Monday, September 17, 2018

What is Wonky?

Several years ago, I gained a new appreciation for the word wonky at a quilt guild meeting in Portland, Oregon. Of course, I'd heard the word before, but not in that way.

Someone said, "It's wonky!" referring to a quilt she made, and there was a small eruption of laughter. An error in geometry caused something to look askew. However, by calling it "wonky" she owned it and got everyone else to see the humor in it.

The word wonky seemed to have layers of meaning among quiltmakers, and there was onomatopoeia in the way they said it, with special emphasis on wonk. 

They could use the word to laugh at themselves, or give themselves permission to make an error and own it. They could use it to embrace accidents, both happy and unhappy.

From that point forward, I loved the word wonky and associated it with quilts. Most of the antique and vintage quilts I collect have something wonky about them, even if things look right from a distance.

Some of my favorite quilts are wonky. They have those human elements that say, "this quilt was made by hand, and it may not be perfect, but who is perfect?"

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Obsession du jour - "Which quilt is your favorite?"

People ask me this question all the time. "Which quilt is your favorite?" It's a tough question.

More than 20 years ago, Shelly Zegart published her book, "American Quilt Collections, Antique Quilt Masterpieces" -- a book highlighting many of the premiere collections and collectors of great, antique quilts. I received a copy from Shelly in 2001. It was the first quilt book in my library, and it included one quilt for each entry, accompanied by written information about the quilt and the collection.

The book got me thinking. What would it be like to be a quilt collector? At the time, I only had two or three quilts and did not think of myself as a collector, but my first quilt was definitely a masterpiece.

Over the years, there were all kinds of quilts from various time periods. Becoming enthralled with new discoveries was practically an everyday event.

Each quilt led down a rabbit hole of historical information. One day I could be researching pictorial hexagon quilts or ships in the Spanish American War, the next day I could be learning about the early wool mills of Rhode Island or Queen Lili'uokalani of Hawaii.

So, I do not know which quilt is my favorite. It changes daily, each day is a new day and each quilt is the obsession du jour.

A lot of my obsessions du jour are posted here, on my blog, or on Facebook. Stay tuned for more great antique and vintage quilts.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Happier Times in America?

Does this 1930s pictorial quilt tell a story of happier times in America, or does it simply long for happier times? The stock market crash of October, 1929 set the tone for the 1930s, the Great Depression, when widespread poverty and unemployment devastated American families.

a cheerful, 1930s quilt from Kansas
The 1930s were also known as the "dirty thirties" because of the Dust Bowl, a severe drought with dust storms, which affected ecology and agriculture throughout the plains and prairies of North America.

1930s Double Wedding Ring
Cheerful colors and patterns such as Double Wedding Ring and Grandmother's Flower Garden were on trend in the 1930s. Popular pastel colors were tangerine, lavender, sky blue, pink, Nile green and butter yellow. Considering how difficult life was, it is intriguing to think about the happy colors in American quilts.
Bicentennial quilt by Barbara McKie
The 1970s may seem like happier times almost 50 years after the fact, but it was another tumultuous decade. The Bicentennial in 1976 was a high point, but there were significant low points such as the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and the energy crisis.

Pieced star, c. 1976
Patriotic quilts were popular in the 1970s, in large part due to the Bicentennial, but the feeling of patriotism was not the general tone throughout most of the decade.

1850s floral applique quilt

Elegant quilts were popular during the Civil War period, even though it was among the most bitter periods of American history.

Popular colors were Turkey red, overdyed green, cheddar orange and double pink-- and of course, a lot of white.

sunny, 1930s Giant Dahlia quilt
Some of the most beautiful quilts were made in troubled times, and I find it so interesting. It is almost as if quiltmakers decided the world was not beautiful enough, so they had to make it better with gorgeous quilts.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Fabric Time Capsules

Silk diamonds, c. 1890 -- a fabric time capsule
I love how some quilts are like fabric time capsules. One of my college friends, Kristin Hubbard who was a classmate at Rhode Island School of Design saw a photo of my silk diamonds quilt, and it reminded her of samples from garment making, specifically garment lining fabrics. They could be, although it is hard to know for sure. Clearly the quilt is a fabric time capsule.

1950s Tumblers quilt looks like a stashbuster
When you see a fabric time capsule, you know it. There are often more fabrics than you can count, and the fabrics represent one time period. Sometimes it seems like the maker got every possible fabric from the period and used them all.

Tile Blocks is a time capsule of polyester double knit
One of my favorites is a monumental scale Tile Blocks quilt made entirely out of polyester double knit. It was made in the 1970s and came from Louisiana. The maker had to have some connection to the fabric industry. The patches look like they could have been fabric swatches out of a sample book.

I also love those fabrics that Carolyn Ducey and I call "sweet little calicoes" -- the cotton print fabrics from the 1970s with small-scale, often multicolor floral designs. The green one-patch from Oregon is like a time capsule of those fabrics. When I saw it, I realized there were a lot more cotton calico designs in the period than I first realized.

My current favorite type of quilt is the Hawaiian scrap quilt, but it's more of a genre than one specific quilt. The quilts have such a variety of fabrics, the tell the story of the Hawaiian garment industry as well as the individual garments do. Tip of the hat to Kristin, aka "Hubby" for inspiring this blog post.

The Dating Game: Education

Why do I believe this quilt was made between 1976 and 1986?
The other day, someone called me a "quilt whisperer" because I appeared to magically know things about old quilts. It wasn't magic. I studied quilts, and you can, too. A great place to start is "Clues in the Calico" by Barbara Brackman.

In a recent blog, "Circa Dating Old Quilts" I wrote about Brackman's system and how it involved looking at five characteristics in old quilts--fabric, style, color, technique, and pattern. The basic premise was that each quilt had a specific set of characteristics which, when compared with dated examples, could lead us to well-educated determinations of circa dates.
Sometimes we are fortunate to have quilts with inscriptions and dates. I found "Interacting Pyramids" (1974) by Barbara McKie in an antiques shop in Aurora, Oregon last year. The inscription led to finding the artist and corresponding with her about the quilt.

Posting photos of the quilt on social media led to finding it in print. The quilt first appeared in "The Complete Guide To Quilting" by Audrey Heard and Beverly Pryor, published in 1974.

We are also fortunate to find specific fabrics with their own circa dates in some quilts. A wholecloth quilt found in Connecticut had two blue and white copperplate printed fabrics from the late 18th century. 

These fabrics gave us valuable information about when the quilt could have been made. To read more about it, see my blog post, "Eighteenth Century Fabrics" (May 24, 2018).

Other types of clues appear in quilts, but sometimes they require more information. The NBC Quilt is a good example. It has specific materials, style and method of construction as other quilts do, but the most specific clue is the NBC "N" logo, which is called the "Trapezoid N".

"Trapezoid N" logo, introduced in 1976 for NBC's 50th Anniversary
This logo was used in the middle to late 1970s, and was created as part of NBC's 50th anniversary. It was in use between 1976 and 1986, but in 1979 NBC introduced an updated version of the Trapezoid N with an NBC peacock. It was called the "Proud N" logo and was in use from 1979 to 1986.

"Proud N" logo, in use from 1979-1986

"Modern Peacock" logo, introduced in 1986

In 1986, the "Modern Peacock" logo was introduced, and it did not have any Trapezoid N design element. The Trapezoid N has been absent from the NBC logo ever since. To read more about the history of the NBC logos, click here.

Tilton Family Quilt, c. 1840, Burlington County, N.J.
Sometimes what you know is only as good as what you have seen. Several years ago, I took the appraisal skills courses offered by the American Quilters Society in Paducah. At one point, we broke off into small groups to look at a quilt and determine the circa date. I commented about edge finishes being clues, saying, "You won't find a 1/16th-inch piped binding in a 1970s quilt," or something to that effect.

the quilt has a 1/16th-inch, piped binding
One of the instructors, who seemed unhappy any time someone in the class knew something she did not, overheard the comment. She said, "You will never see a 1/16th-inch, piped binding on any quilt!" and stormed off before I could tell her about the Tilton Family Quilt in my collection.

The stunning, 1840s Mariner's Compass quilt has an exquisite, very narrow piped binding. It varies slightly in width but is 1/16th-inch at its narrowest, and 1/8th-inch at its widest. The instructor obviously had no knowledge of the Tilton Family Quilt, but I did.

If I had to choose a moniker, it would be "quilt magnet" rather than quilt whisperer, but either way, there needs to be education. Quilt history is a relatively new field, and up to this point, the type of knowledge we find in other fields is mostly gleaned from independent study. There are always clues in the calico. Look carefully at all the clues, and how to date old quilts is the very least of what you could learn.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Cotton: The American Civil War & Politics Today

"Green Cross Series #4" 2014 by Gail Weiss, Portland, Oregon
In yesterday's blog post, I spoke about the everyday marginalization of American quiltmaking. A comment from my friend Gail Weiss reminded me, there is more to say about quiltmaking today. But first, let's spend a little more time on yesterday.

chintz counterpane, Achsah Goodwin Wilkins, Baltimore,  c. 1825
donated to the D.A.R. Museum, Washington, D.C.
Achsah Goodwin Wilkins (1775-1853) was an affluent, white woman who lived in Baltimore, Maryland. She was involved with making elegant bedcovers using expensive, imported fabrics from Europe, and African-American women as laborers. Her fanciful, floral counterpanes were made for well-appointed homes such as her own.

You may ask, why do I keep talking about Achsah Goodwin Wilkins? She died 165 years ago.

Map of the Continental United States, color coded to show 1861 status

Cotton was a precious commodity in the first half of the 19th century. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who wrote an article appearing on the PBS web site called "Why Was Cotton 'King'?", cotton was "one of the world’s first luxury commodities, after sugar and tobacco..." It was also "...the commodity whose production most dramatically turned millions of black human beings in the United States themselves into commodities," said Gates, Jr. 

