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Antebellum Quilts

A new show at the Renwick Gallery features a rare repository of textile history

In the mid-18th century, "35 pieces of chintz" from John Isles of Bristol were dispatched to John Savage & Co. in South Carolina aboard the sloop Rebecca. These lengths of fine glazed and printed cotton likely found their way into quilts fashioned for the beds of prosperous households. Before a competitive textile industry developed in the United States in the 1840s, costly printed fabrics imported from Britain and France dominated the upscale American market. Affluent quilt-makers sought the finest of these calicoes and chintzes to sew into lavish bedcovers. With their opulent colors and elaborate designs, these quilts preserve a legacy of stylish fabrics and document an important era in textile printing and quilt-making.

An arresting array of these seldom-used "best," or heirloom, quilts is currently on display at the National Museum of American Art's Renwick Gallery. "Calico and Chintz: Antique Quilts from the Collection of Patricia S. Smith," on view through January 12, 1997, features rare and little-known American quilts dating from about 1790 to 1845. In some of these quilts, patterns of similar color combinations are uniformly repeated. In others, the patterns are more random, with lush, fragmentary images of flowers, birds and trees.

"When blocks of multicolored chintzes with large floral motifs are juxtaposed with patches of densely patterned, polychrome calicoes, the effect can be spectacular, almost kaleidoscopic," says the show's curator, Jeremy Adamson. "Early American quilt-makers created works of visual power and splendor that showcase the beauty of these fabrics, bequeathing to us a treasure trove of textile history."

Diane M. Bolz

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