Quilts tell many stories. They often contain information about a culture’s traditions, migration patterns, communities and individuals. Quilts may be part of women’s dowries, decorate their wedding beds and welcome the birth of a child. Designs and symbols used in quilts draw on local beliefs.
The Museum of International Folk Art’s exhibit “Quilts of Southwest China” showcases a selection of old and new quilts from the southwestern part of China that, until recently, have received little attention from scholars, collectors and museums. With the influx of commercially manufactured textiles and clothing into rural communities, the art of quilt-making has declined.
“There’s been very little research to date on quilts from southwestern China,” explains Carrie Hertz, Curator of Textiles and Dress at MIFA. “Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to find old quilts intact. The wet climate has broken down many of them through the years.”
Hertz has observed similarities in construction and patterning between Chinese and American quilting practices. Quilters in both countries use recycled materials.
In China, however, recycled scraps of fabric obtained from family members and neighbors have a special significance. “The good fortune of those who used the old quilts is transferred to the new quilts,” Hertz adds.
The exhibit, which is on a national tour, includes quilts, baby carriers and clothing made from cotton, silk, satin and wool in as early as the 1920s through the present. Flowers, insects and birds are common images. Certain critters carry specific energy. Crabs, for example, represent good fortune and success, while frogs can be a sign of fertility and rabbits are associated with femininity.
“Quilts of Southwest China” is organized through an international collaborative partnership led by Michigan State University Museum. “This project has been funded for three more years,” says Hertz. “In December, I will be traveling to China to do research. We’ve just scratched the surface of understanding quilt-making in southwestern China.”