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Discover Mid-America — October 2006

Quilts entwine history, emotion and creativity

by Terri Baumgardner

With the arrival of autumn, thoughts can turn to frosted evenings warmed in the comfort of a quilt. Yet beyond the anticipation of comfort, a quilt holds history and can reflect cultural influences that went into its creation. Quilts tell stories and have secrets sewn into their fabric.

The history of quilting surpasses American heritage and dates back to days before Christ. Quilting can be found in all cultures, including Asian, African, European and ancient Egypt.


(l) Rita Briner, owner of Quilters Station in Lee's Summit, MO, and Linda Brannock stand among quilts they have made, books Brannock has written and fabrick she has designed. (photo by Ron Johnson)

"The earliest recorded image of quilting is a small ivory figurine in ancient Egypt that shows a pharaoh in a shawl that is quilted," said Karey Bresenhan, president and CEO of the Texas-based Quilts Incorporated, and director of International Quilt Festivals, which are held in Houston and Chicago.

In her book, Hands All Around — Quilts from Many Nations, Bresenhan notes the figurine dates about 3400 BC.

The author's research also reveals the earliest bed quilt was sewn in the late 14th century in Sicily. The whole cloth linen quilt is one of three quilts from the era known to exist, two are in museums and a third is held in a private collection.

"Opinion is divided about whether or not these are three separate quilts or three pieces from one quilt," Bresenhan writes in her book.

And, Bresenhan added that the earliest surviving patchwork quilt was discovered in a chapel along an ancient Asian trade route. There, archeologists discovered a range of quilted items, including a bag sewn of rows of silk squares and triangles.

"It looks almost exactly like silk patchwork made around 1890 at the height of the Victorian period," Bresenhan reads from her book.

In Europe, Bresenhan said, the Irish, Scottish and English have a long tapestry of quilting traditions.

"During the Middle Ages," Bresenhan writes, "patchwork, appliqué and quilting were brought back to Western civilization by the Crusaders returning from their holy wars. Quilting was favored for the construction of defensive body armor worn over or under metal armor so that the quilt absorbed the impact of weapons."

Indeed, much of what we know today about American quilts likely descended from European immigrants and from Africans brought to America as slaves.

"Americans did not invent quilting," Bresenhan said. "However, what we may have invented is the use of repeated blocks in a quilt, like a double wedding ring. Every block is an intertwining ring, just a different color."

The Patterns of History

Early American quilt designs are difficult to pinpoint to a particular region as pioneers traveled west to settle, taking their quilt patterns with them.

For instance, Bresenhan said, the pattern known as Rocky Mountain Road is the same pattern known as Road Through The Mountains.

However, it is possible to point the origin of some quilts.

"Amish quilts," Bresenhan said. "The very formal Pennsylvania quilts are usually wools, the Midwest quilts often are more colorful, more intricate designs and cotton. The old Amish quilts are solid colors, usually pieced. Rarely was appliqué used, they considered appliqué to be too fancy."

The New England region gave rise to a genre of quilt known as a Linsey-woolsey, typically a whole cloth designs made of linen and wool.


Bear's Paw (Amish), c. 1925. 73"x76", cotton, cotton sateen, twill (wool possibly). Machine pieced and hand quilted. (photo courtesy Quilts, Inc. Corporate Collection)

"They were made for cover and showcased beautiful stitching," Bresenhan said. "The colors were quite vivid, like magenta pink, mustard yellow."

In the past ten years, quilters have given rise to a movement of stitching Baltimore Album quilts. However, Bresenhan said, the quilt design was originally called Baltimore Bride's Quilts and originated in Baltimore. Typically, these quilts showcase landmarks of the East Coast and patterns.

Perhaps the oldest quilt patterns are Log Cabin and Nine Patch, said Linda Brannock. Based in Independence, MO, Brannock designs quilt patterns, quilting cloth and has written books about her quilt patterns.

"Log Cabin and Nine Patch are the oldest," Brannock said. "One was found in the wrappings of a tomb. They were designs long before we put them in quilts. Usually, each design has a history."

Take for instance, the quilt patterns Grandmother's Flower Garden, Double Wedding Ring and Churn Dash. Each quilt pattern has a reason for the name of the design.

"Churn Dash, it looks like a stick in a churn,” Brannock said. "At the bottom of the stick was an ‘x’ design, it reminds us of that. Double Wedding Ring, the two rings are intertwined, the circle stays unbroken, a man and woman become one. Nine Patch was nine patches put together in a square."

Quilt patterns, Brannock said, survive the ages because of their timeless appeal.

"Everybody uses traditional patterns," Brannock said. "Most patterns are handed down among women."

The Colors and Fabrics of American Quilts

The color of American quilts can be, in part, determined by the era and what dye manufacturers were able to produce.

