Recreation & Destinations

Quilts: Piecing Together Our Past, Present and Future

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Quilting is a time-honored activity commemorating family and tradition. Discover the patterns, techniques and significance of this ancient art, and meet local quilters dedicated to keeping it alive.

Some traditional quilt squares. Top row, left to right: Bear Paw; Grandmother’s Garden; Log Cabin; LeMoyne Star

Quilting is a textile art dating back to ancient times. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, houses the largest publicly held collection – more than 3,500 pieces, dating from the 1700s and representing 25 different countries.

In America, quilting is a time-honored activity that commemorates family and tradition. Through the patterns, fabrics, dyes and designs, quilts provide historical records of everyday life, from as far back as colonial times.

Midway Village Museum, 6799 Guilford Road, Rockford, has more than six dozen quilts in its collection, dating from the 1850s to the 1970s.

“A variety of local families brought several of them to us,” says Laura Furman, curator of collections at Midway Village. “Many were made by someone’s great-grandmother. We have provenance for some, but not all. Some were found in the backs of closets. Some were bought at estate sales. Our most recently dated quilt was made for the American Bicentennial, by students at Maud E. Johnson Elementary School.”

Basically, in the past, quilting was done for one of two reasons. “For this area, a quilted petticoat was pure practicality, to provide warmth,” says Furman. “But there certainly were artistic reasons, too. Women got enjoyment from creating their own designs, and the quality of the stitching showcased their needle skills.”

Gleaning historical information from quilts involves a knowledge of both common textiles and popular styles of given time periods. “On a basic level, you can identify the fabrics of an era,” says Furman. “Many quilts were hand-stitched, taking many hours, held on someone’s lap or pressed into a quilting frame. Machine stitching shows that the seamstress could afford a machine, and so, would have been a sign of status. But as I said, the hand stitching, too, could have been a status symbol.”

Simply explained, a quilt is a blanket or bedspread, made up of three layers: two of fabric, and one of a soft filling, like down, sandwiched in between. The top layer is decorative, most often constructed of a group of smaller fabric blocks, or quilt squares, each sewn individually and then pieced together. The bottom, or backing, is usually one large piece. They’re sewn together around the edges, and finally, to keep them from shifting or separating, all three layers are stitched together over the entire surface, using a pattern that varies from quilt to quilt. This all-over stitching is what creates the quilting, or raised tufts.

Among the many different quilt styles: appliqué, cut-out designs or shapes sewn onto a larger background; whole-cloth, which showcases the stitching design instead of the quilt square pattern; and paper-piecing, where the fabric is sewn onto a tear-away template, which ensures uniformity among the squares.

Quilt square patterns tend to be traditional, created in past generations to reflect the surroundings, as well as to mark rites of passage. These include: the Log Cabin, the Bear Paw, the Wedding Ring, Grandmother’s Garden, Flying Geese, and Hens and Chicks. There are many more. Quilters who use these patterns are preserving an important part of our American culture, but at the same time, are making something uniquely their own.

“It’s hard to know just how old the patterns are, because there are so many variations out there,” Furman says. “Any pattern can be put together in myriad ways, in an endless array of color schemes and fabric choices, that completely change the look of each one. That’s part of the allure.”

Every piece in the Midway collection has its own catalog number plus information on who gave it to the museum and how that person acquired it. Some were on exhibit from June through October, as part of the Northern Illinois Quilt Festival. “We chose them for their condition, their stories, their compelling appearance,” says Furman. When not on display, they’re stored in climate-controlled rooms, most on rolls rather than folded, to prevent breaking down of the fibers.

“It’s like folding and refolding a piece of paper so that you can tear it – that repetition weakens the fibers,” Furman explains. The condition of quilts in Midway’s collection is varied. “Some were made by less-skilled seamstresses – the stitches may be pulled too tight, or lack uniformity. Some quilts look like they were never used, and others are very worn. Much of what we have here are recognizable, traditional blocks and patterns. Quilts can provide us with a few clues about its owner or creator, but it’s difficult to draw unwavering conclusions.”

One style is different, however. “Crazy quilts really do reflect the period, and the individual,” Furman says. “The popularity came about because of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 [the first official World’s Fair held in the United States]. For most Americans, the Japanese pavilion there was their first introduction to Eastern culture. Its examples of silks, satins and other rich fabrics, along with unique clothing, made of asymmetrically cut fabric pieces sewn together in abstract patterns, made crazy quilts popular.”

(The “crazy” part was also influenced by Japanese ceramics on display at the Exposition, with their “crazed” or crackle finish. In fact, after the Exposition, all of America experienced a Japanese “craze,” which influenced everything from art and architecture to spirituality and philosophy.)

