Quilt: Feathered Diamond (American, 1890s)

Pennsylvania, Landis Valley (Lancaster). Pieced cotton plain weave top, printed cotton plain weave back; quilted. Frank B. Bemis Fund, John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund, Elizabeth M. and John F. Paramino Fund in memory of John F. Paramino, Boston Sculptor, Helen B. Sweeney Fund, Mary L. Smith Fund, Textile Income Purchase Fund, Joyce Arnold Rusoff Fund, and Alice J. Morse Fund (2014.1858). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The “feathered,” or “sawtooth” piecework along the edges of the diamond and framing square of this quilt, a composition that repeats with variation in many Amish quilts (see Framed Diamond in a Square), adds to the vibratory interaction between two complementary colors of equal intensity. With the development of synthetic dyes during the third quarter of the 19th century, by the late 1880s and 1890s textile manufacturers were producing a greater variety of bright and colorfast fabrics such as the richly saturated green and pink cotton used on this quilt. This Featured Diamond quilt was acquired from the Pilgrim/Roy Collection and shown in the 2014 exhibition, Quilts and Color at the MFA, Boston. Collectors Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy, influenced by the color theories of Josef Albers and the modernist art movement, saw these quilts as embodying the same types of creative choices and thought processes made by women who sought to express themselves within the confines of social acceptance and religious belief in their conservative communities.

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Quilt: Framed Diamond in a Square (American, Amish, about 1890)

Pennsylvania, Lancaster County. Pieced wool twill top, cotton plain weave back, wool twill binding; quilted. Museum purchase with funds donated by Hanne and Jeremy Grantham, Jane and Robert Burke, an anonymous donor, Jane Pappalardo, Lynne and Mark Rickabaugh, Carol Wall, Heidi Nitze, Ruth Oliver Jolliffe, and Mrs. Robert B. Newman, and funds by exchange from anonymous gifts, a Bequest of Miss Ellen Starkey Bates, William Sturgis Bigelow Collection, Gift of the Estate of Annie B. Coolidge, Gift of Mrs. John Dane, Gift of Louis H. Farlow, Alfred Greenough Collection, Gift of M. M. Greer, Gift of Mrs. Chester A. Hoefer, James Fund, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Harold Karlin, Gift of Miss Mildred Kennedy, Gift of Francis Stewart Kershaw, Gift of Mrs. Bliss Knapp, Gift of Mathias Komor, The Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection, Gift of Miss Louise M. Nathurst, Gift of Mrs. George N. Northrop, and Gift of Mrs. Albertine W. F. Valentine, residuary legatee under the will of Hervey E. Wetzel (2011.90). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This Framed Diamond in a Square on point quilt was among five Amish quilts from the Pilgrim/Roy Collection carefully selected for the Museum by collector Gerald Roy at a time when the department of Textile and Fashion Arts was seeking to increase the depth and range of its 19th century quilts. This classic example is an early one from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, a region distinguished by quilters who chose to adopt a limited repertoire of pattern types and variations that remained fixed, even as color, fabric and quality and quantity of needlework were changeable over time. Working within the constraints of what fabrics were available and which colors were socially acceptable within the community, Amish women were able to express their individuality by employing color, design, and needlework to create quilts with strong visual impact. Amish quilts became popular in the 1960s and 1970s when the color theories of Josef Albers and color field painting were gaining influence.

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

Quilt: Field of Diamonds (American, about 1860)

Pieced wool plain weave and twill (some printed), glazed cotton plain weave back, wool plain weave binding; quilted. Frank B. Bemis Fund, John H. and Ernestine A. Payne Fund, Elizabeth M. and John F. Paramino Fund in memory of John F. Paramino, Boston Sculptor, Helen B. Sweeney Fund, Mary L. Smith Fund, Textile Income Purchase Fund, Joyce Arnold Rusoff Fund, and Alice J. Morse Fund (2014.1862). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

For the simple reason that I am sewing a quilt for my daughter, my curiosity about quilts in our collection has been ignited. The animated tour de force shown here is one of my favorites. I first saw it in the 2014 MFA exhibition Quilts and Color: The Pilgrim/Roy Collection, a true celebration of the power of color, and a testament to the creative ways makers utilized color to create many varieties of quilts that stir the soul and dazzle the eye.

