Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Separated at Birth: My Virtual AQSG Poster Presentation

The subject of my Poster Presentation: two quilts from West Virginia

The American Quilt Study Group (AQSG) holds one big feature event each year. They call it Seminar. Held at a new location each year, the AQSG Seminar brings quilt enthusiasts and scholars together for a weekend engaged in quilt study. In addition to the presentation of research papers chosen for publication in "Uncoverings" and a renowned keynote speaker, Seminar offers pre-conference tours, study centers, and roundtable discussions all directed toward the interests of quilt lovers.

This year, Seminar will also have a Poster Presentation, which will include a dozen research projects currently in progress. Originally, it was supposed to be a baker's dozen, but since I couldn't be there in person this year, I thought I'd talk about it here. This is my Virtual AQSG Poster Presentation.

This quilt was misidentified after it was separated from its family.
My subject, Separated at Birth, centers around the discovery of a connection between two quilts. Both quilts are masterpiece album quilts with lyre center blocks. One quilt is part of my collection, acquired in 2006. I first saw the quilt five years earlier, when I was visiting the home of Shelly Zegart in Louisville, Kentucky.

It was the only quilt Shelly showed me that day, and it was not for sale at the time. Shelly had recently purchased it from the estate of Sandra Mitchell, a prolific quilt collector and dealer who had just passed away. When Shelly pulled the box from under a bed and opened it, I was absolutely blown away. Thinking back to when I first saw the quilt, never in a million years did I think I'd own it one day, much less unlock the mystery behind its origins.

Detail shows the incredibly dense echo quilting. 
I'd never seen a quilt with such dense quilting. The entire white space on the quilt was echo quilted in rows separated by 1/16th of an inch, and around 10 stitches per inch in each row. The applique fabric was all in mint condition, but wasn't quilted, giving it a raised effect. Fabrics included a fairly common over-dyed green floral print, a lavender floral print, a cheddar orange solid, and a deep brick red solid that some have called oxblood.

The quilt was featured in Shelly's 1995 book, "American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces" - but at the time, none of us realized it had been misidentified after its separation from the family. The information was part of the entry for the Sandra Mitchell Collection, and the quilt was identified as a Pennsylvania Album from 1865, maker unknown.

In 2006, a series of very unlikely events led me to purchase the quilt. In 2009, I decided to post some pictures of it on my web site and bring it to show the Columbia Willamette Quilt Study Group (CWQSG). The group was very interested in the quilt, and CWQSG Coordinator Martha Spark thought it could have been made earlier than 1865 because of the level of detail.

Back in 1995, when Shelly published her book, the West Virginia Heritage Quilt Search was halfway through a ten-year-long, statewide quilt documentation project. The project culminated in 2000, with the release of "West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Echoes from the Hills" by Fawn Valentine.

I did not learn about the book until 2009, and it was just by chance - an unexpected, indirect result of my participation in the CWQSG meeting. After the meeting, Martha Spark was corresponding with Fawn Valentine and my quilt came up. When Fawn discovered the picture on my web site, she sent a note to Martha, which Martha forwarded to me.

Fawn and I started to correspond. She told me there was a quilt almost exactly like it in West Virginia, and felt my quilt had possibly been misidentified. The almost-identical quilt was in her book - that's when I learned about the book.  It was difficult to accept that there could be anything like my quilt, but I thought maybe there would be some design references or other similarities. So, I ordered a copy of the book.

When the book arrived, I was floored. The image on the cover was basically identical to one of the baskets on my quilt. The quilting was the same, and I'd never seen that anywhere else before. The lack of quilting on the applique was also the same, but there was much more inside the book. On page 110-111, there is a full description with detail and full view photos of the album quilt, made by Harriet Small of Berkeley County, West Virginia in 1850.

You could've knocked me over with a feather. I was absolutely stunned. Of the 25 individual block designs, 19 of them can be called a match. Click here to see the block comparison (PDF). The quilt also shares the same wandering vine borders, same lyre motif in the center block, and as mentioned, the same quilting and same lack of quilting in the applique. Six designs are unique to each quilt, and the level of sophistication varies from one quilt to the other.

