What Quilts Mean Now

Virginia Jacobs, Krakow Kabuki Waltz, 1987, cotton plain weave, pieced and quilted, 7 feet in diameter.COURTESY THE ARTIST. PHOTO © MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON.

The goal of the new exhibition “Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” (on view through January 17, 2022) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, seems—at first glance—straightforward enough. The show reflects the history of the United States over the course of some three hundred years through fifty-eight objects drawn primarily from the MFA’s own collection. Previous exhibitions have primed us to accept that quilts hold history in their very threads. Yet quilts are multivalent things; they speak different words to different ears. Do quilts function as autobiography, a manifestation of the maker’s vision, or a fundamentally communal expression of purpose and meaning? Do they visualize broader aesthetic trends and evolving techniques? Are they embodiments of economic forces that bring commercially produced cloth into homes? Do they represent gendered training and its possible subversion? The answer to each of these questions is “yes and . . .”; quilts illuminate multiple facets of life.

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