Friday, September 11, 2015

Considering the Quilts of the Revival

1970s polyester Double Wedding Ring, Altadena, California
one of the first polyester quilts I have had restored
As readers of my blog probably know, I love the quilts of the 1970s. I have collected them for the last five years and have more than 100 of them. When I first started collecting these quilts, they were terribly undervalued; and I would have to say they still are. Phenomenal quilts have routinely arrived on my doorstep, and many cost less than a cheap bottle of wine. The construction is often novice-level, but the quilts are durable as they are enduring.

Earlier this year I published my first research article for Blanket Statements, the quarterly newsletter of the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG). It is an academic newsletter, and the article was focused on polyester quilts, the process of collecting, researching, and in some cases restoring them. I was happy when it was featured on the front page as the lead research article for the issue.

It was new territory. When I searched the AQSG Blanket Statements database, there were more than 600 articles, but mine was the only one that came up with a keyword search for polyester. When I searched for polyester in the database of the annual AQSG research journal, Uncoverings, I had to laugh when I saw the search result.

yes, that's right - no hits on "polyester" in the Uncoverings database
"But it was more than 40 years ago, approaching 50 years ago, my whole lifetime ago," I thought to myself, pondering the reasons why I reached this point in history before others did. The 1970s were my formative years. Since I experienced those years as a child, my appreciation for all things 1970s runs deep.

the vibrant colors got my attention from the beginning
I was very attracted to the colors in the quilts, also the colors of my childhood. Polyester resisted fading, so quilts were often found looking as bright as when they were made. There were a lot of great quilts coming up for sale, for very little money, and it was nice to collect without having to save up for high-end, 19th century (or earlier) pieces.

100% polyester double knit

At the same time, I realized the polyester double knit fabrics were off-putting to people who wore garments made of these fabrics. When I first started collecting 1970s quilts, people thought I was nuts. Up to that point, I would barely look at anything less than 100 years old, and I was the guy with all the great, old "New York Beauty" quilts.

pieced quilt, c. 1870, Virginia - the type of quilt I collected
before discovering the quilts of the 1970s
Polyester double knit quilts were the unwanted love children in the world of vintage quilts. Some people felt they were too young to be considered vintage. Dismissed and cast away, the quilts were in need of adoption! I could also relate to that since I am adopted.

1970s Pennsylvania polyester Pinwheel quilt, 85" x 106"
In the last few years, I have written magazine articles on the quilts of the 1970s, exhibited quilts, and have called the period the perfect storm for a quilt revival. Feminism was gaining momentum, people were interested in arts and crafts, and we were taking a fresh look at old quilts. The dramatic surge in quiltmaking, specifically the rise of the quilt industry as we know it today, was rooted in the 1970s and it revolved around the Bicentennial.

1970s polyester quilt top, Missouri, 105" x 110"
The other day, when I read the Suzy's Fancy article "Double Knits-- Quick, Cheap and Easy!" by Suzanne Labry on the Quilts, Inc. web site, something clicked in my brain. In the article, Labry said, "What was decidedly un-cool a couple of decades ago is starting to be hip again. Double knit quilts are having a moment."

1970s polyester crib quilt, backed with flannel and tied
Feeling happy about the good press, I thought about how the 1970s catapulted the quilt world forward to today. We became interested in old quilts, we wanted to make quilts, but we really hadn't examined the quilts made when it all went down, in the 1970s. I was not just collecting unwanted, barely-vintage quilts. They were the products of the great American quilt revival of the late 20th century.

Today, I enjoy getting people to look at the quilts of the 1970s. They are happy, optimistic quilts, sometimes a little crazy, free-spirited, and they capture the essence of what we remember loving in the 1970s. These quilts are what happened in the 1970s, for us; and they are here now, revealing the roots of what quiltmakers have discovered since then. Almost half a century later, it is time to consider the quilts of the revival.

An eye-opening group of barely-vintage quilts is currently on display in  "Modern Materials, Quilts of the 1970s" at the Benton County Museum in Philomath, Oregon. For more information about the exhibition, location, hours,  and other venues showing quilts during Quilt County 2015, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, great topic! I recently re-homed several quilt tops collected from thrift stores and antique shops. The vintage 30's sugar sack Dresden plate was reasy to let go. But the mishmash of unaligned doubleknit, wide-wale and denim squares stayed. When I look at it, I want to call it guileless and happy, humble and sturdy, just waiting to be of use. How could part with that?