Thursday, June 1, 2017

Midnight in the Garden of the Quilt—An Exhibit Curated by Polly Mello

You know how the best intentions are worth nothing if they are never acted upon? Well, this post is one of those plans that never came to fruition. In the fall, my husband and I (Teri) visited the Virginia Quilt Museum to see the fabulous display by Polly Mello, a fellow member of the Baltimore Appliqué Society. She graciously gave me permission to share her exhibit back in the fall, but here we are six months later, and I am FINALLY posting!

(Please note, per the museum's websitePermission to copy any of the quilt designs or patterns seen on exhibit must be obtained by the original designer or copyright owner.)

Polly is an avid quilt collector and historian, who has an interest in the "dark side of quilting," and she owns an impressive collection that reflects that passion. 

 In Polly's own words, printed on the exhibit description, left:

“This is the infamous collection of macabre quilts and ephemera from the collection of Polly Mello. We are shining a light into the dark cobweb covered corners of quilting. It is Midnight in the Garden of quilts so prepare yourself to walk down the eldritch path where you will see Mourning quilts, Coffin Drapes, quilts of Presidential Assassination. There are Critter quilts and Quilts from the Headlines and the always favorite ‘Creepy Crib Quilts.’

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten.
When this you see remember me
That I'll not be forgotten."

According to Polly, there are a number of symbols that were used in quilts to indicate mourning: weeping willows, mourning doves, tombstones, angels, urns, and broken flower stems (representing a life that was “cut short”). Study these examples, below, of antique needlework to see if you can locate any of the symbols of mourning—appliquéd, embroidered, or even woven into a coverlet. Polly states that mourning embroideries were a part of the needlework instruction that young girls received, and they became popular in the time following the death of George Washington; often such symbols were incorporated in quilts as well. 

Folk Art Album Quilt, ca.1870

Glory Be to God Mourning Quilt, ca. 1910

Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest, ca.1886—may have been used as coffin drape for a child

Mourning Sampler, made by Mary Ellen Smith, age 12, ca.1870

Mercy Hill Coverlet, made by J. Wirick, 1852

Broken Blossom Quilt Top, ca. 1850

Detail: broken stem quilt block

Sampler Coffin Drape, ca.1860

Not only did stitchers use their needlework and quilts to memorialize loved ones who had died, but one also finds historical events recorded on quilts. Patterns were designed to pay tribute to Presidents who were assassinated—McKinley and Garfield, particularly, but you will see that Lincoln is pictured on the McKinley quilt as well. Other historic events were commemorated in stitching: the sinking Titanic, Halley’s Comet, and the Lindbergh kidnapping. 

I confess that I was a bit surprised that some of these topics would the subject of all that needlework—a true testament to the importance that these events must have had in their day. But I am reminded of the many quilts that I have seen following the 9/11 attacks. Obviously, we quilters use our needle skills to help us process our grief about tragic events, as well as to create reminders of the events themselves. Every quilt tells a story; sometimes that story involves national or world history. 

Garfield Monument Quilt, ca.1890

McKinley Redwork, Our Martyred Presidents, ca.1901; redwork pattern commemorating the President's assassination

Detail, block from McKinley Redwork, Our Martyred Presidents

Titanic. Nearer My God to Thee, Sinking April 14, 1918, Loss of Life 1,635 Souls

Celestial Terror, Halley's Comet Quilt, ca.1910

Detail: Celestial Terror, "Earth and Moon cringe as the comet passes by."

Lindbergh Kidnapping Quilt, ca. 1935, one of three known quilts to portray this crime

Polly loves all kinds of creepy critters, especially snakes. I, on the other hand, have a bit of a phobia of those slithery serpents, but I forced myself to engage with the plethora of snaky quilts. (If I pretended they were just lovely patterns and concentrated on the color and design, I was okay.) Polly does have quite an impressive number of quilts representing these long, thin reptiles, and they come in quite a variety of designs, though she declares that she is pretty picky about choosing designs that are clearly “snaky.” Even I was fascinated with the variety of patterns involving snakes. Use your imagination and see if you can spot all those serpents.

Left: Snake Trail, ca. 1940; Right: Fort Worth Rattlesnake, ca. 1900 

Oklahoma Snake Ring, ca. 1930, with over 7000 tiny pieces 

Tree of Life Panel, ca.1930. Polly loves the mongoose and cobra border.