“Crazy quilts were more personalized, often embellished with embroidery or appliqué,” says Furman. “Some have wonderful stories woven in – ribbons stitched in that reflect a family member’s involvement in the Grand Army of the Republic, or participation in a Sunday school event. One quilt we received last year was made before a woman was married. We have another with a ribbon from a conference of the Young People’s Society for Christian Endeavor, with dates and the place of the conference.”

Despite popular perception, quilt-making wasn’t an exercise in frugality, nor did it come about as a way for pioneer wives to pass the time. “Most certainly, the kinds of fabrics and ribbons in crazy quilts were quite expensive,” Furman points out. “And it’s a very time-consuming activity, so women who did all of their own housework, maybe helped with farm chores, didn’t have a lot of spare time.”

While the image of the pioneer communal quilting bee is homey and appealing, it, too, is a popularized misconception, says Furman. “Women did gather to sew at times, but it was more than likely just one or two neighbors, helping another finish a project,” Furman says. “It really was more of a solitary activity. And forget the idea that women quilted at night, by the light of the fire or a candle. It requires too much fine detail, and they wouldn’t have been able to see well enough. It was done during the day, probably outside, where the light was best.”

Part of the collection at Midway Village Museum (L-R): The crazy quilt, made from velvet and embroidery pieces, has sewn in among its souvenir ribbons three delegate ribbons from Rockford’s 74th Volunteer Infantry.

Quilting continued to be a common pastime through the 1930s, but following World War II, it declined in popularity. Causes cited are varied: a focus on the modern, paired with a rejection of things considered old-fashioned; an increase in leisure activities, like radio and television; the accessibility of mass-produced clothing and textiles; the acceptance of women into the workforce. For whatever reasons, by the mid-20th century, quilting had receded as a natural part of the American woman’s lifestyle.

The craft didn’t disappear in rural America during this time, but it was practiced in a different manner. State and county fairs featured quilt shows or competitions. Church groups quilted for socialization and fundraising; women made quilts for wedding gifts or the birth of a child. According to historians, during the period between 1940 and 1960, it was the Amish who preserved true quilting traditions, since their communities weren’t exposed to changing cultural influences.

America’s “quilt revival” began in the 1960s, with some credit being given to the “back to nature” movement of the hippie generation. Members of this group tended to favor handmade garments and accessories, while espousing a return to an agrarian lifestyle. As a result, many others took interest in renewing the “lost” arts, the trend growing in popularity through the 1970s. But the quilting renaissance seems to have solidified during America’s Bicentennial celebration, when the entire country was focused on exploring its roots and celebrating its heritage; many quilts were sewn and placed in time capsules for the event. All of this led to the general public’s discovery of Amish quilts, and many new quilters were inspired by their craftsmanship and designs.

Furman herself has been quilting for about 10 years, inspired by a co-worker who would bring in samples of her work to show off. She gives most of them away. “I’m intrigued by the patterns and putting the block together,” she says. “I can make it uniquely my own, or personalize it for the person I’m giving it to. Those are especially fun, because of the connection to the person. I’m making one for each of my stepchildren to take with them to college.”

Today, quilting is viewed much differently than in the past. No longer considered a utilitarian craft, antique and vintage quilts are showcased in museums and appreciated as examples of folk art. New quilts, too, are created not to be laid across beds or the backs of sofas, but to be displayed on walls, as modern works of art.

And it’s no longer a solitary activity. Quilting guilds exist all around the world – from France to Japan; from Kenya and Qatar to Iceland; from Luxembourg to the Philippines. They’re found in 14 Canadian provinces and in every state in America, including American Samoa and the U.S. Virgin Islands. There are more than 80 in Illinois alone. These guilds exist to encourage fellowship among quilters, and to promote and perpetuate the appreciation of quilt-making; many act as service organizations, their members using the love of their craft to help their communities.

Founded in 1980 in Rockford, Sinnissippi Quilters is a registered chapter of the National Quilting Association (NQA). It has an executive board of 13, and its standing committees number 16; it is governed by a constitution and bylaws, outlined in a six-page document.

“Last year, we had about 200 members, and this year, we have around 170,” says Georgy Homuth, guild president. “We meet on the first Thursday of every month. We actually have two groups: one that meets in the afternoon for the retirees, and one that meets in the evening, for the workers.”

From Rockford's Sinnissippi Quilters: The quilt at top left is a "sampler" quilt - each square is an example of a popular block pattern. The inset on the left is a close-up of some of them. (Rebecca O'Malley photo)

Homuth, a registered nurse who works at SwedishAmerican Health System, has been sewing since she was 12, but didn’t begin quilting until 10 years ago. “We were visiting my husband’s relatives in North Dakota, and two cousins, ages 9 and 12, had made quilts they were showing off. I thought, ‘I can do that.’ I’ve been a member of Sinnissippi Quilters for five years.”

During monthly meetings, the quilters learn new techniques and share ideas. A good part of the time, they quilt for their special projects.

