Archive Fever: The Quilt Index

By Peggy Roalf   Friday March 30, 2018

Textile design, weaving methods and hand embroidery have recently informed contemporary visual arts in a big way as painters become textile muralists and sculptors weave discarded soda cans into room-size installations. Pieced work, as in patchwork quilts, is another form that artists are embracing to create large, colorful installations in which sewing machines and fusible mesh supplant paints and brushes as tools. And as women and girls raise voice in every public arena to bring about changes in the workplace and in the schoolyard, this is a good time to consider the quilt. 

When you think about it, there’s hardly anything more Americana than the patchwork quilt. Log Cabin, Red Work, Jacobs Ladder, Crazy Quilt, these are just a few of the styles embraced by 19th-century quilters—mostly female. Adding in the abstract patterns of the Amish, the asymetrical coded designs of early African Americans, the Spoonflower and Star patterns of the Plains Indians, a world of 2-D design invites exploration.

Today, tens of thousands of actual quilts can be studied—even compared side by side—through the online Quilt Index (QI)—a partnership of the Michigan State University Museum, Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University, and the Quilt Alliance.

Left: Lone Star (ca 1930-1949), Wyoming Quilt Project; courtesy QI. Right: Tumbling Blocks (1890), Massachusetts Quilts Documentation Project; courtesy QI

Initiated in the early 1990s by a group of Folk Art scholars and historians, the project was later funded (in 1999) through a $2,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Paired with an $8,000 donation from Phyllis George Brown, then First Lady of Kentucky, the project grew and expanded to include more than 55,000 digital images, texts (oral, video, and written), and documents pertaining to their creation, dissemination, and context. QI is one of the first digital humanities projects, and came about through a resurgence in quilting during the 1970s. 

The combined influences of the back-to-the-land and communal living movements; second wave feminism; a resurgence of interest in textile arts [remember macramé?]. Not least, the 1976 Bicentennial celebration and launch of the digital era combined to fuel the program. Local historical and craft groups from coast to coast organized Quilt Days, for which people brought in their heirlooms and self-made items to be photographed and recorded in standard metadata for the QI. By 2006, according to QI, there were over twenty-seven million active quilters in the United States and quilting had become a $3.3 billion dollar industry 

In Africa, the need to be able to recognize people from far distances was crucial for warring tribes and traveling hunting parties. This textile tradition of using large shapes and bright color was thus carried on, as in these Gees Bend quilts.

Not only a resource for makers and artists, the Quilt Index holds the foundations of material culture; close study can find answers to questions like: why was woolen cloth not manufactured in the U.S. until 1791? or why are cotton patchwork quilts so uniquely American?

Following are links to further interest on pieced work textiles. And did you ever wonder where the expression “made of whole cloth” came from? Ask me anything…

Red and White Quilts at The Park Avenue Armory, March 2011.

Read article by Marsha MacDowell, director of The Quilt Index.

Website for

The Quilt Index Blog offers fascinating views into the collections and tips on using the many resources of QI.

Southern Quilting, a renegade outfit offering “one hundred and fifty years of shared tradition.”

Red and White Quilts at the Armory, DART, 2011

The American Folk Art Museum; Collections Archive.


By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday March 28, 2018

By Peggy Roalf   Tuesday March 27, 2018

By Peggy Roalf   Monday March 26, 2018

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