Harriet Small's quilt, as documented by the WV Heritage Quilt Search.
Through a little genealogy research and more correspondence, I learned my quilt was made by Harriet's mother, Mary Couchman Small (1800-1863). The Small family had a farm in Martinsburg, Berkeley County - about 100 miles west of Baltimore - and it was a rare piece of flat, river bed land amidst more rugged terrain. The farm was located close to a main road, and is now occupied by a GM plant. Mary's daughter, Harriet, was born in 1836, which would've made her 14 years old around 1850. Mary would've been 50 at the time. According to one genealogy record, Harriet may have died shortly after 1850.

Family records indicate both quilts descended through the family of Harriet's sister, Elizabeth Jane Small Sperow, but around 1995, when West Virginia was documenting Harriet's quilt, the family couldn't lead the search team to Mary's quilt. There was a reference to the second quilt in a note sent by the family to Valentine, but no response to the request for pictures and more information. Sandra Mitchell had likely bought Mary's quilt by then - later it appeared in Shelly's book - and it's also possible that it was found in Pennsylvania, where descendants of the Sperow family resided.

To understand why this quilt was separated from its history, it's important to know a little more about Mitchell. The woman had an incredible eye for quilts. She was disliked by some, for being somewhat abrupt and disheveled looking, but was well loved by others. Julie Silber, who admiringly called Mitchell the "Queen of Cheddar" says "Sandra Mitchell was hard to miss...and hard to forget..."

One thing's for sure. Sandra Mitchell was shrewd. She was also a hoarder. When she died in 2000 at age 58, her affairs were very much in disarray. One source close to the estate liquidation called it a huge mess. Apparently, Mitchell collected all types of things including glass paperweights, Cabbage Patch Dolls and quilts. It is unclear whether or not there was a will, but I suspect there wasn't.

NOTE: There is more about Sandra Mitchell in the series "Why Quilts Matter" and The Quilt Digest, volume 4.

In the last decade, many of Sandra Mitchell's quilts have surfaced on the open market and some are currently available. By the time I received Mary Couchman Small's quilt, it was well removed from its history, including the Sandra Mitchell estate liquidation. I was aware that it had once been part of Mitchell's collection, but all I really knew was what was printed in Shelly's book. I've learned a lot since then, and feel the separation between the two quilts happened unintentionally. It's possible Mitchell was not provided with the history, but if that history had only made it to Shelly, it would've been preserved in great detail.

This research has been a wonderful journey for me, so far. I learned the two quilts weren't really separated at birth in the literal sense. They were actually separated later in life. But in terms of shared characteristics, they were clearly from the same gene pool. From here, I hope to travel to West Virginia and view the two quilts together. There may be more information to be found in the local historical society, and from the family. AQSG Seminar attendees had an opportunity to see Harriet's quilt years ago when the Seminar was in West Virginia. I look forward to the opportunity to share Mary's quilt.

To view the Quilt Index record of Harriet's quilt as documented by the West Virginia Heritage Quilt Search, click here.

To view a comparison of the blocks (PDF), click here.

And as always, please feel free to comment!!


  1. What a fascinating story!! How amazing would it be to see both of them side by side. I'd say you are lucky to have this quilt in your possesion. If you hadn't shared it with anybody you would have never known there was another one. Very cool indeed!

  2. Absolutely right, Lori! The decision to share the quilt with the world was just like putting something good out into the world, and good came back to me, tenfold!

  3. Hi Bill and friends-I used to sell quilts to Sandra Mitchell eons ago. Since I love history, if I knew anything about a quilt, I'd always make a tag for it and include the info. On more than one occasion, after selling quilts to Sandra, I saw her rip off my tags and throw them away. I was stunned! I asked her once about it and the second time berated her for discarding the quilt's history. She got downright nasty then and snarled, "I don't care about the history, I just sell 'em!" and glared at me. Considering that Sandra physically was along the lines of a football linebacker with a very bad haircut, I dropped the subject and mourned privately. That said, most of the time, Sandra was nice to me, at least as nice as she could be to anyone, and I was very sad to learn of her demise but somehow not surprised.

  4. Pepper, Thank you for sharing this story. I've heard similar tales, and it seems Mitchell was a very complex character.

    On some level, I can relate to being an unusual character in the world of quilts. Most people don't picture me when they think "quilt collector" - but I think personality can work for you or against you. Mitchell's personality seemed to work against her at times.