Snakes with Tails, ca. 1930

Dimensional Rattlesnake, made by Catherine Wooten, ca. 2000

"De-tail" of Dimensional Rattlesnake, made by Catherine Wooten

The Pied Piper
Perhaps it is because I have a penchant for quilts about stories, but my favorite section of Polly’s collection was the “Creepy Crib Quilts,” all of which were made around 1930. At first glance, the quilts all looked rather charming and dear, with their lovely appliquéd and embroidered designs in pastel colors. But upon closer scrutiny—and perusal of Polly’s descriptions—it was evident that the subject matter was often not what we would consider baby-appropriate today. We have the Pied Piper leading all the village children away forever, except for one crippled boy who couldn’t keep up; a Bible Quilt with pictures of some rather violent scenes, such as Cain killing Abel; . . .  

Detail of The Bible Quilt: Cain killing Abel
The Bible Quilt

. . . a cradle tied to a tree branch that breaks, sending the cradle crashing to the ground; and the two Babes in the Woods, who are taken and left in the woods to die, where robins cover them with strawberry leaves. 

Rock-a-Bye Baby

Babes in the Woods

Polly points out that Noah’s Ark, a popular nursery theme, is the story of “God punishing the wicked world with annihilation by water;” furthermore, she questions the fascination of others’ misfortunes in Jack and Jill—one of the most prevalent themes in children’s quilts—stating that “Poor Jack gets a concussion and launches hundreds of quilts.” 

Noah's Ark

Jack and Jill

Finally, there is the quilt about a mischievous boy who tries to drown a cat in a well, and Ring Around the Roses, which is about the Black Plague that killed a quarter of the European population in the 14th century. I find it intriguing that we still tell those stories and rhymes, trying to make them pretty and sweet, thereby losing the original impact—and possible lessons—of the actual stories. 

Ring Around the Rosies

Pussy's in the Well

Interspersed throughout the exhibit were contemporary quilts that Polly herself had made—some for grandchildren, some which won awards, but all that reflect Polly’s multi-faceted personality. If you are picturing creepy crawly critters, skeletons, deathly themes, a bit of Texas and a bit of Maryland, colorful, appliqué, and fun—you would be right on target! Polly even has a quilted a graveyard with many of her quilting friends, where they will all be “buried.” 

Buster the Cat Loves Halloween, ca. 2006, made by Polly Mello

Star-Spangled Calendar Quilt, Lisa Schiller Pattern, ca. 2006, made by Polly Mello

Skulking Around Modern Gothic Quilt, ca. 2009, made by Polly Mello

Deep Within My Heart Lies a Melody, A Memory of Texas, ca. 2011, made by Polly Mello

Paradise Lost and Found, Civil War Era Reproduction, ca. 2014, made by Polly Mello

Grashlycrumb Tinies, ca. 2016, made by Polly Mello

Kentucky Requiem. A Quilter's Gathering, Reproduction of the Kennedy Graveyard Quilt, ca.2014; Polly Mello, Mimi Dietrich, Faye Labanaris, Hazel Carter, Kathy Siuta, Vera Hall, Jeanne Sullivan, Barbara Garrett, Ilona Hull, Sue Troyan, Barbara Laskowski

My husband and I learned a great deal about the use of textiles for mourning purposes throughout our nation’s history. We were captivated by the work that was represented in this eclectic collection, and it was fun to search the quilts for the symbols throughout the exhibit. I was left to ponder how very different our symbolic language looks today than it did hundreds of years ago. That in itself is a cherished representation of history in these quilts, coverlets, and samplers.  Many thanks to Polly for allowing us to share her exhibit with you!

The next symposium scheduled at the Virginia Quilt Museum is "Friction, Fray, and Fabric: Textiles in the First World War," to be held from July 27-29. The museum is currently closed as they prepare the new exhibits, which change quarterly. Check their website for more info.


  1. I have always loved Polly's quilts but I had never seen "Buster the Cat loves Halloween". Too funny! I particularly love the snakes with heads and tails and Catherine Wooten's dimensional rattler. Thanks for sharing these spectacular quilts!

  2. Wow, these are some amazing pictures you have posted. This is such a wonderful post that you have posted. Lovely !