"At first, they couldn't make certain colors that didn't fade," Brannock said. "You see a lot of beautiful quilts that are reds, oranges or topaz green but the color faded out. And, it was a long time before they could make brown — around the 1850s they started producing brown."

Then came lavender.

"You see a lot of older women like purple and lavender," Brannock said. "A lot of them didn't have those colors, and when they were able to dye and make it color-fast, women went crazy."

Quilts also may be dated based on the fabric. For instance, Brannock said, calico print quilts were typically sewn during the Civil War era. Conversation prints — such as small patterns of airplanes, duck, people riding horses — were manufactured in the 1930s.

Quilts made of velvet, satin and silk likely were stitched in the 1800s.

"The Crazy Quilt, the earliest were usually around 1875, but the height of the craze was 1885 to 1900," Bresenhan said. "Some were made as late as 1920. But the earlier the quilt, the smaller the pieces, the finer the fabric and the more different embroidery stitches."


Feathered Star and Redwork, c. 1900. 88"x90", cotton, hand pieced and embroidered. (photo courtesy Quilts, Inc. Corporate Collection)

Plain cloth quilts sewn of subdued colors may be Amish quilts, said Scott Heffley, conservator of paintings at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO. Heffley's African-American quilt collection has been showcased in quilt shows and museums throughout the United States.

"Amish quilts have a very particular style," Heffley said. "They used only plain color fabric, no prints involved. The quilts can be very bright and strong. The simplicity of the pattern and strength of color make them collectibles. They were subdued colors, pale lavenders and dark blues. Then, they'll have strong, pure colors, red, green. And, polished fabric, usually cotton or wool."

However, Heffley cautions against dating a quilt based on its color or fabric.

"Someone might have a bag of scraps that are 30 years old, that could throw you off," Heffley said.

The Art of Quilts

While most people think of quilts as blankets, the stitched designs are displayed as art in museums and homes.

"Quilts as art, that goes back to the 1970s, it goes back further, but the bulk of people feel it went to the Bicentennial," Bresenhan said.

"People were interested in history, and it was the time of the women's movement when more attention was paid to women's art, and quilts were seen as art. They have been created as art all along, but it was not socially acceptable. The social acceptability of a quilt in the early 1800s had to do with its domestic utility."

Quilts have all the characteristics of an art form, Heffley said. Color, texture…and they capture the eye with their presence.

"Quilts are distinct in the art world," Heffley said. "Quilts were a taught tradition, mother to daughter, so it becomes personal, a family tradition that brings warmth to the family. The quilts I have hung on the wall, they've been used, they've got worn areas. That personal connection, there's no pretense. Yet, the people making them are able to express themselves artistically."

Nedra Bonds learned to quilt from her grandmother. While Bonds' quilts have the typical three layers — a top, bottom and batting in the middle — they are made as art, not blankets.

Bonds, who typically stitches a quilt on a sewing machine, creates her art of cotton and silk. She does a lot of appliqué, and some painting on her quilts. Her stitched art does reveal the patchwork of tradition, but only if the piecing is part of the design.

The Kansas City resident's quilts are considered art, collected by some of America's top corporations and displayed in museums.

"In this country, we have this separation between art and craft," Bonds said. "Quilts, traditionally, have had a utilitarian purpose, known more as a craft than an art. I rebel against that. You cannot sleep under mine. Mine are meant to make you think about things."

The Stories of Quilts

Bonds' quilts are not only an art form, her designs also tell a story.

"I use a visual literacy technique," Bonds said. "I do a lot of political statements, and women's issues. Each quilt is a story, and each piece is a story in a quilt."


Nedra Bond's quilts have a very artistic, storytelling feel, such as (l) "Root Woman" and "A Gift of Quilting". (photo by Ron Johnson)

The notion of women crafting quilts to tell a story or make a statement is not a new art form. Indeed, throughout history, various cultures have utilized textiles to create art that records history or tells stories.

"They tell stories but not a lot of stories are romantic," Bresenhan said. "They were not pretty little ladies who were told don't bother your pretty little head about things like war, taxes, politics. Women were not expected to have political ideas in the 18th and 19th centuries. But women definitely had minds of their own."

When Bresenhan led a seven-year quilt search to commemorate Texas' 150th anniversary, she discovered quilts that made strong political statements.

"I remember one quilt, it was in a church basement, it was all white, a cloth quilt," Bresenhan said. "In the center was an eagle, he had arrows in his talons. What was unusual was the words. See, most of the time, words are not in a whole cloth quilt. But around the eagle in a circle were these words, stuffed and quilted: ‘We offer peace but ready for war.’ It was a Southern quilt made right before the Civil War."

During the Civil Rights era, quilts also were used to tell stories.

