American Folk Art Museum Quilts Exhibition

The American Folk Art Museum is “going green” with an eco-friendly exhibition at its Branch Location at 2 Lincoln Square. Recycling And Resourcefulness: Quilts of the 1930’s, organized by the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, highlights twelve quilts made during the Depressions Era. Presented from October 21, 2008 – March 15, 2009, the exhibition focuses on the use of flour, sugar, and feed sacks, old clothes, and other recycled fabrics by thrifty women who created “new”” bedcovers in a variety of vibrant patterns. Also on view are quilts and other artworks from the American Folk Art Museum’s permanent collection that further explore the theme of recycling.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s was the longest and most severe economic crisis in American history. It impacted people’s jobs, their standard of living, and their financial well-being. It also changed and challenged family life in the United States. Americans learned from necessity to use what they had or to do without.

Examples of this frugality and resourcefulness can be seen in the inventiveness that women brought to quilts made during the 1930s. For many American women, particularly those living in rural areas, quiltmaking was a continuation of a lifestyle they had always known. During these hard times, it was their ingenuity that brought a sense of beauty and comfort into homes where there were few luxuries.

Quilts preserved from this period are closely connected with the experience of the Great Depression. The 1930’s are considered to be the era of the “scrap” or “scrap-bag” quilt. Despite the use of humble materials, the best examples of these textiles display lively originality through careful planning of layout, color, and design.

Three types of quilts are included in the exhibition: scrap quilts, string quilts and feed sacks. Scrap quilts are made using leftover fabrics from homemade clothes or bags of scraps sold by stores and mail-order companies. These quilts were based on popular patterns such as the Alphabet and Sunbonnet Sue. The Britchy Quilt was certainly made from old work clothes.

Another popular technique was the string quilt. The term “string” comes from the small, narrow pieces of fabric used to make the quilts. These scraps were usually left over from dressmaking and consequently were irregular sizes.

String quilts were usually constructed by sewing one edge of each scrap facedown to a foundation fabric, then flipping it over. This process was repeated with each new piece overlapping the previous one. Because this technique was fast, simple and practical, it was usually used to make utility quilts. The free-form and spontaneous style of the Alabama String Quilt in the exhibition is a fine example.

Since at least the Civil War there has been a longstanding tradition of recycling animal feed, flour, and sugar cloth sacks into warm bedcovers. Additionally, beginning in the 1920’s, home demonstration agents from the Cooperative Extensions Service began to encourage the creative reuse of cloth sacks for clothing and household decorating. Women made a variety of items such as dishtowels, children’s clothes, pillowcases, aprons and quilts from recycled sacks.

At first these sacks were white with printed trademark emblems. The challenge for recycling them was to remove the printed trademarks, although some women simply used the reverse side or cut around the marks; these sacks often ended up being used for the quilt backing.

Manufacturers eager to encourage the reuse of their bags made them more attractive by printing the cloth with floral and geometric designs and gluing the label to the sack instead of printing it on. This proved to be a smart marketing move because women quickly and enthusiastically embraced these decorative sacks.

In addition to being used to make clothes, the printed sacks were very popular for quilts; the Hexagons Quilt and Grandmother’s Fan Quilt are two examples that make use of these printed sacks.

Augmenting the exhibition are seven quilts from the American Folk Art Museum’s collection selected by curator Stacy C. Hollander. These date from the Victorian era through the 1930’s. Two quilts were made by male tailors from leftover suiting fabrics: one, a Crazy quilt, of suiting woolens and the other, a Log Cabin, constructed from silk lining remnants. Another notable example is the extraordinary String Quilt fashioned from woolen stockings.

In addition to three-dimensional objects from found materials such as Tramp Art made from cigar boxes, contemporary riffs on recycled materials include the Wonder Bread Rug crocheted from the plastic packaging on Wonder Bread.

Curator Brooke Davis Anderson has mined the museum’s collection and selected such contemporary artworks as bottle cap figures made by Iowa artists Clarence and Grace Woolsey in the 1950’s, a bubble gum figure by Georgia artist Nellie Mae Rowe, and sculpture by Nek Chand, Kevin Sampson, Leroy Archuleta, and Vollis Simpson all of whom repurpose available materials into new art forms.

In conjunction with the exhibition, a number of free educational programs are planned. Evening programs from 6-6:45 p.m. include “Recycling and Resourcefulness: Quilts of the 1930’s,” speaker Lee Kogan (10/30); Artist Talk “Inner-City Artmaking, Living and Working Close to the Edge,” speaker Kevin Sampson (11/20); “From Car to Container: A Brief History of Recycling in Architecture,” speaker Gabrielle Esperdy (12/4); and “Steampunk: Recycling, Reimagining, and Aesthetics,” speakers Angela Voulangas and Doug Close (12/26). Two Tuesday mini-talks, 12:30-12:45 p.m. (10/28 and 12/9) and Public Tours Wednesdays, 1-1:45 pm (10/29, 11/5 and 19, 12/ 10 and 17).

The presentation of Recycling & Resourcefulness at the American Folk Art Museum’s Branch Location at Lincoln Square is supported by Joyce Berger Cowin.

On view at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53 Street, are the new exhibitions “The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips| Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red” through March 29, 2009; Martín Ramírez: The Last Works through April 12, 2009; and “Up Close: Henry Darger” through April 12, 2009. New Acquisitions are on view in the Atrium.

The American Folk Art Museum’s Branch Gallery is located at 2 Lincoln Square, New York City, (Columbus Avenue between 65 and 66 Streets).

The museum’s collection of more than five thousand artworks spans three centuries of American visual expression, from unflinching portraits, dazzling quilts, and muscular weather vanes to potent works by contemporary self-taught artists in a variety of mediums.

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 6:30 p.m.; The Museum is closed on Mondays. Admission is free.

For further information, visit the museum Web site at:; or phone (212) 595-9533.