KCUR Arts
2:38 pm
Mon August 9, 2010

Political Quilts on Display at National Archives at Kansas City

"Partisan Pieces: Quilts of Political and Patriotic Persuasion" at the National Archives show the politics of their 19th century creators. But can quilts really tell us the political leanings of their makers?

Kansas City, MO – Some people wear their politics on their sleeves. Or on their bumper stickers. But on quilts?

That's what an exhibit at the National Archives in Kansas City discovered. Traveling from Lincoln, Nebraska, Partisan Pieces: Quilts of Political and Patriotic Persuasion highlights 12 historical quilts from the 1840s to the 1940s. Each quilt is supposed to express its creator's "political and patriotic sentiments." But can quilts really tell us the political leanings of its maker?

According to quilt historian Barbara Brackman, it depends on the quilt.

"We don't know what a woman in the 1840s called her quilt," she says. "She didn't leave any evidence in a diary or letter." Some quilt historians look at the names of fabrics as proof of a woman's political affiliation. For example, Brackman says, if a fabric believed to be called "Democrat Rose" is found in a quilt, the quilter must have been a Democrat. Yet this isn't always a reliable source.

"She could have called it 'Rose of Sharon,' and if you read the diaries, they tend to call them (quilts) [by their colors]."

Yet at times it's incredibly clear who the maker is rooting for, as some quilts proudly show candidates' images or popular iconography of political campaigns. That's because quilts were a way to make use of scrap fabric from everyday life. Often these pieces of fabric would come from political campaigns.

"Once the campaign is over you don't want to go around with a big red handkerchief in your pocket that has Garfield or worse, the loser's picture on it," Brackman says.

Along with presidential campaigns, women took to their quilts to address social issues of the times, including abolition and temperance.

Though the exhibit focuses on quilts from the 19th and early 20th centuries, political quilts are still being made today say many members of the Kaw Valley Quilter's Guild in Lawrence, Kansas.

Member Sheryl Schleicher made a quilt of President Barack Obama that is currently touring the country. Another member, Carmen Lecklighter, said politics were just another way quilts tell stories.

"It's an art form just like painting? with cloth, that's the only difference."

Quilts and politics may make strange bedfellows, but they remain a part of America's history. Partisan Pieces will be on display until October 1 at the National Archives at Kansas City at 400 West Pershing Road.

This story was produced for KC Currents. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KC Currents Podcast.