Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sisters: Old Quilts

These two quilts were on stage as people filed in to the auditorium. 
A few folks have asked which quilts I showed in Sisters, so I thought I'd do a blog about the quilt selection with some notes on the presentation. Today's blog is about the "Old Quilts" lecture I did at the Sisters High School auditorium on Wednesday evening. If you couldn't make it, or if you were there and would enjoy a recap, here's what I brought...

This quilt is probably familiar to anyone who's been following my blog
For the evening lecture on Wednesday, I had about an hour and 15 minutes to show quilts. Typically, I could show maybe ten quilts in that amount of time because there's always so much to say about each quilt. I had 16 planned, to be displayed in pairs, and would try to keep the audience awake after a long day of classes and workshops.

The second quilt in the first pair was the younger of the two, c. 1810.
With the first pair, I said, "Take a good look at these quilts. They are probably among the oldest American pieced quilts you'll ever see." We just don't see quilts like this in Oregon. They weren't made here. The glazed wool Star Medallion was made around 1800 in Rhode Island, and the Economy Patch was made around 1810 in New England. To give a little perspective, Oregon officially became a state in 1859.

The first quilt in pair two was the Mary Couchman Small Album.

The second quilt in pair two was this Silk Diamonds masterpiece.

The second pair included what I like to refer to as my "OCD" quilts, as they are two of the most obsessive-compulsive examples I've seen. I called the Mary Couchman Small Album quilt the "quilt with a million stitches" while explaining how the echo quilting is done in rows separated by 1/8th to 1/16th of an inch at 10-12 stitches per inch. Quiltmakers always seem to enjoy the Silk Diamonds, too. From a distance, it looks like a Tudor style stained glass window, but when you get up close, you see multicolored feather stitching around each patch. Just phenomenal.

First quilt in pair three, an optical illusion One-Patch variation.
Second quilt in pair three, a silk Barn Raising Log Cabin.
The third pair played with optical illusion as the primary visual effect, and I decided to show both quilts because I thought they would look good up on stage and from a distance. A cotton One-Patch variation from around 1910, made with just ten different fabrics, created a blurry effect as part of a zig-zag, Bargello style design. I said, "If you're looking at this quilt and think you need to get new glasses, don't worry - your glasses are probably just fine."

When I said the Log Cabin was all silk, the comment got one of my favorite reactions - a collective audible gasp from the audience. It took me a little by surprise, and I said, "What? Did you think it was cotton?" Apparently, they did. I don't recall ever showing this quilt during a lecture, so the reaction was unexpected. As an optical illusion quilt, it has a layered translucency.  There were a few more gasps when I said I'd found it on eBay for about $150, followed by laughter when I divulged that I'd received a $300 lender's fee after lending it for display in the Tokyo International Great Quilt Festival a few years ago.

The first of the fourth pair was this folky Snake Trail Fans
I like to keep the audience "in it" when I'm speaking, and I've realized these audience reactions are a good way of keeping a lecture in check. There were a few yawns after such a long day, but not too many, so I continued the brain-banging quilt show with two smaller quilts. Both were representative of quilts made for display rather than bedding. The first was a wool Snake Trail Fans from around the turn of the century, 1890's to 1900's.

The second in the fourth pair was Andrea Balosky's Night Flight, 1982
The second in the pair represented a big jump in time to 1982, just on the cusp of the Art Quilt movement. Andrea Balosky's "Night Flight" was perhaps her earliest masterpiece. She went on to create a stirring, memorable tribute to the good people in the world with her mind-blowing "Small Wonders" quilts, and I was going about a mile a minute trying to tell the whole story about what these quilts meant to me, and how meeting Andrea changed my life and opened my horizons to more recently made quilts.

The first of the fifth pair was the first quilt I ever purchased
The second in the fifth pair had an early sashing variation
With a quick set change, part two of the program was underway with eight New York Beauty quilts. I spoke about the pattern name, how the name came to be, and possible names for the pattern before Mountain Mist called it "New York Beauty". The first in the pair was the very first quilt I ever bought, a red, white, and green masterpiece that I called New York Beauty for the first 20 years I had it. I always get a few laughs out of the story about keeping this quilt a secret from my mother, having feared her reaction to spending so much money on something like a quilt.

The second quilt was another masterpiece, with an early sashing variation lush, decorative quilting, and pencil marks! When talking about the pencil marks, I made a point of saying how exciting it is to find pencil marks on an old quilt, even though the quiltmakers of today make every effort to remove pencil marks when making a quilt. "When I see pencil marks, I'm like both Keno brothers packed into one," I said, practically jumping up and down with excitement.
The MacMillan family quilt was first in the sixth pair

Next up were two more early variations on the pattern, both with flattened points. First was the MacMillan family quilt, and here's where I must thank Sam, the one-man technical and lighting crew, who is going into his senior year at Sisters High School. Sam did a great job lighting the quilts, and the quilting designs showed well.

The second in the sixth pair was this heavier quilt from Tennessee
The lavishly decorative quilting in the MacMillan family quilt, made in 1868 in Monroe County, Kentucky, was contrasted by the more utilitarian, large grid in the 1865 quilt from Tennessee.

