In 1986 the American Folk Art Museum accepted a quilt unlike any other in its already extensive collection. Comprised of concentric squares pieced from the tiniest bits of heavy felted wools in a severe palette of black, red, and cream, its dizzying geometric pattern and unwieldy fabric made the quilt antithetical to any with which we were familiar (Fig. 2). By 2008, when the museum was given a similarly constructed geometric quilt, we had come to recognize these works as important examples of a genre made exclusively by men, using richly dyed wools derived from British military uniforms associated primarily with the Crimean War but also with conflicts in India, South Africa, and other troubled regions of the British Empire during the nineteenth century (Fig. 3).
The first exhibition in the United States devoted to these textiles, made by sailors, soldiers, and military and civilian tailors, and once termed “convalescent” quilts, is on view this fall at the American Folk Art Museum, organized in collaboration with the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics will demonstrate that these spectacular mosaic pieces follow an earlier tradition of pictorial quilts dating from the Prussian and Napoleonic wars that were also made using felted materials, often from uniforms (Fig. 3).1 Gero is the internationally acclaimed quilt authority whose recent scholarship has ignited interest in these fascinating textiles, no two of which are exactly alike, and fewer than a hundred of which have been found in Australia, Canada, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
For years it was believed that most of the military quilts were made using material salvaged from the uniforms of fallen soldiers. In 1872 one soldier, Joseph Rawdon, wrote a letter describing a quilt that took “all of six years on and off to make . . . from different uniforms, more than a few pieces from poor fellows that fought hard for their country and fell in the struggle.”2 Despite this testimony, however, the organic detritus of war—blood, oil, and gun powder—has not yet been discovered on military quilts, though recent conservation of one revealed the use of recycled uniforms, evidenced by the presence of “old hemlines, stitch outlines left from jacket pockets, and even buttonholes.”3
The visual virtuosity of military geometric quilts— often incorporating many thousands of pieces no larger than one-inch square—assumes a deeply emotional dimension as we consider them in the context of war and its aftermath. They have been most commonly identified with the Crimean War (1853–1856), an alliance of British, French, and Turkish forces united against Russian intrusion into the Ottoman Empire and the struggle for control of the Holy Land. It was the first war in history to be thoroughly documented in photography, as well as in firsthand accounts published by journalists and other civilian observers. The Crimean War revealed inherent weaknesses in the traditional British military system as it entered the modern age, even as it gave rise to the trope of the “compassionate” soldier in literature and the popular press.
The men themselves wrote voluminous letters to friends and relatives detailing the incompetence of the military leadership, the carnage of soldiers and horses alike, and the challenge of everyday survival. For instance, Private Isaac Stephenson of the 4th Dragoon Guards wrote to a friend in Lancaster from Camp, Front Sevastopol, on January 3, 1855: “The weather here is both wet and cold, and we are still under canvass [sic] yet, with nothing to cover us at night only our blanket and cloak; and when we get up on a frosty morning, you would think that we had been sleeping in the open field; and, after all that has been done for us by the good people of England, we have received nothing but one flannel shirt, one pair of drawers, and one pair of socks: they are very slow in giving out those that are sent for us, but, never mind. I hope that I will be able to pull through all, with the help of God.”4
It seems almost inconceivable that uniform material was available for making quilts when the soldiers themselves suffered from such exposure—and complained of uniforms that were spattered with blood and dirt. As one soldier wrote, “Dear Brother, I can assure you that we are very near eaten up with filth and vermin. I have never had a clean article upon my back this two months.”5 Yet regiments might be immobile for weeks, even months, with little to do but get into mischief; and the cross-stitch inscription on one quilt testifies to its creation in the theater of war, before being sent home to a beloved sister.
In fact, however, the promotion of the soldier-quiltmaker was part of a calculated campaign throughout the United Kingdom to rehabilitate public opinion about the careless administration of the war and also to endorse quiltmaking as a masculine and healthful alternative to less savory activities among enlisted men, such as drinking and gambling. Illustrated articles in the popular press equated quiltmaking with the sentimental figure of the drummer boy, deflecting attention from the military elite (Fig. 7), and at the same time romanticizing the practice as occupational therapy for convalescing soldiers.6 According to a report in the March 3, 1856, issue of London’s Morning Chronicle, a portrait of Private Thomas Walker by the painter Thomas William Wood (Fig. 6) showed Walker “in bed, busily engaged sewing together pieces of different coloured cloth, for the purpose of making the quilt which the Queen, upon seeing, was pleased to order to be sent to the palace.”7 Walker was recovering from a devastating head wound sustained in the Battle of Inkerman, waged on November 5, 1854. In the portrait, his uniform lies atop the section of the quilt he has already completed, creating an immediate and visceral relationship between the material he is using and the devastation of war, inferred by the white cap covering his head wound and the abandoned headgear bearing the number of his regiment. Intended for public exhibition, the painting attempted to ameliorate the widely reported privations suffered by the soldiers by demonstrating the compassionate care bestowed on Private Walker in a veterans’ hospital. That said, there is little additional evidence that convalescing soldiers practiced quiltmaking, and the simple strip quilt that Private Walker is piecing is a far cry from the dazzling compositions made by regimental tailors and talented soldiers.
