While the museum is temporarily closed, we invite you to explore Signature Styles, an exhibition curated by Emelie Gevalt. Through this blog post, learn more about signature quilts. See photographs of works on view in the exhibition, read media coverage about it in The Queens Chronicle and Air Mail, and peruse additional quilt-related content.
By its nature, the signature quilt is meant to be read not only as a whole but also square by square. Although the form is known by various names – including friendship, album, and fundraising quilts – what all of these types share in common is the composite nature of the quilting project, in which individual signed blocks have been brought together to form a larger design. Often a group undertaking, each block was typically named for – and frequently made and/or paid for by – a different member of a community.
In this sense, the signature quilt holds symbolic value not only as a record of shared creative endeavor, which is the case for many quilts, but also as a legible record of relationships – between the quilters and their communities, as well as between the part and the whole. As documents of past networks, such objects extend a sense of interconnectedness into the present, drawing viewers into a web of historical linkages in tandem with the visual interactions between blocks.
Like the systematically articulated branches of a family tree, the signature quilt simultaneously lays out and pulls in, engaging us in a simile of the group’s structure, and of the object’s dynamism, as we expand and contract our focus to take in both large and small.
The American trend towards signature quilts began in the mid-1800s and was reignited in the late 19th century. Inspiring a fad with numerous variations, the form itself likely developed in part from a fashion for autograph albums, popular in the United States by the early 19th century. Similar to the guest book or later yearbook, an autograph album served as a forum for preserving personal connections, collecting inscriptions from friends and acquaintances as mementos of relationships, in keeping with the era’s culture of sentimentality.
The signature quilt takes up the spirit of this social ritual and enlarges it, demanding greater ambition from its participants and a bolder display for its finished product – an expansive bedcover or showpiece that would have a regular presence in a domestic interior, a reminder of community, bound together both literally and metaphorically by connecting threads. Such visual and material symbols would have served as powerful constants during times of familial and social change.
Various sub-types comprise the larger category of the signature quilt. The friendship quilt consists of multiple blocks designed after a common pattern, often differentiated by a variation in color or the inclusion of individual signatures, on view here in the Savery Friendship Star Quilt.
The album quilt displays blocks with an array of different patterns, often featuring pictorial appliqué images. Such designs became so popular in Baltimore that the trend developed into a distinctive, especially elaborate variation, sometimes undertaken as an individual project. Possibly indicative of this practice, only some Baltimore style album quilts bear names, although their design recalls that of signed examples.
The fundraising quilt – seen here in the Admiral Dewey Commemorative Quilt, among others – was assembled to benefit a charitable cause. Each participant made a contribution – for instance, a dime – in exchange for the inking or embroidery of their name upon a square.
Many signature quilts were conceived as gifts, such as the Presentation Quilt for William A. Sargent and the Surprise Quilt Presented to Mary A. Grow. Such examples underline the commemorative or celebratory purposes fundamental to the form across its variations, often made as a marker of an important event such as a marriage or a departure from a community.
Exhibition text by Emelie Gevalt. American Folk Art Museum. 2020.