First quilt in seventh pair - a very rare variation
Second quilt in pair seven, a one-of-a-kind original
Two more variations were displayed in the seventh pair, including the very rare 1870's example from Kentucky with vines and pomegranates in the sashing, and the 1870's Virginia quilt with indigo, madder red and over-dyed green print fabrics, plus a wonderful zigzag border on two sides.

First quilt in the final pair, c. 1940 from Ohio
The last official pair included a patriotic, red, white, and blue quilt made in Ohio around 1940, which I said was "pretending to be" one of the classic quilts. However, when you get close, you see the quilting stitches are anything but masterful. I used the terms "wonky" and "toe-grabber" and thanked quiltmakers as a collective group for introducing me to these humorous terms. "The quilting in the red, white and blue quilt was probably the craziest thing I'd seen until I saw this next quilt," I said, getting another rise out of the crowd.

Second quilt in final pair, a wildly wonky time-span quilt.
Interestingly, several people commented to me afterwards, saying their favorite quilt was this wildly wonky time-span quilt. First made around 1860 and reworked around 1940, my comment during the lecture was, "crazy things happened to this quilt." Obviously it had a rough life, but also evident is the transformative effort to save it. It was a talking point to the importance of preserving quilt history, as well as my philosophy about viewing quilts as works of art.

I wrapped up the lecture with a short slide presentation with detail shots, but before we got to the slides, I couldn't resist bringing out two bonus quilts. The first was a New York Beauty made in 2010 by Nancy Tanguay of Warren, Connecticut, and I wanted to show it to give the audience a point of reference for the modern evolution of the New York Beauty quilt pattern.

In showing this example, I talked about Karen Stone, and also how Sisters played an important role in the evolution of the pattern with the work of Valori and Jean Wells. "Using the New York Beauty block as a pictorial element - Brilliant!" I exclaimed when talking about Jean's iconic "Wedding Garden" quilt. She came up afterwards and was surprised by what I'd said. She'd never really thought of her quilts as being part of a broad, historical progression ("oh, but they are!!" I thought). "I just made them because I liked them," she said. We don't always realize when we're making history, and I was more than happy to give her some historical insight into her own contributions.

Last quilt of the night was Lucy Mingo's Bible Story, c. 1979.
For the last quilt of the night, I paid tribute to the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend who were in Sisters for the Quilter's Affair and Quilt Show. I brought out Lucy Mingo's "Bible Story" quilt. When I was speaking, I thought it had been made in the 80s or 90s. Two days later, when Lucy was looking at the quilt, she said, "1979." I rushed through the story hitting as many of the important points as I could. Time was running out!

Three days later, while wandering around among thousands of people in the streets at the Quilt Show, there were several times when I thought I heard someone calling my name. Good thing I was wearing sunglasses - the puzzled "did I hear my name?" look on my face would've been amusing. But each time it was someone - invariably a very lovely lady - who wanted to tell me how much they enjoyed hearing me speak about the quilts. Toward the end of my walk through town, I met a group of Australian quilters who had seen the "Old Quilts" lecture. They gushed, and I blushed. I was completely humbled and overwhelmed - and by the way, the Australian quilts were jaw-droppingly gorgeous, as were the ladies who made the quilts.

Many, many thanks to Jean and Valori for inviting me to speak, to Ann Richardson who put on another remarkable quilt show, and all the volunteers, participants, and residents of Siters who made the week such a huge success. I hope I can help maintain the presence of old quilts in Sisters by returning for future lectures and classes. As I was getting ready to hit the road, I realized there are quilts for sale - the ones with the yellow slips - so in the future, I think I may go to Sisters prepared to do some buying.


  1. Thanks for letting us get the distance learner version of your lecture...would love to see these quilts in person some day. (love the indigo and over=dyed green...have you posted that before?) Ah those yellow tags could mean danger in the future!

  2. I've probably posted pictures of that quilt at some point, but I don't recall when. It was on display in March at the NW Quilters Show, and I may have mentioned it then.

  3. Wow, I have never seen designs like some of the ones you have so generously detailed. Loved your post and sorry I missed your talk.

  4. Only the best for Sisters, Oregon's original quilt mecca!

  5. Mmmm ...

    You went,
    you saw,
    you conquered!

    And you still had the energy and coherence to blog?!

    Thatʻs a-may-zing.

    And thanks letting us view those handsome and inspiring vintage quilts, again. We quilters never tire of the really, really good ones.

  6. Not counting the NYbeauties I love the silk triangle quilt. I look forward to seeing more of your quilts in person.

  7. Your large-scale TN beauty, the odd-ball wonky time-span beauty and the Lucy Mingo quilt were my favorites of the old show. Thanks for showing them all! And now I have to get your NYB book!

  8. I had a blast, and hope to be invited back in the future!

  9. Thank you for sharing with those of us who were unable to be there in person. What an inspiration. There must be a whole selection of antique quilts for sale there somewhere. Check out Bonnie Hunter's Quiltville blog for pictures of some. One made me think of you.

  10. That's Ann Durley's booth. She sets up just outside a cute little antique shop owned by her friend, Kay. I haven't bought much from either Ann or Kay, but I like them both.