TN State Museum explores art and story in Tennessee quilts with new exhibition

Dutch Tulip pattern quilt (1897-1902), by Frances Mary ‘Fannie’ Powers, of Rutherford County.

The Tennessee State Museum’s first new exhibition since its grand opening will be ‘Between the Layers: Art and Story in Tennessee Quilts.’ Slated to open February 8 and run through May 27 with quilts selected from the museum’s vast collection, the show will highlight Tennessee’s quilt artistry and the stories embedded in those quilts, across more than two centuries and all three grand divisions of the state. One of those stories is Rebecah Foster’s 1808 Eagle Quilt.

While little may be known about its creator’s life, the quilt she crafted reveals plenty about her, and the time and environment in which she lived. Foster signed and dated her striking work, the earliest known written date on a Tennessee quilt. The decoration expresses enthusiastic loyalty during a time when U.S. relations with England were strained working up to the War of 1812. The central eagle is a common element in early 1800s decoration.

Part of the United States coat of arms, it has been updated here to feature 17 stars for the number of states in 1808, instead of the usual 13. Around the eagle are oval frames finely embroidered with the names of the states. Each encloses a patriotic verse.

Producing the quilt was an opportunity for Foster not only to show fervor for her country, but also to express her creativity and show off many talents expected of an educated Tennessee frontier woman—among them needle skills, spinning, and weaving. She follows design fashions of her time, and enhances her quilt with virtuoso appliqué, embroidery and complex quilting.

Although the blue printed fabric would have been an imported purchase, the white linen appears to be handspun and hand woven, possibly by Foster herself. Considering that it was made more than two centuries ago, the Eagle Quilt has survived in amazingly good condition, indicating that it was used very little and treasured by generations for both its message and its remarkable artistry.

“Individually crafted quilts are more than just a traditional way to brighten beds and decorate homes,” said Candace Adelson, Tennessee State Museum senior curator of fashion and textiles. “They can also be important outlets for artistic expression. Composed of layers, both physical and metaphorical, a quilt may further hold a wealth of stories—private stories, economic or political stories, stories of changing tastes, and stories and emotions created by the quilts themselves in the memories of we who experience them.”

Other quilts and stories highlighted in ‘Between the Layers: Art and Story in Tennessee Quilts’ include: Double Wedding Ring pattern quilt (1920-35), by African American quilter Harriet M. Falls of Robertson County; Dutch Tulip pattern quilt (1897-1902), by Frances Mary ‘Fannie’ Powers, of Rutherford County; and People of the World (1979), by Lillian Beattie, a quilter of Portuguese and Chero-kee descent, from McMinn and Hamilton Counties.

‘Between the Layers: Art and Story in Tennessee Quilts’ will be complemented by a broad range of programming, including events at the Museum, digital initiatives and community outreach.

More information about the show and the many quilts on view will be available in the coming months at tnmuseum.org.

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