Whitework: Women Stitching Identity opens at Kentucky Museum
- Tiffany Isselhardt
- Thursday, June 3rd, 2021
How did women express their support for the new American nation?
Featuring textiles from the Kentucky Museum and Kentucky Historical Society, Whitework: Women Stitching Identity explores the significance of early white embellished textiles that have been largely ignored, undervalued, and misinterpreted. Whitework holds a “special place” within the cultural geography of textile making, connecting regional textile making with broader narratives of American women’s lives, political participation, and self-expression during the formative years of the Early Republic.
What is Whitework?
Disregarded for years as an exaggeration of American colonial self-sufficiency or as fancy work made for a future home, recent research has shown that whitework textiles are elaborate both in make and meaning. In make, the textiles are often an elaborate arrangement of intricately stitched motifs expressed in large scale. Some are created as “whole-cloth” quilts from two layers of woven cloth stitched together, typically with a loose cotton filling between, while others are embroidered and draw on a wide vocabulary of stitches, styles, and yarns. In meaning, the women who chose to make these white textiles, whatever techniques they used, committed countless hours to their creation. The variety, individuality, and artistry of the resulting textiles suggest that these women were not merely making a decorative item; they were using their needlework as a medium for self-expression. Additionally, historical context reveals that these textiles were primary vehicles through which women silently supported the political and economic development of the United States in the years following the Revolution through the early decades of the 19th century by boycotting British goods, including white embellished bedcovers.
Despite American textile scholarship’s development during the last quarter of the twentieth century, whitework textiles occupy the margins, remaining outside the mainstream of research and interpretation. Although knowledge of whitework textiles made during the American Revolution is limited with few surviving examples, documentary evidence supports the notion that women were spinning and weaving as a patriotic act. Many of the surviving whitework examples were made between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, suggesting women made them as an act of patriotism, an important, if largely symbolic, act. Often dismissed as romantic inventions, the large number of home production narratives that accompany their creation support this thesis.
An accompanying catalog, featuring scholarship behind the exhibition and detailed photographs of each textile, is available for purchase via Amazon.com
Whitework: Women Stitching Identity is on view at the Kentucky Museum through November 20, 2021. This exhibition is curated by:
- Laurel McKay Horton, textile researcher and former President of the American Quilt Study Group.
- Margaret T. Ordoñez, Ph.D., owner of Ordoñez Textile Conservation Services and former Professor and Director of the Historic Textile and Costume Collection and Textile Gallery at the University of Rhode Island.
- Dr. Kate Brown, Assistant Professor of History at WKU and author of Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law (University Press of Kansas, 2017).
The exhibition is sponsored by the Kentucky Historical Society, American Quilt Study Group, Quilter's Guild of Dallas, Foundation for Advancement in Conservation, and Kentucky Humanities. Learn more at https://www.wku.edu/kentuckymuseum/exhibits/whitework.php
About the Kentucky Museum
Founded in 1939, the Kentucky Museum is a teaching institution with premier cultural collections that complement, support and challenge the academic experiences of WKU students, faculty and staff. It also provides a gathering place for our campus and community to come to know and celebrate who they are as individuals and as Kentuckians in the 21st century. The Museum serves Kentuckians and visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications and collections research. As a history and cultural museum concerned with meanings, narratives and associations, its collections offer multiple opportunities to explore and interpret history and culture as well as discover how Kentuckians have shaped and been shaped by local, state, regional, national and global influences over the last two-and-a-half centuries.
For more information, contact Tiffany Isselhardt at email@example.com.