Most of the geometric quilts are constructed from pieces of cloth that have been placed next to each other and joined with simple whipstitches, which could then be disguised with embroidery; some also include elaborate layered appliqués that were probably cut using a special stamp. The quilts often feature a center medallion— usually square or rectangular—surrounded by concentric frames and borders that provide opportunities for unique arrangements of triangles, diamonds, squares, and hexagons of various sizes (Fig. 8). The relationship between these patterns and woodworking techniques such as inlay, marquetry, and parquetry, practiced predominantly by men, seems undeniable. Pride of workmanship is also evident in both mediums, some of which survive with notes appended by makers that recite the numbers of pieces used and hours invested.
Some of the most intricately designed quilts appear to derive from the British presence in India, which began in the seventeenth century with the formation of the East India Company. This enduring presence represented a considerably more stable situation in terms of housing and outfitting for the troops than the Crimean War, a campaign conceived as short-term and strategic. Off-cuts and scraps of uniform fabrics were available from civilian and regimental tailors and were often more colorful than those associated with the Crimean War. Many of the quilts made in India are also embellished with beads, spangles, trims, and embroidery, influenced perhaps by native Indian textiles and dress (Figs. 8, 11). A number reveal regimental emblems and even embroidered notations that indicate action seen by the regiment (Fig. 12).
The use of fulled or felted fabrics in quilts antedates the pieced geometric examples of the mid- to late nineteenth century, as seen in a tradition of narrative textiles dating to the Prussian and Napoleonic wars. From the early eighteenth century through the early nineteenth, professional tailors in Germanic Europe, as well as prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, created pictorial quilts and panels employing a technically challenging technique known as intarsia. Because the fabric did not fray when cut, the pieces could be assembled with no seam allowances, using minute stitches to join the pieces into intricate pictorial panoplies, or inlaid into receiving shapes cut from the background material. The result in both cases was an uninterrupted surface that was the same on the front and the back, and the imagery was more fluid than even traditional appliqué. The characters contained in the scenes were based on popular types—soldiers, musicians, and public figures—and were often traced or copied from published prints (Fig. 13). The use of print sources persisted as the art of intarsia found its way to Victorian London, probably via immigrant tailors since the technique demanded such a high degree of skill (Figs. 14, 15).
British historian Holly Furneaux has identified opposing impulses in Victorian responses to war. On the one hand, she writes of pride in longstanding British military traditions and its structure based on a hierarchical system of social order rather than merit. On the other, she explores the emergence of the regular enlisted “military man of feeling,” whose heroism and compassion elevate him above his humble rank.8 Wartime quilts reconciled the conflict between the empathetic soldier and the one who plunders trophies from fallen enemy combatants. In the context of war, quiltmaking becomes an act of redemption for darker human impulses enacted under dire circumstances. Memory and experience are fragmented and brilliantly reconstructed through tiny bits of cloth. The uniforms, associated with the best and the worst of humanity, are thus transformed into testaments of ordered sanity and beauty, even as the highly organized geometry grants the soldier an illusion of control over the predations of war he has both witnessed and participated in.
War and Pieced: The Annette Gero Collection of Quilts from Military Fabrics will be on view at the American Folk Art Museum from September 6 through January 7, 2018, and at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Lincoln–Nebraska from May 25 to September 16, 2018. The related book, Wartime Quilts: Appliqués and Geometric Masterpieces from Military Fabrics by Annette Gero (Beagle Press, 2015), is available in the United States through the American Folk Art Museum Shop.
1 In 2009–2010 these rare textiles were the subject of Inlaid Patchwork in Europe from 1500 to the Present, an exhibition at the Museum Europäischer Kulturen, Berlin, curated by Dagmar Neuland- Kitzerow, and Salwa Joram. 2 Quoted in Holly Furneaux and Sue Prichard, “Contested Objects: Curating Soldier Art,” Museum and Society, vol. 13, no. 4 (November 2015), p. 447, accessed online November 1, 2016. 3 Zenzie Tinker Conservation, “Crimean War Quilt,” zenzietinker.co.uk, accessed April 24, 2017. 4 Quoted in Anthony Dawson, Letters from the Light Brigade: The British Cavalry in the Crimean War (Pen and Sword, South Yorkshire, England, 2014),p. 120. 5 Ibid, p. 109. 6 This popularization of the trope of the convalescing soldier as quiltmaker gave rise to the nomenclature “convalescent quilt” when referring to these distinctive textiles. It now appears unlikely that any but the simplest geometric strip piecework was possible under hospital conditions. 7 “Private Thomas Walker, by Thomas Wood,” trc-leiden.nl, accessed November 1, 2016. 8 Holly Furneaux, Military Men of Feeling: Emotion, Touch, and Masculinity in the Crimean War (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016).
Stacy C. Hollander is the deputy director for curatorial affairs and the chief curator/director of exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum. She recently received two first-place awards for excellence from the Association of Art Museum Curators and the AAMC Foundation for her 2016 exhibition Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America.
Annette Gero, a collector, author, exhibition curator, and museum adviser, is an elected Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in recognition of her work on quilt history. She is one of Australia’s leading quilt historians.