elizabeth walsch quilt
A medallion quilt by Elizabeth Welsh, circa 1830.

It stands to reason that the New York borough famous for DIY culture has produced an absorbing exhibition that taps its signature export. “Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts” brings 35 counterpanes—dating from 1795 to 1995 and culled from the Brooklyn Museum’s renowned decorative arts collection—to the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA). The exhibition spotlights the changing reception of quilts as art objects and, by extension, the women who made them.

“Few artifacts straddle the divide of art versus craft so completely; because of this, quilts elicit a range of responses, from the scholarly to the emotional,” says NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor.

Utilizing a feminist lens, the exhibition is divided into five sections, including “Folk Art and American Identity” and “That ’70s Moment.” Each chapter displays quilts in traditional designs, including the Barn Raising and Log Cabin styles, and the Amish’s signature Sunshine and Shadow template, as well as the so-called “crazy quilts” that celebrate irregular patchwork in a riot of color.

The jewel-bright colors indicate the degree to which these household objects are prized. Says Treanor: “If these quilts had been constantly used and washed, there is no way they would be in such excellent condition.”

Only a few artists, such as Mary A. Stinson and Victoria Royall Broadhead, are identified. The majority of signatures, alas, are a constellation of microscopic stitches, but their collective impact is astonishing. “Work by Hand” is on view December 20 to April 27 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. 1250 New York Ave. NW, 202-783-5000

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