Material matters : color, pattern, cognition, and perception in quilts from the Winedale Collection
American quilts, at their best, have been celebrated for nearly fifty years as masterpieces of unschooled and unintentional modernism, and their mostly female makers cast as implicitly innocent and ignorant. Myth and convention hold that patchwork quilts materialized from scraps of cloth and an unconscious or automatic kind of labor. In fact, quilts issued from deliberate engagement with color and pattern—work that was difficult, intellectual, and often solitary. The ability to handle color and pattern simultaneously and expertly was informed by women’s experience with domestic and industrial textile production, and with the major products of both: woven coverlets and printed cottons, respectively. Through formal analyses of ten quilts from the Winedale Collection at the University of Texas at Austin, I trace a general progression from wholecloth to pieced quilts, illuminating some of the cognitive and perceptual processes that underpinned the production and reception of sophisticated patchwork. The predominance of calico, by the mid-nineteenth-century, provided quiltmakers with plentiful and affordable material in an unprecedented range of color that prompted quilts featuring edge-to-edge geometry. The most striking of these specimens rely for their aesthetic effects on proportion—relative quantities of different colors, and relationships and interactions among them—and especially on anomalies of color and saturation. The fruits of these technological innovations and artistic experiments—the textiles themselves, and the contexts in which they were made, used and seen—evince conceptual links between quilts and architecture, and quilts and landscape, and support an interpretation of quilts as actual and abstract mediators between inside and outside, home and nature. As objects that derived from and impelled complicated acts of imagination, quilts demonstrate not only formidable intellectual and artistic dexterity, but a picture of female domesticity predicated on sensibilities that were anything but conventional.