her many commissions from wealthy women and she saved enough to buy her and her son’s freedom.  She was introduced to Mary Todd through one of her clients.  The women formed a strong friendship, made all the more close by the death of their children.  Elizabeth lost her son in action during the Civil War and Mary lost her son Willie to typhoid.

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This was the first time I’ve ever seen anything by her hand before, though I’ve known about her and her life for a while.  I was thrilled to see this incredible work of art.  The pictures don’t do it justice.  The fabrics are of silks and velvets, leftovers from the dresses she created for her clients, including some from Mary Todd.  Again, the hexagon pattern is featured prominently.  She also decorated the quilt with exquisite embroidery and stumpwork.

Here’s a close-up of the center panel, which features a stumpwork eagle in silver threads on a black velvet background proclaiming liberty.

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Just look at that incredible floral embroidery along the borders.  And it was encrusted with beads too.  It was breathtaking in its complexity and beauty.

One of the aspects that the exhibit emphasized was the ways in which the Civil War told its story through textiles.  Cotton shortages made fabric scarce and the need was great – for bandages, uniforms, tents, and bedding.  A surge of patriotic fervor swept the nation as flags and banners were proudly displayed.  A few quilts that were made for Civil War hospitals and for men coming home were featured.  In the aftermath of the war and the assassination of Lincoln, women found new ways of expressing personal and national bereavement.

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This log cabin quilt was fashioned from the black wool that wrapped the Indiana capitol where Lincoln lay in state on April 30, 1865.  It was a way to both use the fabric for a utilitarian need and also to commemorate and honor the fallen leader of our nation.

To mark the nation’s loss, thousands and thousands of mourning ribbons were created and shared with the nation.  These were collected and preserved and often worked into quilts.  I’d never seen anything like these before.  The exhibit had several in mint condition and they brought tears to my eyes.  On display was this elaborate crazy quilt which incorporated several of Lincoln’s mourning ribbons.

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Here are some closeups of the quilt.

In the center of the photo on the right, is one of the mourning ribbons, and another is on the top of the left photo.  You could have spent all day looking at this piece of art.  There was so much creative embellishment on each of the pieces.  This was my favorite part:

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Tiny embroidered snowdrops with a spider in a metallic web.  It was lovely.

By this time, quilts were not only useful household items, but they also charted the history of their owners and the nation.  Women weaved the stories of their families with the scraps of worn clothes and mementos.  They recorded the events of the nation as well – both jubilation and mourning, wartime and peace.  Quilts moved from being strictly utilitarian objects to ornate creations of beauty and imagination.  They are scrapbooks of fabric that collected the hopes and dreams of a nation and surrounded their families with warmth and beauty.

Blessings to you,

Sarah

 

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