"Gee's Bend — that's a group in Alabama that was pulled together by Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights period," Bonds said. "They quilted, but for themselves. They've been discovered in the past ten years, and books have been written about them. They are called artists of the century by some people. They used what they had, improvised, and told stories."

African-American women stitching quilts to tell stories or make political statements is nothing new to Bonds.

"Yeah, like the Underground Railroad," Bonds said. "Quilts were directional, to show people the way. They were pieces that showed people a safe house; it's part of my family history, my family knew of it."

The Quilts of the Underground Railroad

While some people in the worlds of art, history and quilting consider Raymond G. Dobard's groundbreaking work on quilts of the Underground Railroad to be controversial, others like Bonds wholeheartedly endorse the theory.

As originally published in his book, Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, co-authored with Jacqueline Tobin and published in 1999, the professor of art at Howard University in Washington D.C. reveals a link between quilts and an escape route for slaves.

"What they did was continue an African tradition, whereby different designs or codes are written on everyday objects," Dobard said. "That linking of knowledge to symbols was there, but, in this country, everything African was forbidden by Southern law. So, they appropriated the American quilt patterns. Through quilt patterns, they were able to encode information."

While the quilts were directional, they did not point to a specific path of escape.

"With these quilts," Dobard said, "You learned everything you needed to known on the plantation, taking the map in your mind."

For instance, the quilt pattern known as Bear's Claw.

"Well, in the code, those who were escaping, they were to follow a bear's paw trail to the crossroads," Dobard said. "The crossroads were all ready identified as Cleveland. But to follow the footprints of the bear, the only place you could do that if you're leaving Charleston was through the mountains."

One point of controversy that encircles Dobard's theory of quilts and the Underground Railroad is the quilt pattern, Double Wedding Ring. While the pattern is thought to be a 20th century design, a similar design was popular in the 18th century.

"There was a pattern called Wedding Ring which was one ring," Dobard said. "That simple quilt pattern could have been used as part of the visual system. If in the 19th century, there was reference to double wedding rings, it meant you would ring the bell of the church or plantation twice so you would have a double wedding ring, but the pattern would be a simple ring."

Rings of bells were key to the Underground Railroad, Dobard said.


A few of the fabric patterns designed by Linda Brannock. (photo by Ron Johnson)

"It was some form of signaling. Most probably, people on escape were housed in churches, so when one church bell would ring and another responded, it was a signal to them to go and the rest of the community wouldn't get it."

In his most recent research, Dobard points to the quilt pattern known as Monkey Wrench.

"The plumber's tool of today is what (the critics) have been focusing on, but they're looking at the wrong instrument," Dobard said. "There was a simple flat wrench by 1840, and that simple pattern was everywhere. Here's how that was most probably used, the code says the monkey wrench turns the wheel along the bear's paw trail to the crossroads. But that wrench could indicate the blacksmith because the wrench was originally made by blacksmiths. And blacksmiths, in African culture, were the heads, who had all of the knowledge. In this country, it could have been someone who could forge links to freedom."

Dobard said that preachers were allowed to go from plantation to plantation, speaking the word of gospel, and perhaps, the secret code of the Underground Railroad.

"The code protected itself," Dobard said. "Those who learned it, and used it to escape, would understand what the path of the bear meant when you were in the mountains. They were told to envision the patterns so you could remember what was associated with a pattern...

"The blessing of the quilt is it is an everyday common object," Dobard said. "It is so ordinary that it contains the extraordinary."


Notable Upcoming Quilt Events:

Sept.20-Dec. 3: Capital City Quilt Show, Quilter Unlimited and the Museum of Florida, Tallahassee, FL 850-668-4021

Sept. 30-Oct. 15: 30th Annual Heart of America Quilt Show, Crown Center, Kansas City, MO 816-274-8444

Oct. 13-15: Quilt Fiesta, Santa Fe, NM 505-660-9942

Oct. 14-15: Somewhere In Time Quilt Show, Brookhaven, PA 610-925-5645

Oct. 21-22: Quiltfest on the Mississippi, LaCrosse, WI 608-526-3135

Oct. 26-Jan. 7, 2007: Nedra Bonds' quilts will be on exhibit at New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, MA. For more information, call 913-281-1385.

Nov. 2-5: International Quilt Festival, Houston, TX, 713-781-6864

Nov. 9-12: Greater Chicago Quilt Exposition, Schaumberg, IL 215-862-9753

Feb. 3-4, 2007: Quilt Show with featured speaker Nancy Kirk, quilt restoration expert, the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer, Grand Island, NE 308-385-5316

March 30-31, 2007: 27th Annual Quilt Fest “A Rainbow Connection,” Decatur, IL 217-677-2463

April 13-15, 2007: International Quilt Festival, Chicago, IL, 713-781-6864.


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