Gerald E. Roy and his partner, the late Paul Dwight Pilgrim (1942-1996), both trained as artists, began collecting quilts that they perceived as mirroring Josef Albers’ color theories. To their eye, these quilts went beyond their essential function as decorative objects created to provide comfort and warmth. In the Collector’s Preface to the book that accompanied the exhibition, Roy speaks about the criteria that guided their collecting choices:

We resolved to pursue collecting quilts that we found exciting and challenging, those that reflected unique and personal approaches to color and design, or what we called “the mark of the maker”…We were not counting stitches and checking to see if points were accurate. As long as the workmanship did not detract from the overall appeal, the quilt was a candidate; however, we never compromised on condition. No matter how wonderful it had once been, it was not coming home. We also never purchased a quilt without judging its visual appeal by viewing it from twenty paces away. As we continued to collect individual patterns and fill chronological gaps, we ultimately acquired more than fifteen hundred examples.”

The Museum’s acquisitions of nineteenth century pieced quilts from the Pilgrim/Roy Collection began in the year 2008 and continues to the present, immeasurably increasing the depth, quality and range of our holdings. These collectors, as passionate about the historic importance of the quilts they collected as well as their visual impact, have enhanced our ability to tell the story of quilt making through the ages. Expect to see more over the coming weeks!

Click for description and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department

A Hidden Order

Man’s mantle and two border fragments, embroidered with bird impersonators. Peruvian (Paracas). Wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The Paracas embroiderer rarely, if ever, failed to realize her end, no matter how involved her plan. We ourselves are likely to be hopelessly lost in these compositions in which pattern elements-shapes, positions, colors, and techniques-are variously combined and played over a surface with unparalleled virtuosity.”
~ Cora E. Stafford, Paracas Embroideries: A Study of Repeated Patterns

My focus on the transcendent Paracas embroideries used for ritual purposes, from study fragments to large mantles on view in the MFA’s Ancient American galleries, in tandem with reading about the subject, has taught me something about the dominant embroidery styles, which are most commonly called 1) block color, 2) linear, and 3) broad line. According to Paracas scholar Anne Paul, these three styles coexisted temporally, and were emblematic of specific symbolic and communicative purposes. This makes a great deal of sense to me as an artist: the styles are visually divergent, the fabrication choices are intentional, and respective approaches to rendering imagery result in iconographies that read very differently. Though we cannot know the true meaning these embroidered garments conveyed in Paracas culture, it’s intriguing to imagine how the differently-styled textiles may have functioned. In today’s post I focus on block color embroidery, the most varied of the three styles.

Block color style: Detail of bird impersonator embroidered on man’s mantle and two border fragments (Peruvian, Paracas). Wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The embroidered figure above has been described as a bird impersonator – it’s not difficult to see why! Block color style embroidery allowed for the fluid rendering of readily identifiable images that were reflective of a Paracas world view and its relationship with an ecological order. The standing figure sports in colorful detail a ritual garment, mask, headdress and accoutrement thought to have been worn by a Paracas leader. Having studied the embroideries in the context of examining individual mummy bundles excavated from the Necrópolis of Wari Kayan, each of which was sequentially numbered (see blog post City of the Dead), Anne Paul shares direct observations in her book Paracus Ritual Attire: Symbols of Authority in Ancient Peru:

…In bundle 378 there are representations of ritual functionaries wearing pampas-cat skins, feline masks accompanied by vegetation, shark suits, bird capes and tails, feline-bird outfits and possibly serpent costumes. The embroidered images record the types of ritual attire that were likely to have been worn. Although examples of the actual costumes were not among the contents of this bundle, an elaborate three-tiered cape made of condor feathers was placed around the “shoulders” of Necrópolis  bundle 290…The embroidered images of the costumed personages on the garments in bundle 378 represented living impersonators of cult images.”

Detail of mantle border with “bird impersonators.” Peruvian (Paracas), wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The block color embroiderer overwhelmingly favored “stem stitch” as a means to realize the descriptive imagery associated with the person for whom the textile was fabricated. Worked first with a forward moving action over the fabric surface, then backwards underneath the fabric and out again, this technique creates a series of overlapping thread segments that can delineate any type of line, whether straight or curvilinear, affording the greatest freedom of rendering imagery in a realistic, pictorial manner. The use of block color embroidery as a means of conveying a visually symbolic association between the wearer of the mantle and the figures stitched on the cloth would have been a practical choice, given the flexibility afforded by this technique.

Illustration of stem stitch embroidery technique

The Paracas embroiderer first created a sketch of the figure using a single color of thread, outlining areas such as arms, legs, eyes, mouth, appendages and other compositional details. Then, by stitching contiguous rows side-by-side, negative spaces were filled in with solid colors. One can easily discern the outline stitches when looking closely at the embroidery ground. It’s also worth noting that the mantle in our collection bearing these bird impersonators has areas along the border that were left unfinished, providing process-oriented clues to the sequential steps of the embroidery process (see image below).

