Japanese visitors love them to pieces

Textiles: Album quilts from the Maryland Historical Society prove popular on exhibit at the Chiba Sogo Museum of Art.

March 15, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

As the Maryland Historical Society prepared a traveling exhibition of Baltimore album quilts to Japan, Nancy Davis had an inkling it would be popular.

For one thing, Japan has a legacy of spectacular textile design and production. And its population has a long-running fascination with American culture, which is vividly depicted in quilt squares of the American eagle, a clipper ship and other patriotic icons.

What's more, the album quilt, created by group effort, would appeal to the Japanese penchant for collective endeavor. Individual squares were stitched by different people -- for example, a women's church group -- then assembled into a quilt and presented on a special occasion.

Davis' premonition about the exhibit's popularity was right on. The collection of more than 40 quilts was visited by 17,000 people in its first month at the Chiba Sogo Museum of Art, inside a department store in Chiba, Japan.

The album quilts themselves are gorgeous assemblages of pictorial squares, representing everything from flowers to the Washington Monument. Popular from 1840 to 1855, many of the quilts were made from pre-designed squares available in kits.

During their heyday, these quilts were viewed as works of art rather than utilitarian coverlets. They were not stuffed like everyday quilts, and consequently were no warmer than a sheet or bedspread. Their pristine condition -- many have never been washed -- indicates they were admired, not used. Several were displayed in their day at what is now the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

The album quilt show, which opened in December, has accelerated a burgeoning interest in quilting in Japan, says Davis, the deputy director for collections at the Historical Society. A Japanese textile consultant, Mieko Miyama, has designed album quilt squares in kit form available with instruction books and quilting materials at gift shops within the department store.

"It's just fascinating to me," says Davis, who traveled to Chiba to oversee the quilts' installation. In Japan, quilting has become "an enormous business."

As Davis scanned the quilt show's early audience, she found mainly women in their 30s and 40s, who were "really just completely absorbed" with the fine work that went into the album quilts so many years ago.

In general, fabric exhibits, many of them mounted by a group called Kojusai Art, which worked on the Historical Society show, are generally quite popular, Davis says.

The Baltimore album quilt show, which includes four quilts from the collection of Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, will travel through Japan, and return to the Maryland Historical Society for exhibition in the spring of 2001. Several were displayed locally in the March 1994 exhibition, "Lavish Legacies: Baltimore Album Quilts," at the historical society.

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