QUILTS & FABRIC: PAST & PRESENT


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Rosie Lee Tompkins Review

Quilt, 1985
Irene Howard quilted many of Effie's tops.

I belong to a small group of amateur critics (Fabulous Five of us) who email often about politics, the museum world, textiles and general fatuousness of fellow humans. Servers California to D.C. were buzzing last week when the New York Times published an article called "The Radical Quilting of Rosie Lee Tompkins."
The Link:
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/26/arts/design/rosie-lee-tompkins-quilts.html?action=click&module=Editors%20Picks&pgtype=Homepage

Header photo of Rosie Lee Tompkins (1936-2006)
whose name was actually Effie Mae Martin Howard, 
the name we will use for her here. 

Julie Silber began with two words:
"Oy.
Vey."
Virginia Vis tried to calm us (an unusual position vis-à-vis Ms Vis*):
"I  was impressed the NY Times gave that much page space to quilts - with pics. While the white male thing infuriated me re: the Gees Bend quilt phenomena, once deep into the article I felt better about the attitude of the white male involved here."
From the Eli Leon collection
Effie often used synthetic fabrics of velvet and satinweave, 
textured weaves that take color and reflect and absorb light
 more dramatically than the usual cotton broadcloth.

Julie pointed out the author was not your white male critic but Roberta Smith, the newspaper's female co-chief art critic. Ms. Smith had been to see a show by the artist in Berkeley in 1987 and was impressed enough to recall it lyrically almost 35 years later.


Julie circled this sentence in the second paragraph:
"They were crafted objects that transcended quilting, with the power of painting."

Three words
Julie's interpretation of what Smith was saying:

"These quilts are great because they are almost like paintings" a statement she described as
"demeaning, condescending, dismissive (even contradictory.)"
Julie's opinion:
"Quilts are not great because they look like other forms. They stand on their own---and the makers who excelled (reaching aesthetic heights) need to be acknowledged as 'masters' ('mistresses)?' "

 

Now, me---I glanced at the story last week. I try to avoid reading about quilts in the New York Times---well, actually any newspaper. I have my blood pressure to worry about. I'm sick of cliches about women's work, of knee-jerk cultural condescension, of Painters' Privilege in the art world.

I got as far as the words "transcended quilting." I've been fighting the attitude since I was 21 years old and turned in a full-size quilt for my senior art education project and was told it didn't count as art. I substituted a few cranked-out paintings/collages and passed with a B.

Alden translates "transcended quilting" to mean these pieces are "something better, because trust me, we would NEVER claim QUILTS are worth talking about as art."


Looking at this quilt I realize it's a family history quilt. 
It says Effie 36 & Mark, John, Barrett, Luke, etc.
 probably with birthdates & Richmond.

Debby Cooney highlighted the article's comparisons to male painters---Klee, Van Gogh---something we see constantly. Alden's translation: "It reminds me of oil paintings done by a white man in the modern canon, therefore it's worth talking about." 

Not only are such comparisons patronizing---implying the textile is just as good (or almost as good) as paintings by men, it's using short-hand cliches of visual imagery rather than fresh words to  describe a work of art---sloppy art criticism.



Collection of the Whitney Museum of Art, 1986
Effie seems to have worked in series, using different shapes at times.
We must assume much of her fabric was found or given
rather than purchased as yardage.
Eli Leon supplied her with some.

Collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
 1999
They accepted the 400 quilts from Leon's collection.

1983, 
Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

So should we be pleased the New York Times has featured quilts on the art pages? 

Julie:
 "As for the article going far and wide... I disagree that this is good. Bad news. SO many people will now miss the point. 'Legitimizes' the wrong ideas."

Well, at least it's been enjoyable to look at the color & composition.
The artist in me will undoubtedly steal that set and 
come to believe it was my idea.

Virginia remained calm:
"This discussion has made me really examine why I'm not outraged--- and I am sorry to say it is at least partly because I don't expect any better from...Public Opinion of Textile Arts in general."
She's worked in the art world.

