Throughout recorded history, in all parts of the world, sewing was one of the primary domestic arts conveyed by one generation of women to the next, integral and necessary to daily lives as caretakers of the home and family. At the lower end of the economic and social spectrum, women sewed as a matter of necessity to clothe themselves and those in their care, and in the case of quilting, to provide protection from the cold. The higher a woman’s place on the social scale the less she was required to sew for practical reasons, however her ability to sew was considered a desirable refinement. Much in the same fashion as young girls of the upper class were taught to play a musical instrument, dance, or sketch and paint, they were taught the skills of fancy needlework and sewing.
Women and girls exhibiting their skills in decorative sewing and embroidery produced many of the most visually spectacular surviving examples of quilts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In many cases they and other family members would sew for their “dower chest” or their trousseau, collecting fine linens or garments for their future lives as managers of households. Additionally, these stunning examples of design and skill were created as gifts for specific occasions—for weddings or to celebrate the birth of a child. The Mount Ida Wedding Quilt was created in 1851 near Talladega, Alabama, as a wedding gift from the twelve women who made the individual squares. This quilt displays the technique of applique, in which pieces of fabric are cut into shapes, and then sewn down to a backing support to create the quilt top. The designs take their inspiration from the printed chintz cotton fabrics that originated in India, and became popular in England in the seventeenth century. Their popularity spread to the U.S., and American mills began copying chintz designs around 1830. The quilt squares were individually appliqued, then sewn together to form the top and, as a final step, the whole was quilted to a backing. Each square bears the name and, in some cases, the homestead of the woman who designed and created it. Such an elaborately crafted product would have been a symbol of significant social status and wealth bestowed by established members of their community on the young couple.
Nora Ezell is one of Alabama’s most skillful and honored quilt makers, receiving the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship in 1992. Like the Mount Ida Wedding Quilt, Nora’s Necktie Flower Garden (1994) features an application of flower designs as the primary feature of the top. Both of these quilts required all the skills of their makers—the intricate sewing and embroidery of vining flowers, as well as the tufting of some of the forms to achieve a three-dimensional effect equates to Ezell’s use of silk men’s ties, and various buttons and costume jewelry in creating a visual tour de force. These quilts are distinctive achievements, set apart from the “everyday,” and their workmanship identifies them as prestige objects of outstanding quality.
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