Sew on and Sew Forth

Stacy Hollander Exhibitions

Fig. 1. Friendship album quilt, American, possibly Mennonite, early twentieth century. Cotton, 93 ½ inches square. All objects illustrated are in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum, gift of Karen and Werner Gundersheimer. All photographs are by Gavin Ashworth.

Karen Gundersheimer, a children’s book author and illustrator, and her husband, Werner, a historian and the director emeritus of the Folger Shakespeare Library, became interested in quilts during the 1960s. They started attending antiques shows and visiting shops around their home in Philadelphia and were particularly attracted to textile work by women. Even with limited funds at the time, they discovered that they could afford beautiful examples. Quilts, especially, seemed to embody both ingenuity in design, technical skill, and what the couple calls “wall power”—they liken the strong graphic and color sense to the work of some geometric abstract painters. In just a few years the Gundersheimers assembled a collection of around fifty pieced quilts, mostly from eastern Pennsylvania. As their interests deepened, so did their geographic reach. They added eclectic quilts from New England, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas. According to the couple, they never aspired to build a large or representative quilt collection. Their emphasis remained on identifying quilts they both liked and wanted to use as decorative elements in their home. In 2018 the Gundersheimers gave twenty-one quilts, dating from the late nineteenth century through the 1940s, to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. These introduced new pieced patterns into the museum’s holdings, including
Joseph’s coat, alphabet, and spiderweb. The gift also happily expanded the museum’s representations of Amish and Mennonite quilts in traditional patterns.  

Wall Power! Quilts from the Karen and Werner Gundersheimer Gift will be on view at the American Folk Art Museum from August 6 to September 1, 2019.