1997 catalog by Eli Leon & Lawrence Rinder

We can view Eli Leon as Effie's partner like her quilter Irene Banks. He gave Effie her pseudonym, promoted the work of a woman who requested privacy and collected her quilts as obsessively as she sewed them. (He had 400 when he died last year.)

1987 catalog by Eli Leon: 
Who'd A Thought It: Improvisation in African-American Quiltmaking. 
San Francisco Craft & Folk Art Museum


Effie Mae Martin Howard (1936-2006)


Relevant quilt by Joe Cunningham

*Sorry, VV

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Sophia Coltrane: A Quilt & A House

Medallion quilt attributed to Sophia McGee Coltrane (1783-1882)
76” x 80”

The North Carolina project documented this medallion, brought in by one of Sophia’s many descendants.


The bedcover shows style characteristics of an early quilt, likely made before 1820. Patchwork design is typical of the time--- medallion format, simple patchwork, large-scale prints. That center design (14" square)  has been a popular pattern for two hundred years. We would probably call it a Sunflower.

Borders are the basic shapes, square, circle and triangle. The border of circles is not common but is seen in a few early quilts. 

See posts on the border designs here:
http://quilt1812warandpiecing.blogspot.com/2012/01/border-of-circles.html
http://quilt1812warandpiecing.blogspot.com/2012/01/chain-of-squares-borders.html

Fabrics: Limited colors of blues and browns (although some browns might have once been more colorful). Toiles and the reddish-brown foulard print in the central design are rather limited in print style and dyes. The maker may have had a good deal of each fabric but not much variety. Border shapes are cut from monochrome prints in blue and brown, toiles.

Outer borders

Reverse of a quilt dated 1804

Monochrome prints with classical, literary or country imagery were quite popular for decorating. Many scenic designs were made in France (toiles de Jouy), printed with large copper plates.

But England soon copied the style of scenic landscapes with roller prints.
The roller-printed repeat would then be about 15 inches from cow nose to cow nose.


It looks like Sophia's blue prints are more like this roller-printed floral, probably English prints,
which gives us a little more help in dating: After 1800 when Sophia was in her 20s, but before 1840.

Sophia McGee Coltrane (1783-1882)
She lived to be 99.

It's certainly one of the oldest quilts the North Carolina project recorded. If it was indeed made between 1800 and 1820 near Asheboro in what is now Randolph County in central North Carolina , it would be an landmark North Carolina quilt, but it's also possible it is a Maryland quilt..

Map from the application for a 
Local Landmark Designation for Sophia's house

Sophia lived north of  the town of Asheboro, about 50 miles southwest of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Both her quilt and her home have survived the centuries.

She was born in 1783 in Dorchester County in Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Rebecca Busick & Samuel Newton McGee. That year her father is listed as owning two 100 acre-parcels in Maryland but he seems to have owned North Carolina land too as he sold some of it when Sophia was about ten. The McGees may have visited North Carolina and made connections. Sophia married Daniel Coltrane of Randolph County, North Carolina on July 29th, 1808 when they were both in their mid-twenties. 

Did Sophia (and her family) make this quilt in anticipation of her 1808 marriage? The fabrics could easily be that early and so could the style. If so, it would be a very old quilt indeed---even for more sophisticated Maryland..


This medallion by Mary Eby dated 1803 on the quilt is the earliest quilt documented by the Maryland project. See it in their book A Maryland Album by Gloria Seaman Allen and Nancy Gibson Tuckhorn.

Sophia's quilt is similar in several ways to the 1803 quilt
 in medallion format, narrow range of colors in similar shades and 
borders of squares pieced on point.

The William Coltrane House
William deeded his house to son Daniel in 1811.

