Patriotism On Display In Every Thread, Stitch
August 31, 2011
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Behind every quilt there is a story.
That popular saying definitely applies to a quilt exhibit now on display at the Huntsville Museum of Art. The exhibit's 20 quilts, made by U.S. quilt makers during the mid-1900s, tell a story that goes well beyond the quilt as a historical textile art form.
These quilts tell the story of the nation's patriotism, sacrifice, hope and service during some of the darkest days faced by the U.S. and its allies.
"Blood, Thread & Tears: World War II Quilts" is an exhibit pulled from the private collection of quilt maker, author and historian Sue Reich of Connecticut. It was brought to the museum with the assistance of the Heritage Quilters of Huntsville.
"This display is especially important to us because we want to honor not only World War II veterans but also the women who supported them," Carol Faraci, the museum's deputy director, said. "This is a new collection of art by American women that shows what women and girls did for the war effort. Those women stayed at home and worked in factories. Their quilts were a labor of love, and may have even helped them with their mental and emotional state during a very trying time."
Between 1941 and 1945, American women made quilts in record numbers as gifts for their servicemembers, for use by the Red Cross overseas, and as raffle quilts to raise money for the war cause while their sons, husbands, brothers and loved ones were on the battlefront. For 60 years, many of these quilts were packed away in attics and trunks. They are just now resurfacing as both men and women of "The Greatest Generation" pass away, and their children and grandchildren rediscover the quilts that meant so much all those years ago.
"It's important to have an exhibit of textiles and an exhibit of textiles that designate a period of history that is so important," Christopher Madkour, the museum's executive director, said. "We are delighted to present this historical collection of World War II-era quilts that bring to life both folk art and patriotism. Museum visitors are sure to enjoy these artful treasures in time, and we are grateful to Ms. Reich for sharing them with us."
Many of the quilts in the exhibit are designed in the patriotic colors of red, white and blue, and include the "V" for victory symbol, made famous by England's Winston Churchill during the war. Some include the names of servicemembers, military symbolism and actual artifacts from that time.
"This is a very sentimental exhibit," Faraci said. "Women made quilts for their sweethearts, brothers and sons, whoever was at war at the time. There are symbols of patriotism throughout. Most of the women who made these quilts are not known. But we do know a little about their history from the quilts they left behind."
One quilt made by a music teacher in Kentucky includes squares embroidered with the first stanza of patriotic songs, including America, Home Sweet Home, Call Out The Navy and The Star Spangled Banner.
"The handwork on the quilt top is amazing," Faraci said. "How she made the notes is really something to me."
Another quilt includes silk fabric panels that carry the V symbol and the words "Quiet Please Night Shift War Worker Sleeping."
"Workers would hang these silk panels from their door knobs or place them on their doors when they were sleeping," Faraci said. "This quilter took the panels and put them in a quilt along with other fabrics she had on hand. Back then, they used whatever they had to make a quilt."
There's also a Victory Garden quilt with wreaths of embroidered flowers shaped in Vs, a quilt made from sweetheart pillows of the time, a Red Cross quilt, an aviation quilt and a quilt made from Navy insignia patches.
"The story goes that the men needed their new patches sewn on their uniforms and the seamstress needed patches for a quilt she wanted to make. So, she would trade for a patch with a package of cigarettes," Faraci said.
One quilt includes the V for Victory symbol along with other patriotic symbols, including eagles, Morse code for the letter V and the words "Remember Pearl Harbor." And another honors the 8th Armored Division, also known as Iron Snake and Thundering Herd.
An Army/Navy E quilt in the collection has a more contemporary look, although it is original to the World War II era.
"The E award was given to manufacturers who did extraordinary work for the war effort," Faraci said.
There is also a Roll Call quilt that includes the signatures of servicemembers from two counties in Texas, a Star of Hope quilt made by a mother for her son and even a Russian Army quilt that spells in Russian a message of thanks for liberation from the Auschwitz concentration camp. It is thought that the faded background fabrics may be from the bed ticking of concentration camp prisoners.
"No matter what they did in their quilting, all the women used patriotic colors. Some used them a lot and very strongly, others used softer hues," Faraci said.
Several of the quilts were made from patterns of the time while others are originals inspired by the hopes of American women during World War II. Along with the quilts, visitors can also view other personal mementos that are historically relevant, such as photographs, ration books, parachute samples and newspaper quilting patterns.
"These quilts show us the role of women and the home front in their support of the war effort. I hope visitors learn about women and history from this exhibit," Faraci said. "There are so many controversial places in the world right now where there is violence. World War II was a people's war against an awful dictator. You get a feel of that from this exhibit. This is a good history lesson in what everybody contributed to this war effort from their hearts."
Madkour hopes the exhibit inspires others interested in the nation's patriotic history.
"You can't help but feel the inspiration from these quilts. It's in every thread, in every stitch," he said. "You can see it. You can feel it. This exhibit just pulls at your heartstrings."
Editor's note: Blood, Thread & Tears: World War II Quilts is on exhibit at the Huntsville Museum of Art through Nov. 13. Special programs related to the exhibit include two in-gallery quilting demonstrations with the Heritage Quilters of Huntsville on Sept. 11 and Nov. 13, both from 2 to 4 p.m.; an overview with social historian Frances Robb titled Spare Time, Leisure and Recreation in Alabama, 1890-1950, and a Drop-in Family Act Activity: Artful Quilt Squares on Oct. 23; and a closing ceremony Nov. 13 with participation from local veterans. Museum admission is $8 for adults; $7 for military, students, teachers and seniors with a valid ID; and $4 for children ages 6-11. Admission for museum members and children under 6 is free.