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Creating, finding lasting meaning in quilts

For ceturies people have been telling stories, and sharing the tales of their lives and experiences through quilts. In this article, Antoinette Rahn explores this topic of tales told through textiles.

Quilting and storytelling go hand in hand, or perhaps it’s more like stitch by stitch. Whatever the illustration, the fact remains that for as long as people have been making quilts they’ve been infusing a bit of themselves, their experiences, and their stories into the quilts they make.

Components of a Quilt Tell Various Stories

State Fair quilt

1909 Tennessee State Fair First Prize quilt, silk and velvet star pattern, with blue ribbon attached, sold for $610 through Pook & Pook. (Photo courtesy Pook & Pook)

Sometimes the infusion of self, story, and statement is strikingly apparent. It may be the image or scene serving as the central focus of the quilt, or the selection of colors. In other examples, the message may be more subtle, but just as integral to the quilt’s overall tale. It could be the pattern, or the type of stitch used. Furthermore, it may be the material that makes up the backing of the quilt.

The beauty of storytelling through quiltmaking is that every piece and stitch matters. Every quilt is indeed a sum of its parts. Not unlike life itself. Each person’s life is a collection of stories based on the experiences and emotions shaping the journey. It’s those stories that also speak to collectors of these textiles that ‘talk.’

Stitches That Speak Volumes

Marla Jackson, founder of the African American Quilt Museum and Textile Academy, which serves as host of the National African American Quilt Conference [www], slated for July 11-15, 2018 in Lawrence, Kansas, refers to quilts as examples of visual literacy.

“I believe that when our ancestors or we make quilts they speak for us; it’s a language, and a form of communication,” states Jackson. She's been quilting since the late 1990s and opened the Museum in 2012. “I can communicate anything through a quilt. I think, in the climate we are living in right now, quilts are an important source of the narrative of society.”

Turning Antique Quilts Into Study of Heritage

‘Ms. Marla’ as she’s known, also uses antique and vintage quilts, as well as contemporary quilts, and their stories to educate and inspire youth living in Northeast Kansas. Through her Beyond the Book program, she strives to impart details and understanding of the African American heritage. She covers from the time of slavery through the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement and into the present. The group has turned to quilts as the basis for various research projects. This effort aids in better understand of the history of the African American community in this region of Kansas.

Among the historical accounts the children and Ms. Marla have explored through quilts and by making quilts is that of Maria Rodgers Martin. Born into slavery in 1831, according to various accounts, Ms. Martin was among the slaves abducted by Union troops during a raid of the Tennessee home where she worked. She was moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where she worked as the personal servant for Sen. James Lane. It’s believed she created a variety of quilts while living in Lawrence during the Civil War. One of the most notable is a Feathered Star pattern quilt. This was assessed by the authors of the book “Stories in Stitches” as being “a stunning example of fine workmanship and quality. Today the Feathered Star is considered an advanced pattern (and the example believed to have been done by Ms. Martin) was done with flawless execution.”

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Fulfilling Life Goal

As part of their research of Ms. Martin, the students and Ms. Marla worked together in 2014 to create a fabric portrait of Ms. Martin, telling her story through textile. This same approach is what Ms. Marla used to create profile narrative quilts featured in her exhibition showcasing some of the people who suffered discrimination in the 1930s. The quilts in this series feature the faces and seem to evoke the emotions felt by iconic singers and musicians Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, and Ma Rainey, among others.

For Ms. Marla, whose quilt art has appeared in more than 40 venues across the country, including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the American Folk Art Museum, all of this is about fulfilling her calling.

“It feels like I’m doing what I was born to do,” she said with heartfelt emotion. “I’m sharing the stories told by centuries of people by helping others hear the quilts when they speak.”

Expression Enjoyed

Echoing Ms. Marla’s sentiments about quilts of the past and present giving people a voice is Laura Hendrickson, registrar at the National Quilt Museum, located in Paducah, Kentucky [www].

Ma Rainey quilt

Modern narrative quilt featuring singer Ma Rainey by Marla Jackson (Submitted photo)

“I think it would be important to consider that quilts and other forms of textile art that historically have fallen under the category of ‘women’s work’ provided a type of voice for people who might not have otherwise had ways to express themselves,” said Hendrickson, who along with her team members at the Museum provide a place where contemporary quilts are showcased, quiltmaking is taught, and the tradition of quilting is celebrated.

Hendrickson went on to say, “Although we have the choice to speak out today in many ways, quilts, just like any other art form, can be a powerful form of personal expression. I’m not a quilt historian, but my impression would be that while many older quilts ‘spoke’ through symbolism and visual metaphor, today’s quilts are more blunt, even using text in the piecing and appliqué. Chawne Kimber’s work comes to mind.”