Because the William Coltrane house has survived (William was Sophia's father-in-law) we can learn a lot more about Sophia from the Local Landmark architectural application, which tells us:
"The William Coltrane House, built between 1785 and 1800, is the oldest known frame house still standing in Randolph County....Coltrane, a Scottish émigré, was a prosperous farmer, one of the county’s early leading citizens, and patriarch of a prominent family that remained in the residence well into the 20th Century."

Jazz-icon John Coltrane about 1930

The Coltranes owned slaves and it is interesting that the most famous Coltrane, saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) was born about 50 miles south of this house, perhaps a descendant of people owned by Sophia's husband's family. His grandfather, another William Coltrane, was born about 1860.

Interior woodwork was quite elegant
 William Coltrane "built his well-appointed farmhouse between 1785 and 1800 (probably closer to the former) on 400 acres granted to him by the State of North Carolina in 1783. By the time of his death in 1814, he owned at least 2,800 acres of land in Randolph, Rowan and Orange counties, making him one of the largest landowners not just in Randolph County but in the Piedmont as well. 
Sophia's husband Daniel's tombstone.
He was a man of substance.
"William’s son Daniel carried on successfully his father’s footsteps. On Daniel’s death in 1835, he held over 1,500 acres of land and his estate was valued at $9,960.  
Daniel must have been married before as he brought two sons, David Branson Coltrane born in 1795 and John born in 1802, to the 1808 marriage. He and Sophia had eight more children after 1809, including a second David born soon after his half-brother died in 1815.

Flame grained mahogany door

When he was about 50 Daniel bought a grist mill on the Deep River. He and his sons ran the mill until November, 1835 when he was caught in the machinery, thrown into the mill pond and drowned, leaving Sophia with children ranging from about ten to grown boys who took over the mill. David (1816-1884) inherited the house.

Son Jesse in front of the Coltrane Mill, which has been covered by a reservoir.
He and brother David ran the family mill.

Sophia was dependent on her boys for the rest of her long life. She died in 1882 while living with son Jesse Franklin Coltrane (1821-1916) and his family.
MESDA collection

A walnut corner cupboard similar to this one by
local craftsman Henry Macy was once built into the house.

We cannot guess whether Sophia's quilt was made in Maryland before her 1808 wedding or in North Carolina or after. It certainly has the look of a quilt made in Tidewater Virginia or Maryland's Eastern Shore region, but Sophia could easily have carried that taste with her to North Carolina.

Similar style in a quilt top attributed to 
Martha Washington Dandridge Halyburton, Virginia, about 1805

Collection of the Ladies' Mt. Vernon Association

Read about the family home:
 L. McKay Whatley Jr., Randolph County Historic Landmark Preservation Commission 
http://www.randolphlibrary.org/coltranehouse.pdf

See Sophia's grave:
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9982577/sophia-coltrane

Top attributed to Frances Washington Ball, Virginia
Ladies' Mt. Vernon Association

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Sea Island Cotton

Fabric quality is an issue with utility quilts made in
the 1880-1930 era. But they weren't made to last forever.

Many years ago when I used to travel to give talks on quilts I'd listen carefully to what the older women in the audience had to say about vintage quilts. I learned some vernacular terms like ball cotton for Perle cotton twist, Portuguese pink for double pink prints and the big stitch for a fast quilting method.

Lower thread count per square inch meant cheaper fabric

More than once I heard someone refer disparagingly to flimsy cotton cloth as Sea Island cotton. This confused me as I thought of Sea Island cotton as a fine variety of cotton found in good quality cloth.

The backgrounds and sashing here is the kind of fabric they were talking about,
inexpensive solids

When I asked them why they'd call such cheap fabric Sea Island they didn't have any real answer. It just is.

But I recently remembered that term when thinking about the low quality cloth one often sees in Southern quilts dating from about 1880 to 1920. I'd also heard people call this commodity cloth and tobacco cloth.