“We have a special projects group that meets one Saturday each month,” Homuth explains. “We work on certain projects during certain months. In November, for ‘Home of the Brave,’ we make stockings for the troops overseas and fill them with goodies. Last year, we made 3,000. In May, we make quilts for the neonatal units at Rockford Memorial and Swedes. This year, we made 110 quilts. Every year, we make a quilt for up to three different charities to raffle off for a fundraiser. We take requests from nonprofit organizations and then vote on who gets a quilt.

“We quilt pillows for cancer patients, little hearts for heart patients. We make quilts for local military families who’ve lost someone in the war. Sue Fiduccia, the Winnebago County Coroner, asked us to make ‘Littlest Angel’ quilts, for families of children who die violent deaths. We also have made dresses for little girls in Africa. We try very hard to do things that help the community.”

The quilters donate not only their time and skill for these projects, but also the fabric and materials. To help with funding, the group holds a quilt show every two years.

Homuth has kept just two of the many quilts she’s sewn over the years, a rag quilt for her bed and one she made for her husband.

“I put labels on my quilts, and keep a book with a photo of each, where I record who I gave it to,” she says. “I give quilts to family, friends, co-workers. My grandchildren have theirs with them every minute, and they’re getting worn out. I enjoy the challenge of taking a variety of fabrics and turning them into something cuddly, or creating a work of art, or using up my scraps.”

Homuth comes from a family of garment makers, and she views quilting as a way of continuing the family legacy. “My mother didn’t sew, and I have a sister who doesn’t sew, so we lost some of that tradition,” she says. “But I had a grandmother and an aunt who encouraged me, and I encourage it in my family. My oldest daughter quilts with me, and my two oldest granddaughters quilt. My youngest granddaughter is six, and she’s champing at the bit to quilt with Grandma.”

The Sinnissippi Quilters go on a quilt retreat once a year, spending the weekend at Lake Delavan in Wisconsin, working on projects and exchanging ideas. “There’s just so much stimulation and creativity flowing,” says Homuth.

Homuth doesn’t own any vintage quilts. “I don’t hold onto older things – I give them away, so that others can enjoy them,” she says. “I enjoy reading about the history. We’ve come such a long way – from when they used beautiful fabrics, to the Depression era, when they used grain sacks and good parts of worn-out clothes. Now we have rotary cutters, dies that cut the blocks exactly the same each time, machines to do the quilting instead of doing it by hand. Some of us still do hand stitching. Some feel that hand quilting is a lost art.”

Many of the members have a signature square, a variation of a familiar pattern that instantly identifies the maker. “When a president is exiting office, we sew our signature blocks into a quilt for her, so that tradition is always with us. It’s our heritage, and we don’t want to lose it.”

Appraising Your Quilt

A charter member of Sinnissippi Quilters in Rockford, Suzanne Swenson is an NQA Certified Teacher, NQA Certified Judge and certified Appraiser of Quilted Textiles by the American Quilter’s Society, in 2002.

“People have their quilts appraised for insurance purposes,” Swenson says. “Written authorization from a certified appraiser proves it’s more than just a blanket. It verifies that it’s a valuable piece.”

Swenson works only with privately owned quilts, and the oldest she’s appraised was made in 1840.

“The time period of antique quilts, and their condition, weigh heavily on the appraisal value,” says Swenson. “Different styles and patterns were more popular at certain times, but that’s not a true indication of age. We look at the fabrics used, to determine the era in which to place a quilt.”

For appraisal standards, a quilt is “antique” if it’s 100 years or older, and “vintage” if it’s 50 to 100 years old. Swenson also appraises new quilts. “We look at the cost to remake something of similar like and kind for the current time – not just the materials but labor involved,” she says.

Swenson emphasizes the importance of new quilt appraisals. “Quilting has changed so much in the past decade,” she points out. “Many fabrics are quite expensive, and the labor can be extensive. The construction – pieced or appliqué – adds to the process, and some designs are very intricate. With the longarm machines, the quilting can be spectacular, and labor and cost need to be considered, too.”

Many people have gift quilts appraised. “Then, they include the appraisal as part of the gift,” she says. “If someone’s taken a lot of time to create, say, a wedding quilt, including the appraisal in the box lets the recipients know that this isn’t something they want to let the dog sleep on.”

Swenson and her husband, who holds a master’s degree in history, used to be historical reenactors. “I love history, and that part of quilt appraisal fascinates me,” she says. “I’ve seen so many different types, and what people find is always a surprise.

“People sometimes wonder why quilts are important,” Swenson continues. “Each piece is its own unique creation, as far as fabric, color placement and quilting design, and how it’s put together. Not every quilt is placed on a bed. Many are made specifically to be hung on the wall as fine art.”

In addition to her appraisal work, Swenson is an active member of Sinnissippi Quilters and teaches at workshops, retreats, shops and shows. She can be reached at cherrybasket@aol.com.

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