Detail of mantle border with unfinished “bird impersonator” figures, displaying stem stitch outlines. Peruvian (Paracas), wool plain weave, embroidered with wool. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (16.34a-c). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A distinctive characteristic of block color style is a systematic pattern of alternating configurations of a given color palette from figure to figure, as shown by the diptych below. For example, the olive green thread on the tunic shown on the left is used to color the arms and legs of the figure shown on the right; red used to color the arms and legs of the figure on the left is used for the tunic on the right. Alternating patterns of color placement from one figure to the next is applied in a faithful manner on all fifty-five bird impersonators occupying the woven ground, promoting visual dynamism and movement when viewed as a whole.

Diptych of two “bird impersonator” figures demonstrating alternating patterns of color distribution.

In a paper published by Anne Paul, Why Embroidery? An answer from the ancient Andes (2002), she describes what I consider to be a more compelling role of color associated with the consistent patterning of its distribution:

Apart from pure visual pleasure, color had a more esoteric function: it was used to encode a particular kind of logic in cloth. To begin with, each of the motifs embroidered on a garment is filled in with colored threads according to a master plan that specifies the color of the iconographic details of that image. This combination of colors is called a “color block”; different color blocks can be employed on a single embroidery, aligned in the field to create regular patterns along horizontal rows, vertical columns, and the S and Z diagonals, with the diagonals dominating in importance.”

The predominant “S” and “Z” diagonals that Paul refers to are terms used to denote the directional motions of spun fiber: to produce an “S” twist yarn, the fibers are spun in a clockwise direction; to produce a “Z” twist yarn they are spun counter-clockwise. In addition to the encoded logic imparted by block color patterning as described by Paul, an additional trait of Paracas embroideries are figural motions of symmetry. Paul’s hypothesis is that Paracas embroiderers, in the use of both color and motion symmetries, were expressing principles of ordering and a way of understanding spatial relationships that:

…replicate either the symmetry of fabric structures or the regular alignment of the fiber elements that comprise the fabric plane. This design choice – achieved by stitching images on cloth – underscores the importance of fabric-making processes and the vital role of weaving in their culture.

I’m deeply intrigued by the perception of Paracas embroidery style and patterning as self-referential expressions of intrinsic material structure. I plan to do more looking and reading, especially about aspects of motion symmetry not elaborated upon in this post, and will write more about the theories of Anne Paul, Mary Frame, and others who may emerge in my exploration. In next month’s post. I will also share what I have learned about another Paracas embroidery form known as “linear style.” For an introduction, see previous features from Object a Week:  02.12.18 (Man’s poncho) and 03.26.18 (Mantle), where the kinship between textile style and structure are also referenced.


A Closer Look offers focused explorations on topics related to the Textile and Fashion Arts collections at the MFA, Boston. These posts may share correspondences with items featured in Object a Week.

Mantle fragment (Peruvian, Paracas, A.D. 100–200)

Mantle fragment. Wool plain-weave with stem-stitch embroidery. Denman Waldo Ross Collection (21.2556). Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The nine colors embroidered on this burial mantle fragment, dated A.D. 100–200, reveal the sophisticated methods developed by Paracas textile artists for dyeing camelid and cotton fibers to produce a wide range of color choices.

Cora E. Stafford, in her 1941 book Paracas Embroideries: A Study of Repeated Patterns, cites early research on Paracas color by Lila Morris O’Neale, an American anthropologist and textile historian who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1931 for her study on ancient Peruvian textiles:

…Dr. O’Neale, who has made a careful study  of the range of colors in Paracas textiles…finds 190 differences of dyed color, measured on the charts in Maertz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color. Setting aside the fact, of which Dr. O’Neale is aware, that some color differences may be the result of fading or other chemical changes that have taken place since the textiles were made, the Paracas woman had at her disposal a large number of colors.”

The textile featured here, executed in the well-studied “color block” style, manifests a visual language that is difficult to interpret, but has been shown to display intentional systems of logic and organization through the use of both color and figural symmetries of motion (See blog post, A Hidden Order). Speaking to these stylistic elements, Stafford goes on to say:

From the aesthetic point of view, the number of colors used in a given textile is less important than how successfully they are employed to develop pattern through the interplay of repetition and contrast. With a large number of different colors at hand, it is not surprising that the Paracas embroiderer depended upon this element for her most complicated and beautiful aesthetic effects, and it is chiefly through her manipulation of color that we trace those intricate thought-processes that made possible the significant handling of so many colors.”

Click for description, detail views and collection data on mfa.org


Object a Week is a revolving showcase of MFA textile collections. A featured object may be indicative of the author’s study focus at a given moment in time and/or related to topics of research, activity, or recent acquisitions in the Museum’s Textile and Fashion Arts department