- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2001

BALTIMORE — The women each took home a square of fabric, sewed other pieces of fabric on top of it to suit their fancy sometimes a simple floral design, sometimes an intricate image of a ship or a church and wrote or stitched their signatures on the finished squares.
They came together again and, in a frenzy of activity, sewed the squares together.
The finished quilt was given to a newly married couple, to one of their sons on his 21st birthday or to the new minister at their church usually Methodist.
This process defined a form of quilting, the album quilt, which began in Baltimore in the 1840s and flourished for about 10 years. More than 150 years later, it still reverberates with quilters and historians.
More than 40 of the quilts are the subject of "The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition," an exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society that ties the emergence of the album quilt to the rise of Methodism and the growth of the middle class in antebellum Baltimore.
Album quilts are packed with information about the lives of middle-class women in what was once the nation's busiest port city, helping flesh out a frustratingly sparse historical record, exhibit curator Nancy Davis says.
"It's really hard to talk about women in the 19th century. As a historian, this is really a way to get at women," Ms. Davis says.
"Women were not just making everyday clothes. They also were artists. They had a passion to make something lasting. They are women of great intelligence and ability."
The quilts on display overflow with creativity and the effort that went into them the typical album quilt required 1,000 hours of labor, Ms. Davis says. The eye often is drawn at first to one or two standout images, but the viewer soon learns that each of the 20 or so panels of an album quilt has its own personality.
The freedom of expression granted by the album-quilt format also reveals what was on the minds of the quilters.
They showed a keen awareness of current events. Quilts made during the high album-quilt period 1845 to 1855, in Ms. Davis' view include panels depicting the Mexican War, Texas gaining its statehood, the Whig party and the temperance movement.
"Women of that time weren't allowed to express themselves politically," says Jan Carlson, president of the Baltimore Applique Society, a group devoted to preserving the album-quilt form. "This was a way for them to provide little clues about their political beliefs."
The American flag also is a recurring theme, which Ms. Davis attributes to a "cult of the flag" in the city where "The Star-Spangled Banner" was written. Francis Scott Key's poem wouldn't become the national anthem until 1916, but "people knew it, particularly here," Ms. Davis says.
Churches and ministers pop up on many of the quilts, cementing the close relationship of the form to Methodism, which was organized and named in Baltimore at the Christmas Conference of 1784. By 1840, 10 percent of the city's residents were active Methodists.
Quilting, formerly the pastime of wealthier women who could afford expensive fabrics, became a way for middle-class Methodists to express their gentility, Ms. Davis says.
"Making beautiful things and sharing them became a tenet of the Methodist church at this time period," she says.
The nonsectarian Baltimore Applique Society, founded in 1993, has revived interest in the album-quilt tradition, and its members and other quilters are thrilled by the rare prospect of so many album quilts on display at once. The term applique refers to the technique of sewing fabrics on top of one another to create a three-dimensional design.
"To be able to see 40 quilts, with all those different designs, it's really exciting creatively," says Mimi Dietrich, a member of the society who teaches quilting classes and served as a consultant for the exhibit. "It gives us new ideas for what to put in our quilts."
Most of the quilts in the exhibit belong to the Historical Society but rarely are displayed because of their fragility. The exhibit will not travel, although it was financed by a Japanese company and toured Japan before opening in Baltimore, Ms. Davis says.
The 85,000 people who saw the quilts in Japan were "crazed," Ms. Davis says. "Quilting is a big thing there, because it's complicated, it's time-consuming, and it's beautiful. And it requires an enormous amount of skill."
Those qualities spawn the obsession with the craft that is shared by quilters in Baltimore and around the world, Ms. Carlson says.
Quilters will spend long periods looking at individual pieces, some using binoculars or magnifying glasses to get a closer look at the handiwork, she says.
"We have to get up close to see the stitches, and the guards will get to know us because we'll have to keep coming back to see them again and again," she says.

WHAT: "The Baltimore Album Quilt Tradition"
WHERE: The Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St., Baltimore
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. the first Thursday of every month. Through Sept. 9
CHARGE: Admission is $4 for the public; $3 for seniors, students and children 13 to 17; and free for society members and children 12 and younger.
INFORMATION: 410/685-3750 or www.mdhs.org

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