Stories Behind the Stitches

Bathing Girls – quilt by Greta Mikkelsen

Across the country over these summer months, as folks push through the turnstiles to enter that quintessential American entertainment known as the state fair, one of the things they can count on seeing, along with the 4-H rabbits, the prize-winning dahlias, and the gargantuan pumpkins, is a kaleidoscopic display of local quilts. 

We in the United States regard patchwork quilts and crazy quilts as classic Americana, and it’s true that in this country early colonial quilts had humble beginnings as homemakers with few resources essentially recycled whatever scraps of cloth they had on hand into utilitarian blankets.  

But padded cloth has been used over many centuries and in many cultures for bedding, cold-weather garments, and sometimes even as armor. It wasn’t until the eventual rise of the textile industry that quilts became a widespread outlet for creative impulses, as well.  

These days, you’ll find wonderful examples of quilting prowess in just about every community. But if you want to see the undisputed pinnacle of quilting achievement, you’ll need to make a pilgrimage to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the International Quilt Museum presides in serene splendor on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's East Campus. Not only does the IQM host the world’s largest collection of quilts, it also makes a point of displaying exquisite examples of quilting from more than 60 countries around the globe – representing every continent except (so far) Antarctica. 

To give an example of the range of the Museum’s scope, there are stunning quilted camel trappings – yes, camel trappings– from Turkmenistan, while just around the corner there’s a meticulously pieced art quilt of muted, hand-dyed cotton squares by contemporary Korean fiber artist Misik Kim. The Museum’s holdings include American patchwork quilts that are over two centuries old, and modern-day quilts mirroring social justice themes. Some of the pieces on display involve quilting techniques – but don’t resemble anything you could ever spread on your bed.

Currently at IQM, two exhibits that command special notice reflect on fashions of different eras, and from opposite sides of the world.

The first is “Miniature Costumes and Quilts: Geeta Khandelwal’s Labor of Love.” A renowned quiltmaker based in Mumbai, Khandelwal has spent much of the last decade in recreating the ornate royal robes of historic Indian maharajahs. These pieces are intricately quilted, beaded, and otherwise embellished by hand, but scaled down to about one-eighth of their original size. 

Khandelwal also has created several cunning doll quilts. Some of these feature traditional designs such as the Tree of Life, or again reflect upon the almost unimaginably lavish lifestyle of a maharajah’s palace – silk quilts embroidered with gold-wrapped thread, for example. IQM curators have paired each of Khandelwal’s miniatures with full-size examples from the Museum’s collection of quilts from India.

This exhibit will be on view through October 14.   

The second exhibit worth noting focuses on a fad that began in the 19th century and that may have been the first, but certainly not the last, marketing effort to link tobacco products with glamor and fashion. 

“At a Premium: Tobacciana in the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries” showcases the artistry of Oregon quilt artist Greta Mikkelsen. Her work incorporates cigar silks, cigarette silks and tobacco flannels from the Gilded Age and into the “Progressive” Era. Tobacco companies included these decorative little patches of fabric in the packaging of their products. To encourage brand loyalty and incentivize customers to keep buying, different companies came up with different series of silks that might feature anything from butterflies, birds, and seashells, to yachting pennants or American Presidents.   

The scheme probably prompted wives to encourage their husbands to keep up their smoking habit. It might even have lured some women to take up smoking, themselves - so that they could reap the premiums and incorporate the silks into their own sewing projects.   

The 1910 bathing beauties pictured above may have been too racy for some in “polite” society back in the day, but American women were modernizing, and fashions and lifestyles were changing.    

To our 21st century sensibilities, of course, these young women in their knee-length swimming frocks and tights look more charming than risqué. But in combining these antique tobacco silks with flowing satin ribbons and lightly quilted backgrounds of silk taffeta, Mikkelsen highlights a historical conjunction of fashion, changing mores – and the tobacco industry’s increasingly calculated approach toward marketing.  

It is worth contemplation. Mikkelsen’s tobacciana-related work, which previously has been displayed at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum in Colorado, the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts, and the Rogue Gallery in Medford, Oregon, will be on view at the IQM until September 16.


Barbara Lloyd McMichael is a freelance writer living in the Pacific Northwest.




Barbara McMichael

Barbara Lloyd McMichael is based in the Pacific Northwest and writes about books and culture. She writes a syndicated weekly book review column called  “The Bookmonger” that focuses on Northwest books and authors. Her PR for People® Book Review is written exclusively for The Connector. 

Comments Join The Discussion