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From These Threads: Cotton Culture @ Tennessee Valley Museum of Art (October 1 – Nov 12, 2021)

Quilting true history; that’s what Jonathan Cain does with the initial impact of his exhibition of quilts.   I asked him to speak to his feelings about inclusion and true narrative.  Indeed, an example of critical race theory. – Victorine


When you hear the word ‘quilts,’ what is conjured in your imagination? For me, it is a connection to my ‘Mamaw,’ a name given to countless southern grandmothers. She made quilts all of her adult life and possibly even earlier. Her mother died when she was only 6. When I picture my grandmother making a quilt, I can see her in her kitchen seated at her Singer treadle sewing machine, rocking her feet in rhythm as the needle whizzed through scraps of old clothing. That old Singer was her preferred sewing machine — the fancy new one just sat in the bottom of the closet gathering dust. For me, quilts bring memories of family, love, and warmth. Nothing can beat a good old broken-in quilt to give comfort and summon a library of memories. But, unfortunately, it is not the experience for everyone.

In creating and curating this exhibit, From These Threads: Cotton Culture, I knew that quilts are universal in the United States and are a special shared heritage of southerners – having as many stories as the individuals who tell them. I wanted to drill deep into cotton and not blink. In leading tours of the exhibit, I begin with the same statement each time, “When I think of quilts, I think of cotton. I cannot think of how to discuss cotton without going all the way back to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.”; the horror that is cleaned up and made palatable to our delicate sensibilities by calling it the ‘Middle Passage’ – an empty way to describe the forced transportation of 10-15,000,000 Africans into a life of chattel slavery. I wanted to make sure that before we immersed ourselves in the beautiful colors, patterns, and the skill of the quiltmakers, we had our own ‘middle passage’ — the salt in the sugar, if you will. I wanted to reach as far back as I could and then look forward to the present. The oldest quilts in the exhibit date to the 1830-1840 range. It kept gnawing at me that I wasn’t able to represent the skilled needlework of the enslaved. Then it hit me like a bolt of lightning – Who did I think picked the cotton that made its way to northern textile mills? There I found my answer. Like so much of history, the faces and hands of individuals are unacknowledged and remain mute witnesses hiding in plain sight before our eyes. Our American heritage is rich and diverse, as well as rank and conflicted. It all deserves to be examined. Cotton is but one gateway into the conversation.

The past has already happened and cannot be undone. Today is our chance to understand. To choose to be willingly blind is both dangerous and insulting to the memories of all of our ancestors. Their stories were spun from lives of struggle and triumph – each generation passing its dreams forward to the next just like our treasured family quilts.


This is a piece of probably English or French chintz produced between 1810-1830. The Turkey red line work would have been printed using a copper plate technique. The other colors yellow and brown/black were added using a block print technique. Chintz at this time would have cost about 25 cents per yard — a fortune at that time. The silk industry in France felt so threatened by the growing craze for chintz that laws were passed with stiff penalties for importing, producing for the domestic market, or wearing chintz…some people even sentenced to death for wearing it. Of course, the aristocracy flaunted it in their wardrobes; most famously including the French King’s mistress Madame du Pampadour and the Queen Marie Antoinette. Tis good to be Queen.


                                                           From These Threads – 0ver 100 quilts displayed


Jonathan Cain is a native of Florence, Alabama, and has been the current Curator for the Tennessee Valley Museum of Art located in Tuscumbia, AL, since January 2020. He functioned in that role previously for several years before leaving to pursue a career in education. He holds an undergraduate degree in graphic design from the University of North Alabama and graduate degrees from both the University of Mississippi (MFA – Sculpture) and the University of North Alabama (MA – Clinical Mental Health). He is an eclectic artist who likes to pursue many different media. 

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