See a post on tobacco cloth in which friend Lynn Gorges commented:
Tobacco cloth is grade 90 Cheesecloth. Growing up on a tobacco farm in eastern NC I know all about it. I have at least one quilt (and maybe more) that has several layers of tobacco cloth inside it rather than batting. This happened often with poor folks who made scrap quilts. It is a soft "batting" but the devil to quilt so the quilting stitches are pretty long. I have seen quilts that tobacco cloth was also used for piecing. It is a pretty poor substitute for regular muslin. Very thin!
End of farming lesson. Lynn Lancaster Gorges, New Bern, NC

So what we are looking for is a better grade of cotton than tobacco cloth.

1873 Charlotte, North Carolina ad
Sea Island Cotton advertised with shirtings, prints and ginghams

I did a search for the words Sea Island Domestic on the Library of Congress's website for digital newspapers Chronicling America and got hundreds of hits like the above dry goods ad. 


Some of the articles were about Sea Island cotton referred to a variety of quality cotton grown along the Atlantic coast as in this 1865 reference to how short supplies were in the winter after the Civil War. At 85 cents a pound, it was extremely expensive (just about what cotton costs today---and it's not the Sea Island variety.)

See a post on cotton grades here:

1869 ad for Bleached Domestics and Sea Island Domestics
in Fayetteville, Tennessee

At some point the term Sea Island Cotton or Sea Island Domestic came to mean an inexpensive fabric of low thread count and thin yarns. In the ad above it seems comparable with Bleached Domestics.

Bleached domestic cloth as backing on a white work piece,
about 1820

Domestic cloth before the Civil War meant a fabric woven in the United States, often of coarse yarns, the kind of white fabric we see on the back of quilts that is sometimes referred to as homespun---it's not really spun at home, it's spun and woven in a domestic factory small or large.

 Tennessee ad from 1874 prices the different fabrics:
New Prints 5c
Best New Prints almost twice the price at 8 & 10c
Best Sea Island Domestics ranging from 5 to 10c
Best Bleached Domestics begin at 10 and go up to 15c
Stylish Dress Goods (maybe silk, wool or a mixed fabric) 12-1/2c to 15c

Sea Island Domestics again describes a type of fabric rather than the type of plant from which the cotton comes. Perhaps the Southern mills specializing in cheaper cottons than those imported from New England or Europe used the term Sea Island rather cavalierly---throwing in a word with quality connotations that had nothing to do with the product. 


In 1876 another Tennessee store offered several cottons of different quality
Good 4-4 Bleached Shirting  8c
Fine 4-4 Bleached Shirting 10c
Heavy 4 4 Brown Domestic 8 1/2c
Heavy 7-8 Brown Domestic at 7 1/2c
Extra 4-4 Sea Island Domestic 10c

The cheapest was a heavy Brown Domestic. Is this similar to our unbleached muslin or is it this brown cotton you often see used as lining in clothing?



The lining cottons range from tan to almost a chocolate brown.
Some are shiny (sateen weave?) 

Sea Island Domestic was not cheap; here it is as the most expensive item along with fine shirting cotton.

Another Tennessee ad, 1919

Sea Island Domestic came in various widths and grades (a yard wide: 17c to 22c)

Dress Ginghams were more expensive (solid colors, plaids, stripes and checks) at 29c.
Gingham tended to mean cotton dyed in the yarn and then woven into cloth as opposed to dyed later.
High quality plaids, Shirting Madras, were the most expensive clothing fabrics at 39c and Calico (light & dark prints) the cheapest at 12-1/2 c.

Arkansas, 1909

Most of the ads were from Tennessee newspapers, stores that served the whole South, but stores in nearly every Southern state were indexed. No Ohio ads, however, no Vermont ads, nothing in Minnesota. Sea Island cloth was a Southern commodity.

 The earliest ad I found was a year after the war in 1866 in South Carolina, presumably for a Charleston store on King Street. They had everything---if you had any money or credit.

Fine Sea Island, Brown Shirtings
Callicoes, in all qualities
Domestic Ginghams
Colored Muslin, in every variety
and Farmer's Brown Linen Duck

Note: they cater to Planters who are bartering with the Freedmen.