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Quilt Patterns from History: BEAUTIFUL Art Inspiration

Quilt patterns: The Quilts and Color exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts rocked!
The Quilts and Color exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts rocks!

Historic Quilting Design Ideas!

For the first time in my life, I found an art exhibit so enthralling that I returned TWICE to see it. In fact, I have plans to go back a third time. Ooh, the “Quilts and Color” exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts made me happy! Its rainbow blasts were a perfect match for baby, too, as wee ones adore patterns.

Quilt patterns
A close-up of one of the quilts.

History of Women and Quilt Making

What I find particularly moving about these quilts is not just their beauty, however: it’s the history of the women who made them. Many of these works were sewn in the 1800s: a time when women in America couldn’t vote, let alone have the freedoms I so enjoy, from gallivanting alone around the world, to marrying who I choose, to having a well-paid career, to speaking my mind, publicly… frequently.

Quilt patterns: Ideas from history
Quilt-gazing is perfect for babies because the high contrast is high-interest.

Empowerment and Quilt Art Expression

Further, some of the quilts, including the one featured in every advertisement for this exhibit, were created by African-American women. Having just finished Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Invention of Wings (affiliate link), one concept is fresh in my mind: When women are shackled either mentally or physically, the spirit of expression can still pour out through “everyday” artwork.

Quilt art and history
One ponders the lives of the women who sewed these works of art.

The Thread of Female Creativity Over Time

Given this, I found observing the other exhibit-goers particularly poignant. Everywhere, gazing at the walls, were women of all ages. Some elderly women held their middle-aged daughters by the hand. Others, like me, strode around with their 30-something friends and fresh new babies.

Quilt patterns starburst triangles
The giant star held everyone mesmerized.

From the 1800s to Today

This meant that at the “Quilts and Color” exhibit, women who lived three long centuries apart swirl together. Did the ladies in the 1800s who stitched these masterpieces ever imagine, as they poured their frustrated dreams into each scrap, that hundreds of years later their work would be on display in one of the leading art museums of the world?

Quilt patterns: “rings” quilting idea
This “rings” quilt was the poster child for the exhibit. It gives that viewer’s head a halo!

Quilting Artists Who are Anonymous Now

And yet, many of the quilters from this exhibit remain anonymous. Signs read, “American, 1880” or “Amish” or “Mennonite,” but many of the women’s names have evaporated with history.

Quilt patterns
Brilliant quilt patterns.

Mennonites and Quilting in History

Let us talk for a moment about Mennonites. I never thought about that religion before this year, but suddenly it has come to my attention that Mennonites love color bursts as much as I do. Apparently, so does the Methodist religion, as seen in the fabulous multicolored “gingerbread cottages” in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard which we discovered last month. Huzzah for color-lovers of the world!

Quilt art exhibit
Flying baby loves quilts!

Thank You, Boston Museum of Fine Arts

A note about the MFA museum guards at this exhibit: They’re great! When I was struggling to take a photo, more than one offered to help snap it for me. Another offered photography tips, and yet another played a delightful game of peekaboo with my baby. Good stuff from good staff.

Quilt patterns
This rainbow striped quilt was my favorite.

Pilgrim and Roy, Quilt Collectors

So who put together this beautiful quilt exhibit? The collectors are named Pilgrim and Roy, and their private quilt collection actually contains over 2,500 quilts. According to their website, they began their quilt lust in the 1960s whilst working as interior decorators.

Since then, they became founding board members of the American Quilter’s Society, and designed the interior of the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky. Sheesh– I didn’t even know we had a quilt museum in America, but now I’m curious to go! I’m also deeply grateful to Pilgrim and Roy for preserving these luscious quilts.

Quilt patterns starburst sun
What do you see up there, baby?

More Amazing Quilt Patterns to Inspire

Now, let me pull back my words and let the beauty of the quilts take over. Walk through the “Quilts and Color” exhibit with me, and enjoy!

Quilt patterns diamond with hidden flowers
Can you spot the tiny flowers in this quilt?
Quilt art exhibit
I love how the rooms flow into one another.
Baby and quilts
Double flying baby!
Quilt patterns for ideas
Such rich colors in these quilts.
Quilt patterns flowers and diamonds
What’s more delicious: Quilts or curly hair?
Check out the intricate stitching decorations on this quilt.
Check out the intricate stitching decorations on this quilt.

Which Quilt Patterns Do You Like Best?

Now that you’ve seen them, which is YOUR favorite quilt?

Want to see more inspiring art exhibits? Check out the Corning Glass Museum in NY, MASS MoCA in Western Massachusetts, Lowe Mill in Alabama, and my giant collection of 40 art prompts from around the world. Happy peeping!

Look at the detail on these quilts!
Thanks for a great exhibit, MFA Boston!
Quilting ideas from the historic American quilt patterns in this colorful, fun quilt museum exhibit fun of women's history at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. #Quilting #quilts #artinspiration
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Wednesday 25th of February 2015

Hi Lillie, I co-curated the Quilts and Color exhibition and loved reading your article and seeing your photos, particularly "Flying Baby Loves Quilts." We are making a scrap book of sorts as a tribute to the quilt collector, Gerald Roy. We would love to include that image in the scrap book because visitors' enthusiastic responses, like your family's, was so important to everyone involved in the project, especially Gerald Roy. Obviously, you have already contributed so much by sharing this experience in your blog, but I thought I would ask if you would be amenable to sending me a higher resolution image. Thank you very much for considering my request. I hope that you return to the MFA, soon. Best wishes, Jenn Swope


Wednesday 25th of February 2015

Hello Jenn, I'm honored to get your message. I will email you directly.


Tuesday 23rd of September 2014

There has certainly been a lot of work put into those designs. Not sure I would have the patience to sit still and do it!

Heidi Reyes

Wednesday 23rd of July 2014

Amazing work! Amazing colors! I'll have to see if I can make it to the quilt museum in Kentucky at some point. Thank you for sharing!

Diane SHink

Saturday 5th of July 2014

Loved your pictures and comments Just an update Gerri Roy is now the guardian of these magnificent works of art in new Hampshire Unfortunately dear Paul has passed what a wonderful man with a wicked sense of humour I long to get tp Boston to see these quilts together. hanks for your updats beautiful baby too


Saturday 5th of July 2014

Thanks for your comment and update, Diane. I hope you see the quilts soon!

Aunt Carol

Friday 27th of June 2014

Lillie, what a gorgeous celebration of a gorgeous show! I'm not sure I've ever seen a bunch of quilts that are so vivid--particularly the Amish quilts in the 4th frame--they always have those beautiful simple geometric patterns, but in my experience are sober in color--I have one that is all medium blue, navy blue and black. Maybe these two are products of the recent past. I hope I'll be able to get up to Boston before the show closes, and to see the Flying Baby!

One interesting bit of history that I came across while reading about quilts when I first got interested: the early quilters believed that only God was capable of perfection, and to attempt a perfect quilt would be an affront. So in order to defer to a higher power, they would make a deliberate mistake, insert one different patch, something that would signal their understanding of this...


Friday 27th of June 2014

Aunt Carol, Thanks so much for reading and commenting! That's a fascinating detail about the one piece of imperfection. I wonder if any of these quilts have that? And do indeed come to Boston!

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