Patching Together the Past

By David Schmidt
Main Line Life
Originally published February 19, 2003

Many peoplehavequiltsthat havecomedownthroughthegenerationsin their families.Those whodon’t have any particular knowledgeof quilts may be unaware theyown some of the most interestingand valuable examples.

The Chester County HistoricalSociety is trying to learn aboutquilts made in the country duringthe past 300 years.

Actually, according to the society’scurator, there is a cutoff ofquilts made by people born before1930, but if they are still makingquilts, then their handiworkshould be included in the project,according to Ellen Endslow.

“We want to create a base ofinformation about our quiltsand quilt-makers, whichis why we started theQuiltDocumentationProject,”Endslowsaid.”Theidea isto document the history by gettingpeople with quilts to bring themin and let us document theirquilts,” she said.

At Paoli’s United MethodistChurch last Saturday, the snowand expected blizzard didn’t stoppeople from coming out. “Wehave had plenty of work to do andare delighted people showed upwith their quilts,” she said.

The process is very thorough,seeking to gain as much informationas possible about the quiltand the people who made it.”Many of the quilts were made bygroups, often for special purposes,”said Patricia Keller, who isthe project designer for the quiltdocumentation.

A curator by profession,Keller is completing herdoctorate at theUniversity ofDelaware. TheEagleville native also studied atWinterthur Museum, which wasonce the estate of Henry Francisdu Pont and now offers graduatestudies and fellowships in historicpreservation fields.

Keller designed the processby which the information on eachquilt is gathered and also serves asa photographer, making a visualrecord of each object.

“We are taking black andwhite and color photographs, andalso taking digital pictures,” shesaid. “That gives us both the permanentvisual image as well asthe flexibility to usecolor pictures anddigital imagesfor otherpurposes,”Keller said.

For the past 20 years, peoplethroughout the country have beenconducting these documentationprojects, as quilts often provide anexcellent look at the societywhich makes them. As a result,organizations are left to their ownto create these projects.

In the case of the ChesterCounty project, they receivedfunding from the PennsylvaniaHistorical and MuseumCommission and partners with theUniversity of Delaware’s Centerfor American Material CultureStudies.

The process is simple, butthorough. “We register the peopleand assign them a number so thatall the information in our databaseis confidential and can’t betracked back to the owner,”Endslow said. “We hope that willencourage people totake part in the project.”Then they fillout a 13-pagequestionnaire.

“Most people aresurprised by some ofthe questions anddiscover they knowmore about theirquilt that they thinkthey do,” she said.

The questionnaire asks detailedquestions about the physical qualitiesof the quilt, as well as historicalfacts the owner may know.The several specialists lay thequilt on a table and literally goover it with a magnifying glass.

“We document everything wecan about the appearance and conditionof the quilt,” said Wayneresident Dawn Hoefner.

But the information flow isn’tone-sided. “Even if they don’tknow a lot of the background,many are surprised by what ourexperts can tell them about theirquilt,” she said.

In addition, a number of professionaltextile conservatorsanswered questions about textilecare, techniques to preserve quilts.”Quilts will last a long time ifthey’re properly cared for, andthat means keeping them out ofthe light and protected from dustand dirt,” Endslow said.

Susan Bravo fromWillistown Township washappy about that. “Thisquilt was given to meby my maternalgrandmother,who got itfromher mother,” she said. “But shedidn’t make it, but that’s all weknow about it.”

Bravo said she has quilts fromboth sides of her family, so shehas another reason for being here.”Also, I came hoping to learnmore about how to take care ofthem,” she said.

One of the most interestingfacts quilts teach us is the differencesfrom our past.

“Many people think all quiltswere made putting together scrapsof materials by poor settlers,” saidYolanda Von de Krol, who is alsostudying at Winterthur. “But manyof them were well coordinatedand of very grand materials.”

One example is a “crazy quilt”owned by Patricia Patterson ofExton. It is made from lush materialsand was prepared as aChristmas gift for her great-grandfather,Dr. John R. Wells, in 1887.

It has no particular designother than patches surrounding acenter square which have the doctor’sinitials as well as those of hisfour brothers. Otherwise, the quiltis made up of hundreds of differentpatches of material, some veryprecious, including fur and silverthread.

Another unusual quilt that wasbeing photographed was a solidcolor, but the stitching was verycomplex. Evidently there were asubstantial number of quilts madethat were a single color, as onemight expect in a area where peoplewho lived there were referredto as “plain” folk.

“In this area, the German populationseemed to be prevalent inquiltmaking,” Endslow said. Butthe presence of numerous Germanfarming families also brought thesocial aspects of quilting withthem. “Quilting was a social functionthen, and now,” saidEndslow. “Women would gatherand help each other make quilts.”

It is still that way. Accordingto Endslow, there are severalguilds producing quilts, and manysmall groups who gather to quilt.The attitude towards quiltingchanged during World War II, asdid many things.

But for the past 20 years,organizations throughout thecountry have reinvigorated thequilting way, running documentationprojects and encouraging thecraft. “Now there are even magazinesabout quilting; it’s becomevery popular again,” Endslowsaid.

So far the project, which beganlast November, has documentedabout 300 objects, including about100 historical quilts. The group isinterested in documenting morethan just big quilts, although that’sthe most important item.

“We’d like to see crib quilts,doll quilts, pieced or quilted pillowcases,and pieced or quilteditems like potholders, pillowcases,outhouse or privy bags, waistpockets, petticoats, pincushions,quilted bonnets and other relateditems made in Chester County bya quilter born before 1930,”Endslow said. She’d also likepeople to bring in any tools, patternsor templates used to makequilts.

The big question, as ChesterCounty quilts are documented, iswhether there are specific featuresor designs that are unique and createa “Chester County quilt.”

For Endslow and the others,there’s a clear answer. “That issomething we might find out atthe end of the project,” she said.

The information-gatheringprocess runs until June, withmonthly sessions throughout thecounty for people to bring theirquilts. Then they may find aChester County quilt as they patchtogether their quilting archives.