    I also wonder if she was one of those dealers who liked to protect her sources. Today, that's a dying breed. Pretty much all the quilt dealers I've become acquainted with in the last 20+ years have done a superb job keeping history with the quilts.

  5. My paternal family is West Virginian, as is my husband's family, so I'm always happy to see something magnificent from WV that might help to lessen the conception that it's all hillbillies and moonshiners.

    Most anyone who belongs to AQSG can vouch for the amazing discoveries and connections that have been made through the network. We've had so many "coindences" at seminar that Julie Silber and I actually talked about compiling some of the "woo-woo" stories. Hasnt happened, of course. But things have happened that simply cannot be explained away - one has to admit, or at least wonder, if those quiltmakers guide us where they want us to go.

    Bill, you are such a benefit to us all. Your eagerness to share your collection with us in exchange for all the tidbits of info we can throw your way is endearing. Teddy Pruett - of the West Virginia (Think Coach Bob Pruett of Marshall U) Pruetts.

  6. Thank you, Teddy! You're right, it is a great network and there are a lot of "woo-woo" stories to be told. Sometimes I do feel the quilt makers guide us, in ways.

    From what I can gather, the Small family was anything but a gang of hillbillies or moonshiners. They were most likely affluent because of the land they held and its proximity to the main road.

    The fabrics from both quilts are presumed to have been bought new, and the influence of the Baltimore Album quilt is very much a part of the quilts. It took a lot of time to make this pair - time Mary and Harriet were not spending doing other types of less glamorous labor around the house.

  7. These quilts, with their character and individuality speak to me more than the perfection of Baltimore Albums. I find the restricted colour palette very pleasing. What a fabulous story, thanks so much. K

  8. They've been called "country cousins" of the Baltimore album, but I feel they are also highly sophisticated in their own way. Glad you enjoyed the story.

  9. What a wonderful story - I hope one day you are able to uncover more information about the two quilts. Seeing them side by side is sure to be a special treat and most certainly deserving of documenting for future generations. I too was unable to attend seminar this year and am pleased to have an opportunity to see your virtual poster presentation. Well Done and Thanks! Leah Z.

  10. Thank you, Leah! I still have more questions about it, and hope to find out more. Some of my questions:

    Did Harriet really die around age 14?

    If so, was she ill for a period beforehand, and did the mother daughter quilt project give them something they could do together?

    Were both quilts quilted by one person, and was that the mother (Mary)?

    What type of farm did the Small family have?

    Who was the last person in the family to own the quilt? (who sold it to Sandra Mitchell)?

    etc., etc. :)

  11. Oh, what a fascinating story. I have to read it again and then probably again!!

  12. When I think about how the whole thing has unfolded, what gets me every time is how it all just fell into my lap. I think the internet has advanced quilt study because of how it allows us to share. Mary's quilt (my quilt) was separated from its history for about 15 years - and both quilts were published in books! I don't even want to think about how much longer it would've taken to make the connection without the internet.

  13. Update: my friend Sandra turned up a genealogical record that says there was a Harriet living with Elizabeth, and was a seamstress. That explains how the quilts got into Elizabeth Jane Small Sperow's home, but we still haven't seen a death record for Harriet.

  14. What a wonderful story. And I understand hat there maybe a third quilt now too?

    1. There is a third quilt - no doubt about it. I saw a picture. At first I thought it was my quilt, but it's not mine, and it's not the other one I'd known about.

      THREE of these quilts!! My head is spinning!!!

  15. Willy it is the coolest connection in the world. There were also 2 related women in my Polk's Fancy article who made almost identical quilts. if i remember right, it turned out that the younger one, age about 15, was the daughter of the older one's male cousin. The older one was about 28, still single. they lived on adjoining farms in southern Indiana. they were clearly the same basic design but a few differences, red and teal instead of green, signed in a different place. looking forward to hearing more about your #3 and many thanks for your virtual poster. they were German Protestant, had come from Rowan County in NC I believe. you know Small was sometimes an American version of the German name Klein (which means small or little).

  16. The Smalls of Massachusetts, NH, and Maine from whom I am descended were originally "Smalley" from Devon, England, c1630. They founded what is now Portland ME, and were prolific at one time on Deer Isle Maine after 2 brothers settled there in the 1760s (then part of Massachusetts).

    Susan Seater