16 March 2012
photos by Tom b.
As I mentioned yesterday Tom and I were invited to the set up of an exhibit at a museum downtown. Now I can tell you that the museum is the Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum and the exhibit is the Amish quilt collection of Doug Tompkins, co-founder of the ESPRIT de corps clothing company. When I first heard "Amish quilts" and "ESPRIT" in the same sentence I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. For those who may not remember, ESPRIT was just about the biggest thing going in the late 80s and early 90s. I had one hand-me-down yellow ESPRIT sweatshirt that I wore about every other day in the seventh grade. But I never would've made a connection between ESPRIT and Amish quilts.
It all started with an exhibit of Amish quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC in 1971. The exhibit changed the way Amish quilts were viewed. Shown on stark white walls and removed from their cultural context the quilts took on the look of modern abstract art. The geometry of the quilts and their bold colors echoed what was going on in the modern art world at the time.
Doug Tompkins attended this exhibition and thus began his love affair and collection of quilts. Through his career at ESPRIT the Amish quilts had a great influence on the aesthetics and design of the company. While at the Quilt Museum I was given a large book published by Tompkins that included the entire history of the company including copies of the advertising run in magazines during the 80s and 90s. I must admit that some of those ads took me right back to sitting in my room flipping through Seventeen magazines circa 1989. And suddenly, looking at those ads while surrounded by those quilts, I could see the connection. The geometry of the ESPRIT logo, the color palette of the collections... it was all right there.
It was such a treat to have an opportunity to see these quilts up close; to examine each hand stitch, to see the initials lovingly cross stitched on the back, to appreciate the intricate design of each unique quilt. The quilts included in the current exhibit date from the 1880s to the 1950s, or the "pre-tourist" era of Lancaster as I learned on Friday. This was long before the general public took an interest in the Amish way of life and so the quilts were made for family use and not as souvenirs for tourists. The quilts will be on display through this weekend only if you're in the area and would like to stop in and see them.