Sunday, September 9, 2018

Pieced Together - Two Exhibits at the Canadian Textile Museum

I was recently in Toronto for a few hours for an event (see my previous post), and had some free time beforehand so I decided to take in the latest exhibits at the Canadian Textile Museum.  The museum has many things to recommend it: it's centrally located (two blocks from the Greyhound Bus station), it's small enough that you can see everything in about an hour, and if you are interested in textiles (contemporary and historical), their exhibits are informative and often visually stunning.

There are two exhibits currently on display:  Crosscurrents: Canada in the Making, and Colour Improvisations 2: An International Exhibition of Contemporary Quilts.  While I was initially more interested in seeing the second, I found myself equally engaged by both.

Crosscurrents tells the story of the cultural interaction between early settlers, indigenous peoples and immigrants in Canada over the last two centuries through textiles.  Items such as hooked rugs, quilts, blankets, and beadwork illustrate the exchange of knowledge, skills and traditions between the various groups.  The exhibit incorporates artifacts from the Textile Museum's Canadian collection of historical artifacts, loans from public and private collections, and pieces created by contemporary artists.

Quilts figure prominently in the exhibit.  Settlers brought the craft of quilting to Ontario from the UK and Europe.  The first two in the photo above are from the late 19th century, the far right one from the early 20th century.  The quilts were often pieced together from scraps of fabric from worn out clothing, most often wool.   The fabric was cut into precisely measured pieces and assembled following overall patterns, which as shown in the quilts above, were usually repeating blocks.

Above is a Jacquard-woven coverlet made in Southwestern Ontario between 1847 and 1885.  This particular one was woven by John Campbell, a hand loom weaver from Scotland who had been displaced from his home country through industrialization, and found a local market for hia work in Ontario.  It was fascinating to note that the Jacquard loom, which required tremendous skill to operate, used punched cards (much like the early computers) to make the design.

The "Block of Honour" quilt, above, is from Buxton, Ontario, a black settlement founded in 1849.  It was used as a sort of fund-raiser, as the creator, Hattie Rhue Hatchett, and the local quilting circle, accepted donations in exchange for names embroidered on quilt squares.  The money raised went towards supporting black congregations who did not have a full-time minister.

Above left is a man's woven shawl, from Markham, ON.  In the mid to late 19th century, these were worn by men as a top layer in the winter.  The shawls were hand-woven and expected to last a lifetime.  On the right is a child's coat from the same time period that incorporated wool, cotton, satin, hand and machine sewing, and embroidery.  The amount of work that must have gone into the making of this coat, which was outgrown before being worn out, would be unthinkable today.

lacemaking pillow from Quebec, circa 1920

I had never seen a lacemaking pillow before.  They were used to produce lace shawls, collars, dresses, fans, and fancy trim for undergarments.  The pillow consists of a wood frame covered in cotton fabric and the one above shows a sample of bobbin lace in progress.  Each thread is kept in order by a wooden bobbin, which acts as a weight,  and the work is pinned to a pillow while the threads are twisted, plaited and interwoven to make the lace.  Given that I have no talent for knitting, crochet, weaving, etc. the idea of working with all those bobbins at the same time boggles my mind.

page from a commercial crochet and tatting sample book, late 19th century

When I saw the pink crocheted cross in the display above, I was immediately reminded of Christmases when I was a child, and each year would receive a pink crocheted bookmark almost identical to the one above from one of my great aunts.

Moving From the Historical to the Contemporary......

Colour Improvisations 2:  An International Exhibition of Contemporary Quilts is the other exhibit at the Museum, and it was particularly interesting to see these quilts after viewing the ones from 100 - 200 years ago.  The first difference you see is the colours!

Left:  "Flight Plan" by Elizabeth Brandt (USA), Right:  "Vibrant Colour Bars" by Ruth Bosshart-Rohrbach (Switzerland)

This is the only Canadian venue for this exhibit of bold, asymetrical quilts made in 2014 and 2015.   The 25 quilts (made specifically for this exhibit) were created by 25 artists from Canada, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland and the United States.  What unites the artists is that they all studied with American artist, quilt-maker and teacher, Nancy Crow, who curated the exhibit.   

"Riff #4: Calm" by Nancy Crow

"I believe that those of us who love working with fabric were originally drawn to this medium by its large, forceful presence and the freedom to use colour joyously"
                                                                      Nancy Crow

Clockwise from top left: detail of "Vibrant Colour Bars", "Flight Plan" detail, detail of "Moby Dick 3" by Kit Vincent (Canada), and "Precaria #6:Flux by Sandra Palmer Ciolino (USA)

I am in the process of learning to sew, which has made me more aware of the skill and detail that goes into the making of a garment or other piece of textile art.  I was fascinated by the variety of intricate machine quilting used by the artists in the exhibit.   Closely-spaced straight lines faced off against seemingly random loops and curves. 

All the quilts in the exhibit are bold in pattern and colour and I would have happily hung severaly of them on a wall in my home.   Below are a few of my favourites:

"Madness", Brigitte Ammann (Germany)

I was drawn to the mix of colours and abstract shapes in Ammann's quilt which gave it a whimsical, cartoon feel.

"Shapes and Lines 19/20/21", Heide Stoll-Weber (Germany)

I was fascinated by this particular quilt because the finely spaced stitching (see below) and mottled colouring of the fabric made it appear to be a painting instead of a piece of fabric.

detail of the incredibly fine quilting stitching on Shapes and Lines

"To cut parts, shapes and lines by eye and manage colour and value demands hours of practice.  It takes obsessiveness, intensity, and a great eye."
                                                                        Nancy Crow

"Interactions #10", Gerri Spilka (USA)

The large shapes and bold colours in Gerri Spilka's quilt made a strong visual statement

"Repetition #3: Expectant", Louise Harris (USA)

There is something about the colours and shapes in Louise Harris' piece that for me, recalls graphics from the 50's and 60's.

Colour Improvisations 2: An International Exhibit of Contemporary Quilts is at the Canadian Textile Museum until September 23rd

Crosscurrents: Canada in the Making can be viewed until March 31, 2019


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. such an interesting post! I always enjoy to learn something about quotidian life in the past, to see those textiles and how they were made to last forever!. And so fabulous modern art in quilts, I love them. All the stitching, the colors!.

  3. Love that museum. My fave in Toronto. Gorgeous work. Fabulous colours. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  4. A favourite spot of mine too. Quiet and peaceful.

  5. Swoon! What a feast for the eyes! The modern quilts are absolutely breathtaking. xxx

  6. What fascinating exhibits! I would love to take my mom (a quilter) to see those. Such intricate work!

  7. These quilts boggle the mind when considering the settlers who painstakingly made them also had households to run without any of our modern conveniences. But perhaps their making was also part of a social event, like a bee? Was this discussed? Anyway, beautiful work. And the modern quilts blow my mind. The lacemaking toggles make me anxious just looking at them. Heh. Thanks for the peek.

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