The American Civil War was fought in the United States from 1861-1865. As a result of the longstanding controversy over slavery, the war broke out in April, 1861. Confederate states fought to maintain the institution of slavery. They wanted to continue using slaves as laborers to pick crops, primarily tobacco and cotton. A feature story, "Cotton and the Civil War" by economic historian Eugene R. Dattel on the "Mississippi History Now" website outlines the reasons for the Civil War as they related to the cotton trade.

"On the eve of the American Civil War in the mid-1800s cotton was America’s leading export, and raw cotton was essential for the economy of Europe," said Dattel in his introduction. "The cotton industry was one of the world’s largest industries, and most of the world supply of cotton came from the American South. This industry, fueled by the labor of slaves on plantations, generated huge sums of money for the United States and influenced the nation’s ability to borrow money in a global market. In many respects, cotton’s financial and political influence in the 19th century can be compared to that of the oil industry in the early 21st century."

"Mississippi, the nation’s largest cotton-producing state, was economically and politically dependent on cotton, as was the entire South. Indeed, it was the South’s economic backbone. When the southern states seceded from the United States to form the Confederate States of America in 1861, they used cotton to provide revenue for its government, arms for its military, and the economic power for a diplomatic strategy for the fledgling Confederate nation."

Cotton continues to be a huge industry today.
In 2018, cotton is "the fabric of our lives"-- but if it wasn't for quiltmakers in the 1970s, we could've been calling polyester the fabric of our lives. My recent blog post, "Polyester in American Quilts" discusses the invention of polyester, as well as the rise and fall of polyester in American quilts. 

1970s polyester quilt, exhibited last summer at the
International Quilt Study Center & Museum
In the 1970s, polyester was one of the most widely available fabrics. Quiltmakers used it, but they didn't necessarily like it. That's why vintage, 1970s polyester quilts continue to be such a polarizing topic among quiltmakers, particularly the makers who were actively making quilts in the 1970s. 

A few years ago, I interviewed several women for an article about quiltmaking in the 1970s. The article, "Quiltmaking in the 1970s: When Bed Quilts Became Works of Art" appeared in American Quilter Magazine (May 2013). Monique Lloyd, a librarian and archivist at Oregon State University said there was no such thing as a quilt shop at the time. She bought her fabric at department stores-- J.C. Penney, Sears and Woolworth.

Star quilt with cotton calicoes, 1972
made by Janis Pearson, Oregon
Janis Pearson remembered every shop in Portland, Oregon that sold cottons in the 1970s. Maybe half a dozen shops sold cotton calicoes for dress and garment making. Although labeling quilts was not yet common, Pearson inscribed her 1972 calico star quilt in the lower right, just as an artist would sign a painting. It was a simple detail, but indicated a significant shift in thinking about quilts. They were more than bedcovers. They were works of art. 

In the 1970s, as women were demanding more cotton fabrics for quiltmaking, Cotton, Inc., was founded to "support U.S. cotton farmers and importers in the research, development, and promotion of cotton." A big part of the effort was rebranding, when cotton ultimately became "the fabric of our lives." To a certain degree, feeling good about cotton meant being ignorant of the history. 
1970s cotton calico quilt, Oregon
Rebranding did not erase the sinister history of cotton in America, but it conveniently offered Americans a catch-phrase that allowed them to omit the history and land in a much happier place. When today's quiltmakers fondle the latest "to-die-for" fabrics by Kaffe Fassett and other designers of premium quilting fabrics, they do not always realize just how "to-die-for" cotton fabric in America was for much of the nation's history.
Weiss's "Green Cross Series" from 2014 commemorates
the beginning of recreational cannabis sales in Oregon.
Fast forward to present day, women (and men, and a diverse, global community) make quilts for a wide variety of reasons. I was delighted when my friend Gail Weiss commented on the "Beyond Bedding: A 'Nice, Little Hobby'" blog post. Gail is an artist, and I am fortunate to have one of her quilts in my collection. It commemorates and starts a conversation about an important current event, the beginning of recreational cannabis sales in Oregon.

"My quilting usually has nothing to do with bedding," said Weiss. "It's usually a practice in color theory with a textural aspect, specifically to work through past traumas and emotions, or simply to keep my addictive personality busy. For me, quilting is therapeutic art. Quilting is a testimonial to current events..." She recommends looking at today's political quilts. "The stories they tell are as diverse and unique as our populace... and can start many intelligent conversations about things happening right now." 
"Red" 2015 by Teresa Coates, quilted by Jolene Knight, Oregon
"Red" (2015) by Teresa Coates, quilted by Jolene Knight, is one of those conversation starters. Red represents love, war, passion, and blood; and the quilt explores the color red with elements of Pop Art, Matisse, Rorschach and traditional Hawaiian quiltmaking. It's a mash-up, and like much of the best postmodern art, it asks questions more than it provides answers.

Some people might be surprised to learn quiltmakers are actively engaged in today's hostile political climate. In my opinion, being politically savvy is to be expected of quiltmakers and others involved with textiles. History is behind us.