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IN THE SEWN: A crab-patterned mola shows in a new exhibit at the Quilt Museum.

Fabric Dreams

Two shows at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles explore sewn symbols

By Andrea Frainier

THE TWO CURRENT exhibits at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles seem to be as different as night and day. "Fabric Tattoos: The Spirit of the Mola" displays brightly colored, rectangular patches of embroidered works that are sewn into clothing, while "The World According to Joyce Gross: Quilts From the Dolph Briscoe Center" showcases exquisite show quilts meant to be showoff pieces. But these exhibits are threaded together through the women who made them.

The Joyce Gross show begins in the mid-1960s, when quilts and popular culture collided. Jane Przybysz, the executive director at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, explains that quilts became a part of fashion through patchwork clothing, the technique of sewing pieces of fabric together to create a larger design. "Quilts really entered popular culture in a big way through magazines like Vogue, Woman's Day and Better Homes and Gardens," Przybysz explains. "And that's how quilts got introduced to people like Joyce Gross. She got introduced to it and she just took the baton and ran with it. And she devoted 40 years of her life to documenting the late-20th-century quilt revival." The exhibit celebrates Gross, who is credited with raising people's consciousness about quilts as an art form, and her devotion to preserving the rich history of quilting and the women behind them.

"What Joyce did was not only recognize the beauty of the quilts, but she documented the information about the quilt makers and quilt-making in general," says curatorial intern Nancy Bavor. "The makers certainly looked at quilts as a creative outlet. ... They did share patterns, they looked at each other for ideas and they were valued in society for their skill." The show features 30 quilts dating from 1840 to as recent as 1960. The collection includes hand-pieced and appliquéd quilts—ranging from Hawaiian-inspired patterns to quilts made out of leftover pieces of fabric.

In the hall and gallery adjacent to the Gross collection, more than 100 rainbow-colored molas are showcased as part of "Fabric Tattoos: The Spirit of the Mola." These hand-sewn panels of fabric made by the Kuna women of Panama are thought to be inspired by ancient body art designs. While most molas depict scenes from nature—a striking scorpion, a school of fish, an intricate spider web—many of the molas take root in geometric designs, written phrases and modern-day images. "They are very imaginative and just full of fun and life," says museum curator Deborah Corsini. "The Indian women really pride themselves on the quality of their work. They are always pushing the art, creating better and intricate and more complicated molas." Molas comprise several layers of different-colored cloths sewn together to reveal an intricate design by cutting parts of each layer. Each mola is a personal reflection of its creator, and prized molas are judged by the quality of the stitching, the attention to detail, color combinations, artistic approach and the number of layers used to create them.

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO JOYCE GROSS and FABRIC TATTOOS: THE SPIRIT OF THE MOLA run through Oct. 25 at the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, 520 S. First St., San Jose. (408.971.0323)

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