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Rediscover the art of the doily at German Free School exhibit

Dave Thomas
A portion of the doily-embellished quilt 'Constant Comets' by Suzann Thompson on display at the German Free School this month.

When post-hardcore band Hot Snakes performs Thursday night at The Mohawk in the Red River district, they’ll have no idea that tucked right in behind them is a 161-year-old building that’s currently hosting an exhibit of doily heritage, art and poetry.

Or maybe they will. Perhaps Hot Snakes has an appreciation for doilies. 

There’s a better chance, though, that you haven’t thought about doilies since seeing them staged throughout grandma’s house as a child. Part lace, part snowflake and part “put that back!” the doily is often thought of as a relic of an era long gone.

But to give the doily another look, and see it through a more discerning eye, is to appreciate the delicate artistry and the creative opportunities. (Of course, it is also ripe for weird hipster art.)

“Celebrate Doilies” is a free exhibit at the German Free School, 507 East 10th Street, through the end of May. The exhibit is only open on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It’s a small exhibit of work by Austin native Suzann Thompson, as well as interviews about prized crochet work by others, and poetry from Sandi Horton of Waco. If the exhibit inspires you to create, Thompson and Horton will give a talk on “What to Do With Oma’s Doilies” at the German Free School on Sunday, June 3, at 3 p.m.

Thompson’s quilts, not just embellished with doilies, but artistically designed around them, inspired both my 5-year-old daughter and my mother-in-law who isn’t saying how old she is, but is old enough to have doilies at home that are now earmarked for a sewing room makeover.

It’s true that doilies are representative of a leisure time before TV hospital dramas and cooking shows, but they are definitely not icons of idleness. Instead, they are a testament to the creation of beauty and delicacy in what was for many women, a harder, rougher world. Take a deeper look at the doily and its history here.

If you find the one-room exhibit too small to hold your interest long, stay a bit and examine the German Free School. Built in 1857, when folks in Austin remembered both the Alamo and the 1840 Comanche Indian raid, it opened the next year as the first chartered school in Austin.

Austin artist Dr. Kelly H. Stevens bought the historic building in 1948 and, after careful restoration, gave it to the German-Texan Heritage Society in 1991.