Where do you think the maker got the idea for the Dragon quilt in the image carousel? The naive design and complex, almost unwieldy construction suggest it was an original creation—but what imagery inspired the maker?
Dragons like this one are important cosmological figures in East Asia. In China, the dragon is a symbol of imperial authority and is therefore especially revered. Asian imagery has long intrigued Westerners, from the Middle Ages’ Silk Road to the present day. Imitating Eastern imagery became an art of its own—Chinese objects like ceramics and textiles were greatly admired, but rare.
Quilts reflect this centuries-old admiration of “exotic” (i.e. non-Western) art and design. Early chintz-applique quilts were made to imitate Indian printed cotton palampores. In the mid-1800s, Japan, which had been closed to foreigners for generations, began participating in World’s Fairs, including the 1876 Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia. Typical Japanese “cracked ice” designs seen by millions at the Centennial Exposition are believed to be one inspiration for the dominant quilt style of the last quarter of the 1800s—the Crazy quilt. In the early 1900s, professional designers flooded the market with Eastern-inspired quilt patterns—Chinese Fans, Japanese Fans, Chinese Gongs, and Persian Poppy, just to name a few. Quiltmakers embraced these patterns and made them an essential part of this era’s creative outpouring of quiltmaking.
Which brings us back to the c. 1920-1930 Dragon quilt. By this time, Chinese imagery could be seen everywhere: Hollywood movies, Art Deco design, imitation blue-and-white porcelain. And once again, the Far East was represented at a World’s Fair: Chicago in 1933. The quilt maker could have seen a Chinese dragon in a number of places, including on the Qing Dynasty imperial flag (see a version in the image carousel), but if she attended Chicago’s Century of Progress fair, she might have been inspired by a pamphlet for the “Chinese Lama Temple,” which featured a large dragon design on the cover. We may never know the design source, but what this quilt does tell us is that its maker, like so many before her, took a fascination with Asian culture and transformed it into a novel form of creative expression.