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Quilts, which are made by placing batting between two layers of fabric and then stitching together the sandwich in a pattern, adorn many homes in the United States. On the frontier, quilts gave women “the courage to endure their isolation” by giving beauty and comfort to homes constructed in harsh and unfamiliar environments. Quilting also served social functions: by working together, quilters generated communities that could sustain them in times of mourning and celebration. Since 1971, when the exhibition “Abstract Design in American Quilts” held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, was the first exhibition to recognize and legitimize quilt making, and quilt makers, as a legitimate feature of American art, scholarly respect for and interest in quilts increased. Quilts ascendency in critical estimation also coincided with the rise of the fields of material culture and feminist theory. In the following decades since the 1970s, quilts have become, in the eyes of writers like Alice Walker, “the central metaphor of American cultural identity," which now has broadened to include women as well as men, racial minorities alongside whites, the regional beside the cosmopolitan, and craft equivalent to fine art.
Wade Hall’s textile collection at the University of Alabama includes around twenty coverlets as well as 166 quilts, each of which is valuable for its ability to illustrate the folk traditions of American quilters from middle class and working class homes in the Midwest and the South during the late nineteenth through the twentieth century. While Hall’s quilts may not in the best physical shape, nor do they necessarily display the finest fabrics or most sophisticated techniques, they demonstrate “talents that sometimes had no other outlet” because female crafters who often used quilting as a substitute for artistic ambitions that, given different circumstances, would have manifested in pursuits related to the fine arts. Additionally, because Hall gathered quilts which might not stand out in finer collections and those with uncertain provenance, these quilts offer researchers the ability to correct for “historical bias,” or the tendency for curators to keep only “the very old, the very expensive, or the very unusual.” The majority of Hall’s quilts come from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, the states where Hall was most actively collecting. However, some come from as far afield as Oregon. Most do not have any information regarding their provenance, so their origin cannot be definitively stated. After all, Yvonne M. Milspaw, a scholar of American quilts and folklore, notes that “unlike barns and tombstones, [quilts] move frequently." So, where a quilt wound up is not necessarily where it was made, but it is because of these problems, not in spite of them, that quilts made by anonymous crafters with average skills in unknown locations are among the most central and significant expressions of American popular culture.
Reseachers interested in the Wade Hall and Gregg Swem American Quilts Collection
A complete guide to the collection with some thumbnails is available for review online.