Quilts Unite

The language of quilts and the stories they tell often reflect the region and culture of specific people. But it is also a shared experience that at its core unites and inspires. It’s one of the lessons that have been at the core of quilting for generations, explains Ron Pook, principle of auction house Pook & Pook, Inc.

“Fiber and textile art is the shared history of women of all socioeconomic groups in this country,” said Pook, whose firm brings antique and vintage quilts to auction regularly. “Quilting, in particular, is something women have participated in for hundreds of years, from religious communities like the Amish to wealthy areas such as Baltimore in the mid 1800s to the Crazy quilts of Victorian times to Native Americans picking up the tradition in the late 1800s to African Americans being part of the revival of quilting in the 1980s.”

Quilts Create Community

In terms of quilts as examples of folk art, Pook points to the traditional approach of quiltmaking as an effort taken on by a couple people working in collaboration, and upward to a large group of quilters gathering together. The setting by its very nature was social and prime for storytelling.

“The creation of a quilt was often a group effort, a social gathering. While a sampler or needlework was more formal and more individual, quilting allowed women to express themselves, use their imaginations to craft colors and patterns in a social setting different from a needlework or hooked rug,” he said.

In addition to fiber artists who have created and continue to create the quilts that tell these stories and share the truths of society and a myriad of cultures, the collecting community is keenly aware of the value of these unique records of history, explains Pook, who reports the quilt collecting market is steady, with better examples still bringing top dollar at auction. Of the types of quilts receiving the most attention on the auction market in recent years, according to Pook, are Baltimore Album quilts and “exceptional Hawaiian quilts.” In addition, early American quilts typically do better than 20th century examples.

Uncommon Baseball Quilt 

A unique and largely uncommon example of where storytelling and collecting met in terms of quilts is

Tiger Pennant Base ball quilt

Uncommon “Tiger Pennant Base Ball” quilt from 1934, designed and quilted by Stuart Ansell (full story on next page), sold for $16,000 at auction in January 2018 through Pook & Pook. (Image courtesy Pook & Pook)

the story of Stuart Ansell’s “Tiger Pennant Base Ball” quilt. The quilt, shown on page 23, sold for $16,000 through Pook & Pook, Inc. during a January 2018 auction.

According to archived information at, in 1935, the story of Mr. Ansell’s quilt appeared in The Detroit News, as part of Edith B. Crumb’s Quilt Club Corner column. As the story goes, Mr. Ansell showed up with a large suitcase from which he extracted a quilt measuring 86 by 105 inches. The quilt is the design and product of work by Mr. Ansell from start to finish. The Detroit man was a life-long quilter, starting at the age of nine. Not to mention a Detroit police officer, and a diehard baseball fan.

Using One Hobby to Celebrate Another

It’s clear Mr. Ansell called on all of his skills and passions to create this quilt. He reached out to each player on the 1934 Detroit Tigers team, as well as the groundskeeper and the team’s trainer to obtain their signatures for inclusion on the quilt. Each embroidered name appears on a tan baseball pictured throughout the body of the quilt, which boasts the team’s colors. In addition, he embroidered the names of each team in the American League as well as the Tigers’ record, on to the quilt. Also appearing on the quilt are four images of Tiger heads and the letter D and a miniature baseball diamond. All told, it reportedly took Mr. Ansell 430 hours to complete, using 33 yards of material, 12 yards of binding, 40 skeins of floss, and 2,600 yards of various colored thread.

This quilt reflects the story of one man’s appreciation for the game of baseball and his beloved hometown team; a team that took the American League championship before falling to the St. Louis Cardinals during the 1934 World Series. However, the story of the championship season is forever recorded in history, thanks to a Detroit police officer, Tigers fan, and quiltmaker extraordinaire.

Classic to Contemporary

Although it’s been more than 80 years since Mr. Ansell created the storied Tigers quilt, the history and practice of quilts designed and made by men is more extensive than one might believe. In fact, this is the subject of an exhibition slated for this year’s African American Quilt Convention, entitled “Celebrating The Diversity Of Men Quilts and Mixed Media.”

While there are countless more stories like this reflected in the fibers, patterns and thread of quilts stitched by hand over the centuries, the appeal and appreciation for contemporary quilts, like those displayed at museums including the African American Quilt Museum and the National Quilt Museum, puts these modern quilts squarely in the category of future collectibles. That knowledge is also part of what inspires Ms. Marla’s exploration and promotion of viewing quilts as a means of sharing the heritage of various cultures, and Ms. Hendrickson’s work preserving the fiber arts created by quiltmakers today.

Fascination With Facts

Dancing in the Light quilt

Ellen Anne Eddy created the “Dancing in the light” quilt in 2008. It is a celebration of everyone’s own ‘wild beauty.’ According to her statement, “The beauty of individuation is a scary thing indeed. And lovely.” (Photo courtesy National Quilt Museum)

“For me personally, I am often struck by the anonymity of so many of the antique or vintage quilts I see. I want to know who made them, and why,” Hendrickson said. “On the other side of that, my work here at the museum ensures that some of the world’s quilts will be cared for and remembered long into the future.”

Within the lessons shared in stories told through quilts one of the most universal is the importance of actively protecting the pieces and truths of the past. Whether that’s represented in quilts, art, furniture, ephemera, glass, ceramics, coins, or cars, among other objects. The reward of being stewards of the past is the present privilege of preserving the objects and their stories for appreciation in the future.

Stories Behind Quilt Patterns

Below is a sample of recognizable quilt patterns, and related stories of origin and representation.
Friendship pattern: Originated when homesteaders were heading out from the East for destinations unknown in the West, and the quilt would be a traveling gift from the friends or relatives they left. In many cases, the recipient’s name was embroidered at the center.

Star: One of, if not the, most universal patterns in quilting. It is known by several names, with the star as the focal point. Lone Star, Morning Star, Mathematical Star, Star of Bethlehem are just some of the names used to describe quilts boasting a distinctive star. Legends abound about the meaning behind the pattern, which some reports state originated in the mid-19th century.

Some refer to the star pattern often used among Native American peoples, in recognition of the importance of the star in tribal culture. Other reports point to the star pattern rising in popularity during the Western settlement, when pioneers from the East turned to making quilts with the star as a sign of their religious beliefs and faith that they would be protected in their travels. Still others call up stories of the star pattern finding favor with the people of Texas, as a symbol of the state’s fight for independence.

Drunkard’s Path: Again, a pattern by any name is still the same. The zig-zag appearance of this pattern is a symbol of an unconventional journey, and is also known by Wanderer’s Path, Oregon Trail, and Solomon’s Puzzle. Some archaeological reports place the origin of this design in ancient Egypt. Its place in American quilting history appears to date to the second half of the 19th century. Some point to this pattern as something women of the early 20th century used to ‘speak’ about their support of the Temperance Movement, and the right to vote.

Sentimental Influence

Double Wedding Ring: Often referred to as the most romantic pattern in quiltmaking, it first became

Schoolhouse friendship quilt

Schoolhouse friendship quilt, early 20th century, each house features the names of family members from two families, 83 by 68 inches, sold for $1,200 at auction. (Image courtesy Pook & Pook)

popular in American quilt circles during the early 20th century, although it has roots in a design first viewed in fourth century Rome. Early images of interlocking rings, like those that make up this pattern, were present in Roman artifacts, as well as the European gimmal ring of the 16th century.

The idea of the gimmal ring centered on two rings worn by the woman and the man during an engagement, and then when they were married the rings would be fused together and worn by the wife. This pattern, like many in quiltmaking, has its share of related stories and legends. One story, as recounted in the book “The Romance of Double Wedding Ring Quilts,” and originally appearing in a 1932 publication reveals that the pattern was used by a woman making a quilt for a family member’s wedding during the Civil War, but the groom-to-be was wounded during battle and in recovery away from home for years.

Upon his return home the two went ahead with their plans to marry. But there was no ring to give. The maker of the quilt stepped in with the quilt, which would be the ‘rings’ in the wedding. Other names for this pattern include: Rainbow, Around the World, Coiled Rattlesnake, Endless Chain, and King Tut.

Symbolism On Display

Log Cabin: Another popular pattern in American quiltmaking traditions. Research reveals it to be a pattern that dates to early 19th century Europe and possibly to ancient Egypt. Its rise to popularity in the U.S. occurred during the Civil War, with reference to a possible connection with President Lincoln. The presentation of the pattern in quilts was often formed through strips of fabric, folded and positioned to appear in a three-dimensional manner. The color of fabric used is also an element of the symbolism of this pattern, as the use of red as the central color is said to represent the hearth of a home, with part of the quilt featuring dark colors and the other half lighter colors.

World's Fair quilt

Quilts have long been popular means of recording history, like this appliqué World’s Fair quilt, dated 1933, showing a century of American progress, sold for $1,920. (Image courtesy of Pook & Pook)

The Log Cabin pattern appears in folklore. The quilts served as indicators and ‘maps’ of the route of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. Many quilt historians and revered educators of African American history and culture have not only confirmed this as myth, but work tirelessly to bring to light the truth of the Underground Railroad, as explained in an article for “The African Americans Many Rivers to Cross” at PBS, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Basket Medallion: A pattern said to have come with immigrants from Europe when they settled in the U.S. The name speaks to the quilt showcasing a singular print appliquéd at the center. In addition, it shows pieced prints and images surrounding the central medallion. Thus, evolving into the basket medallion pattern. When quiltmakers focused attention on reviving patterns of the past, and paying homage to Colonial America, this pattern was popular.


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