October 10, 2021–January 17, 2022

Fabric of a Nation

American Quilt Stories

Discover the extraordinary stories behind 300 years of American quilts

Quilts and coverlets have a unique capacity to tell stories: their tactile, intricate mode of creation and their traditional use in the home impart deeply personal narratives of their creators, and the many histories they express reveal a complex record of America. Quilts have also been used in North America since the 17th century, and their story, told by many voices, has evolved alongside the United States.

Upending expectations about quilt displays—traditionally organized by region, form, or motif—“Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories” is a loosely chronological presentation in seven thematic sections that voices multiple perspectives. Visitors see and hear from artists, educators, academics, and activists, and the remarkable examples on view are by an underrecognized diversity of artistic hands and minds from the 17th century to today, including female and male, known and unidentified, urban and rural makers; immigrants; and Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, and LGBTQIA+ Americans. The exhibition invites visitors to celebrate the artistry and intricacy of quilts and coverlets and the lives they document, while also considering the complicated legacies ingrained in the fabric of American life.

The exhibition brings together the only two surviving quilts by artist Harriet Powers, displaying the MFA’s iconic Pictorial quilt (1895–98) alongside the Bible quilt (1885–86), on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, for the first time. Powers, who was born into slavery in Athens, Georgia, was an exceptional artist and storyteller. But who gets to tell her story? By looking at Powers’s life and work through the lens of history and hearing from a variety of individuals, visitors are encouraged to make resonant connections to their own lives. Among other highlights are Bisa Butler’s To God and Truth (2019), a vibrantly colorful and elaborately patterned quilt based on an 1899 photograph of the Morris Brown College baseball team; Carla Hemlock’s Survivors (2011–13), in which figures and names of 48 First Nations and Indigenous groups that survive today are stitched around a traditional pattern; and a dazzling range of works by artists including Agusta Agustsson, Sanford Biggers, Sabrina Gschwandtner, Sylvia Hernández, Susan Hoffman, Virginia Jacobs, Edward Larson, Carolyn L. Mazloomi, Tomie Nagano, John Thomas Paradiso, Rowland Ricketts, Faith Ringgold, Gio Swaby, and Michael C. Thorpe. Together, the masterpieces in this exhibition tell inclusive, human stories that link us across time and articulate a rich, and richly complicated, story of our shared history.

  • Ann and Graham Gund Gallery (Gallery LG31)
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Lead Sponsor

The Lonely Palette Podcast

Dive deeper into Harriet Powers’s Pictorial quilt with a new episode of The Lonely Palette from Tamar Avishai, the MFA’s podcaster-in-residence.

Transcript for Harriet Powers, Pictorial Quilt Episode

Harriet Powers, Pictorial quilt, 1895–98. Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliquéd, embroidered, and quilted. Bequest of Maxim Karolik.

Related Publications

College Student Resource Guide

Fabric of a Nation: A Resource Guide for College Students

Featuring key works, quotes, and discussion questions drawn from “Fabric of a Nation,” this online thematic resource guide was designed for students and educators to explore the art of quilt making as an instrument of social change, storytelling, and artistic craft.

Explore the Resource Guide (Google Slides)


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Lead Sponsor

The Lynch Foundation logo

Generous Supporter with Carolyn and Peter Lynch.

The Coby Foundation logo

Generous Supporter

Logos for the National Endowment for the Arts and the Souls Grown Deep Foundation


Additional funding from the Dillon Fund of the Boston Foundation, the David and Roberta Logie Fund for Textile and Fashion Arts, the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Fund for Exhibitions, the Robert and Jane Burke Fund for Exhibitions, the Loring Textile Gallery Exhibition Fund, and the Patricia B. Jacoby Exhibition Fund.