Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Lyre

According to Wikipedia, the Lyre is a stringed musical instrument well known for its use in classical antiquity and later. The word comes from the Greek "λύρα" (lyra) and the earliest reference to the word is the Mycenaean Greek ru-ra-ta-e, meaning "lyrists". The lyre of classical antiquity was ordinarily played by being strummed with a plectrum, like a guitar or a zither, rather than being plucked, like a harp. (Thank you, Wikipedia!) Recitations of the ancient Greeks were accompanied by lyre playing. The lyre is also a symbol of wisdom and moderation.

In the mid-19th century, the lyre appeared in Baltimore Album Quilts, often as the center block. I first became familiar with the lyre in high school, when I was co-editor of the literary magazine of the Peddie School in New Jersey. The name of the publication was "Amphion", referring to a Greek mythological character who was the son of Zeus and Antiope, and twin brother of Zethus. Amphion and Zethus are known for fortifying the city of Thebes. According to the tale, Amphion used the music of the lyre to magically guide the stones into place.

The experience of being editor of the Amphion was formative for me. During those two years, I was part of a group that revamped the magazine, evolving it from a very humble publication into an award winner. Many years later I became editor of a magazine and helped create a second magazine, which went out of 50,000 readers. During those years, I always looked back fondly on the experience of being editor of the Amphion. It was the foundation for everything I ever did with publications.

So, when I saw the Album Quilt, the Lyre really spoke to me. It was an image that carried deep meaning in my own life, and was the primary reason why I wanted to buy the quilt. At the time it was for sale, Shelly Zegart had another Sandra Mitchell quilt available, which was accompanied by a story about how Mitchell had bought the quilt on the occasion of her 50th birthday. That gave me my own idea. I bought the Album Quilt as a 40th birthday gift to myself in 2006. 

Here would probably be a good place to mention that I feel it is important, whatever you may collect, that it's something you enjoy and something that speaks to you. I've always viewed quilts primarily as works of art, and less as historic objects documenting cultural and social history. In the case of the Album Quilt, it does all these things, and has introduced me to the importance of quilt history. The quilt had been separated from its history for at least 15 years, if not longer, and reuniting it with that history has been such a wonderful reward!


  1. I find it interesting that the lyre is all one colour. It is also a rather plain block when compared to some that you have shown previously. I don't know if that was traditionally how it was done. It certainly makes it stand out in the quilt. I am curious what design decisions are made and why. Thanks for this post, Bill.

  2. I just can't get over the intense quilting on this piece. I'm thinking of trying it on a quilt soon... Am I nuts?

  3. Caron - you need to make that a SMALL quilt. :-) You're right though - her stipple quilting is gorgeous!

    Bill, I'm still looking at the back of that quilt. It does look like she pieced the sections together after quilting ... the stippling patterns don't seem to cross from one section to another. After joining them up it looks as though she went back and quilted the joins. What a woman!

  4. Dale, I just took a good look at the back wearing my reading glasses, and it appears to be made of three large pieces of fabric. I found the seams.

    The block seams I thought I was seeing on the back are actually the seams from the top showing through the back fabric. Those seams are emphasized because of the dense quilting. It has what I would call a vacuum-pack effect. Since the seams have a greater thickness than anywhere else, Mary couldn't quilt over them as easily, so the quilting is not continuous when crossing over the seams between the blocks. I hope I'm explaining that well enough.

  5. Extraordinary amount of quilting. I love echo quilting and I guess this is the same, just MORE! you get into a zen state and just keep going! The best thing though is that it's consistent throughout so the quilt sits nice and flat and square.

  6. Yes, it doesn't matter how many times I look at the quilt. The quilting always knocks my socks off!

    I mean...who DOES that??

  7. I love the simplicity of this block. The echo quilting dazzles around it.