by Pamela A. Parmal, Jennifer M. Swope, and Lauren D. Whitley. MFA Publications (distributed by D.A.P.), June 2021. 240 p. ill. ISBN 9780878468798 (h/c), $45.00.

Reviewed September 2021
Beth Goodrich, Librarian, American Craft Council, bgoodrich@craftcouncil.org

Parmal2American quilts and quilt making have been the subject of many exhibitions, typically arranged and explored by form or region of origin. Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories, the publication for the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, offers a different presentation structured around themes that emerge from a nearly 400-year chronology. The quilts of the exhibition represent pieces from the MFA collection, which began early in the history of the museum and consists of acquisitions selected for their direct connection to notable Boston families or for their distinct beauty. More recent acquisitions have included contemporary artists that use quilting techniques, such as Bisa Butler (represented on the stunning cover of the publication), Faith Ringgold, Rowland Ricketts, and Sanford Biggers. The full array of quilts and bedcovers creates an anthology of American histories and experiences.

Within the six central themes around which the book is organized, the stories told by each quilt juxtapose the historic events and lived experiences of a diverse group of quilt makers and quilt owners. For example, under the theme of “Canals & Cotton Gins,” the selection of quilts from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century reflect the rise of cotton and the emergence of early textile machine production and fabric printing that made cotton fabrics more affordable and readily available to makers. Some intricate works may have been created by enslaved women working alongside their enslavers. During the same time period, a woven blanket from New Mexico demonstrates the expansion of the settler population into the far west of the continent. The final section, “Rockets & Gallery Walls,” explores the push for recognition of textile arts (a traditionally female enterprise) as fine art, and for greater representation of women artists within the galleries. The final work illustrated in the book is the piece Survivors by Carla Hemlock (Kanienkeháka [Mohawk]) that consists of a medallion in a traditional settler star pattern, surrounded by beaded wampum figures with the names of the Native nations that still survive today. “The subject matter can be difficult,” says Hemlock. “What makes the work approachable is that it is done through a quilt. Quilts symbolize comfort and are non-threatening items, this makes my work open to a dialogue on the issue.”

Fabric of a Nation is beautifully illustrated with full-page, high-quality photographs that capture both detail images and the full work, and a well-researched, interpretive description accompanies each quilt image. An index and a bibliography of “Further Reading” titles are included. This attractive hard cover publication is accessible to the general adult reader and presents a refreshing perspective on this American art form.

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