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Don’t sleep on this Smithsonian quilt exhibit

This late-19th-century contained crazy quilt is made up of 81 blocks, each of which includes a cross shape made from an assortment of silk framed by black silk. (National Museum of American History)

If you love traditional American quilts for their simplicity, usefulness and thrift, you are going to hate the National Museum of American History exhibit “Everyday Luxury: Silk Quilts From the National Collection,” which opened Tuesday. The nine 19th-century quilts on display are not your classic, staid bedspreads made of scraps. Rather, they are exuberant works of art, crafted with flair using the finest fabric available at the time: silk.

“These were display pieces. They weren’t meant to be slept on,” says exhibit curator Madelyn Shaw. “These were statements of taste and status, because you had to be able to afford the materials and also have the leisure time to quilt.”

Many of the quilts on display are so-called crazy quilts, which feature asymmetrical patchwork embellished with embroidery, beading and other techniques. Quilting was a rare opportunity for creative expression among Victorian housewives, Shaw says. Women could work on them in stolen moments between their other household duties and also while making social calls.

“It was believed that women shouldn’t have idle hands,” Shaw says. “You were supposed to work while you talked.”

The crazy-quilt craze was sparked by two main factors, she says: One was the sudden availability of relatively affordable silk cloth, due to the rise of the American silk-weaving industry. The other was a nationwide fascination with Asian art, including pottery with a cracked or “crazed” glaze. The term “crazed” was also used to describe the cracked-glass pattern of crazy quilts.

So while they are wild, these crazy quilts aren’t bonkers.

“It’s a visual feast,” Shaw says. “All these pieces are really gorgeous.”

When Aimee Elkington Hodge began this quilt in 1877, at the age of 12, the crazy-quilt fad was just beginning to take off. She worked on the 67-by-67-inch piece throughout her life, and only got around to putting the squares together right before her death in 1946. Not much is known about Hodge besides the facts that she was born in Ohio, moved to Florida and married twice, but we can piece together information about her taste, talent and time through this very personal work of art, says National Museum of American History textiles curator Madelyn Shaw. S.D.

1. The young Hodge started her quilt by embroidering her initials on a piece of silk ribbon. There’s nothing childish about these sure-handed stitches, Shaw says. “If you were a girl in the late 19th century and you were from the middle class and above, you learn to sew when you were 6. So by the time you were 12, you were accomplished,” Shaw says.

2. These simple sunflowers are characteristic of the Arts and Crafts movement, which challenged ornate Victorian aesthetics. Hodge, clearly a maximalist, incorporated both styles in her visually busy quilt.

3. This Japanese-style fan on American flag colors represents stateside fascination with Asian art during Hodge’s lifetime.

4. A fancy take on the traditional cross-stitch, this challenging embroidery isn’t just decorative — it also holds the pieces of fabric together.

5. These flowers show Hodge’s mastery of plushwork, a technique where loops of silk thread are sewn and cut to create a bushy finish.

6. Hodge hand-painted the daisy, poppy and wheat on a bit of silk ribbon. “She was a woman of many talents,” Shaw says.

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