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Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts Help Tell the Story of a Nation’s Heartbreak

Note:  Big changes in store here at the WQM blog. Beginning with today’s post, we’ll be publishing a new blog entry every week. Whether your interests are in making, collecting, researching, talking about, or just plain admiring quilts, be sure to check in each Monday to catch up on the latest news, discussions, and stories from WQM and the quilting community at large. (Please tell your friends about us, too.)

“The genesis of this project was with Madelyn (Shaw), who called me one day a few years ago and said ‘Y’know, the Civil War sesquicentennial is coming up and we ought to do something about it.’ She proposed an exhibition about the role of textiles in the Civil War, and I said ‘Great! And we need to include quilts!’ And so it started.” –Lynne Zacek Bassett, co-curator of the exhibit Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War

If your travels will be taking you to New England this autumn, you’ll want to put the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA, on your itinerary. Since June 30, the Museum has been drawing quilt and textile lovers as well as history buffs to its outstanding exhibit, Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts and Context in the Civil War. The exhibit, co-curated by textile experts and historians, Lynne Bassett and Madelyn Shaw, was three-plus years in the making and includes over 150 carefully chosen artifacts and graphic reproductions. Homefront & Battlefield continues at ATHM until November 25. The quilts in this post are just a few of the textiles on display as part of this landmark exhibit.

Friendship Quilt, 1865. Made by ladies in Yates, Orleans County, NY. 66″ x 78″. Private Collection.


Homefront & Battlefield connects deeply moving and insightful personal stories about the war with the broader national context and history, and examines how textiles were both an expression of and a motivating force behind American politics and culture during the Civil War (1861 – 1865). As Ms. Shaw explains, “We started with the question: how do we tell the story in a way that is not simply a glorification of battles and generals? How do we connect those on the homefront and those on the battlefield, and illustrate in a meaningful way the impact of the war on everyone, whichever side, regardless of economics, politics, or race?”

Bassett and Shaw began their search by poring over books devoted to showcasing the quilts uncovered in individual statewide searches, a documentation practice first undertaken in 1981 by The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc. As the search continued, catalogs of museum collections and even the internet came into play.

Oak Leaf and Berries Applique, 1850s. Made by Mrs. M.E. Poyner, Paducah, KY. 86″ x 74″. Collection of Shelly Zegart, Louisville, KY. Photo by Geoffrey Carr

One of the challenges of assembling this type of exhibit is overcoming what Shaw calls “the fragility of memory.” Sometimes the story that filters down through time doesn’t quite gel with the material evidence. To strengthen the tie between “object” and “history,” the curators placed the quilts in a broader context by supporting them with other textile-related artifacts, relevant images (including paintings, photographs, prints, and ephemera), and quotations from diaries and letters. Each object represents a personal story, from the noose reportedly used to hang abolitionist John Brown to a mother’s quilt stitched from the uniforms of her two sons, one who fought for the Confederacy and the other the Union army.

“Poncho” Quilt, Rose Tree design, ca. 1864-1865. 92” x 73-1/2”. Sold to John R. Nelson of Tennessee by a Confederate soldier. Collection of Larry Bounds. Photo by David Stansbury


During the remaining months of the exhibit, ATHM has planned a number of special events at the museum, including a Curator Book Signing on Sunday, September 16, from 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm. Both Bassett and Shaw will be in attendance to talk about and sign copies of Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War, the book that they’ve co-authored to complement the exhibit. This beautiful and informative 232-page, full-color volume is currently available only through ATHM. (Click here for additional information.)

Following its run at ATHM, the exhibit will travel throughout the country. Future destinations include the New-York Historical Society, New York, NY; the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, VT;  and the Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, NE. Check the ATHM website for specific exhibition dates.

Our thanks to Lynne Bassett and Madelyn Shaw for their generous assistance in preparing this post.



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