Art Quilts may seem like a trend that has seen a growth of popularity in the past two decades. According to the Art Quilt Network (founded in 1986 by quilter Nancy Crow), “Art quilts share a form with traditional quilts. Both are defined as a sandwich of fabric layers secured by stitching. However, when it comes to function, they part ways. The traditional quiltmaker intended her quilts to function as a decorative bedcover, while the contemporary quilt artist pushes the boundaries of quiltmaking by shifting the quilt from the bed to the gallery wall.”
Art quilts may not be as “contemporary” as we think. A click over to the National Museum of American History’s web site shows an example of an historical art quilt called “The Solar System Quilt”, created by Ellen Harding Baker of Cedar County, Iowa, in 1876.
The wool top of this appliqué quilt is embellished with wool-fabric appliqué, wool braid, and wool and silk embroidery. Included in the design is the appliquéd inscription, "Solar System," and the embroidered inscriptions, "E. H. Baker" and "A. D. 1876." The lining is a red cotton-and-wool fabric and the filling is of cotton fiber.
The maker, Sarah Ellen Harding, was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1847, and married Marion Baker of Cedar County, Iowa, on October 10, 1867. They lived in Cedar County until 1878, then moved to Johnson County where Marion had a general merchandise business in Lone Tree. Ellen had seven children before she died of tuberculosis in the spring of 1886. The design of Ellen's striking and unusual quilt resembles illustrations in astronomy books of the period. Ellen used the quilt as a visual aid for lectures she gave on astronomy in the towns of West Branch, Moscow, and Lone Tree, Iowa. Astronomy was an acceptable interest for women in the 19th century, and was sometimes even fostered in their education.
Today’s quilter can look to the quilters of the past for inspiration and ideas. Take a look at other historical quilts found at the Smithsonian Institute: