I’ve written in this column before about the quilt that my great-grandmother made as a wedding gift for my mother. I grew up with it spread on the spare bed where it was the background to every wash day and sewing project. That’s where the laundry was folded and where we put the ironing and mending that was waiting to be done. My mom’s sewing machine, which I now have, sat at the foot of the bed. A few weeks ago we pulled that quilt out of the closet where it now rests, and spread it over the new spare bed to take a closer look at it again. Next month Mom and I will be taking it on a special outing…
In January, I attended a family history society meeting and was delighted to find that the guest speakers for the evening were from a group that celebrates quilts and quilting. I was so enthused by what they said that I found myself signing up to be a member of the quilt society. Not that I am a great quilter or that I need more to do, it was just that I could not help myself! There were several things that drew me to this group: their concern with various aspects of history, art, and sewing technique.
As their website states, ‘The Alberta Quilt Study Society [AB QSS] aims to promote an understanding, appreciation and knowledge of quilt making and its heritage in Alberta and beyond.’ For me, the appeal of the group was multifaceted. Firstly, I love history and am particularly interested in the history of women, since it is vital, yet rarely recorded officially. Historically, quilting has been the domain mainly of women, so by studying quilts I can learn more about the women who made them. Any particular quilt may be an artifact of one woman’s endeavor or may record the efforts of a community of women. Secondly, I see quilts as works of art that happen to use a fabric medium. They are like large paintings done with textiles instead of oil or watercolour. Like any art form, there are trends of development that evolve through time; traditional designs are rendered in novel ways or new motifs and compositions are invented. I think this artistic medium should be studied and valued just as others are. Thirdly, as a person with basic sewing ability, I can appreciate the techniques used in creating quilts. Patchwork or applique creates the colour and textural patterns of the coverlet or of the top layer of the quilt and requires great precision. Joining layers of fabrics, whether done by hand or by machine, can involve considerable technical skill as well. So, I saw the chance to learn about women’s history, see some wonderful art, and possibly improve my sewing knowledge.
The AB QSS offers various opportunities for involvement. I would like to attend some of their seminars and study days, as the photos they showed of past events looked pretty exciting to me. They have visited several museums and examined some amazing textiles. I also decided to help out as a volunteer at some upcoming Quilt Discovery Days. These days are part of the Alberta Quilt Discovery Project which is run by the AB QSS.
The goal of this project is to document quilts that have been made in or now reside in Alberta. Quilts are registered, extensively examined, photographed and the oral history of the quilt owner or maker is recorded. Unlike the similar project run through the Royal Alberta Museum, any quilt made in or residing in Alberta qualifies for this project, regardless of its age (or condition). Then, this information is entered into the Quilt Index, an online index of thousands of quilts from across North America.
This index allows the study of quilt design innovation and change through time and is an important repository for the history of quilts and their makers. Quilts have always been significant artifacts due to the vast amount of effort, time and creativity put into their construction. I remember hearing as a child that quilts were used as signals for the Underground Railroad, their designs communicating messages to runaway slaves who could see the quilts hanging on the wash lines to dry. Not all quilts had such dramatic roles to play, but whether they were crafted from scraps of repurposed fabric for a loved one, constructed for charity by a community of generous women, or elaborately devised from purpose bought material to showcase an artistic vision, quilts have something to say. Their stories and the stories of the people who made them deserve to be preserved.
Next month Mom and I are taking her homey, worn quilt, stitched from colourful scraps, to a Discovery Day to have it recorded. With my membership, the fee is only $5 (and even without a membership it is totally affordable at $10). Mom will get to keep the records and photo of her quilt and, most importantly to me, the story of her quilt and of her grandmother will be preserved in the quilt index, along with all the other well-loved, beautiful, unique, and historically significant quilts.
This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.