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A Patchwork of History

By Lori Creel | HUMANITIES, November/December 2006 | Volume 27, Number 6

One quilt from the 1930s depicts the wagon-train era of the American West, while another from the Great Depression shows three generations of a family from Michigan. A quilt from World War II displays the four freedoms described by President Roosevelt, and another uses a square and compass, a scythe, Jacob's Ladder, and a pot of incense as patterns for Masonic symbols.

Quilts such as these are primary documents for study, says Marsha MacDowell, Michigan State University Museum curator and art history professor. Thousands of quilts can be seen and studied on the Internet through the NEH-supported Quilt Index, a digital collection of images and information designed to aid in quilt research, education, and access.

Whether quilters wanted to make a statement or raise money for a cause, their art reflects social and political issues in American history. Quilts were made to support political campaigns, suffragist movements, Prohibition, and to demonstrate solidarity with various causes, says MacDowell.

"These are primary records, primary data, material culture that need to be paid attention to because in fact they may be the only records available to us of a particular event, of a particular woman's life, of a particular activity," MacDowell says.

The MSU Museum's collection includes a quilt attributed to Abigail Adams, an early twentieth-century quilt made out of cattle prize ribbons, and a quilt made to raise funds for the Ku Klux Klan in 1926 in Chicora, Michigan. Contributors gave money to the KKK to have their names included on the quilt, which was then used as a prize in a raffle. "There is no other shred of information that would document this activity in this community," MacDowell says.

The index provides raw data about the quilts over time and over distance. It allows researchers to explore migration patterns, reconstruct the lives of the quilters, study political and social issues, and test myths. One persistent theory has been that messages in quilt patterns led escaped slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. The story is now doubted by some scholars, who contend that the patterns interpreted to be messages did not exist before the Civil War.

There are "family stories of birth and life and death in those quilts," says Shelley Zegart, cofounder of the Alliance for American Quilts and codirector of the Quilt Index. She says quilts provided a creative outlet and a voice for women in the past who were otherwise limited by social norms.

"We know darn well they didn't just have to make them," Zegart says. "They were making art, they were beautifying their homes, they were fulfilling artistic yearnings within themselves. It's this compulsion to create."

In her quilt called "Settling the West," made in 1931, Mildred Jacob Chappell created a record of a lost era. She included a wagon train heading westward, with images of people and animals in the center and events of western migration along the border, to commemorate her idea of the West. On the back of the quilt, she used India ink on muslin to inscribe her thoughts, calling the quilt a "labor of love, love for the old West as I have known it in history and books, love of the new West as I have known it in travel, love of the Indian before the white man invaded his kingdom."

The aesthetic value of quilts drives the quilt market, Zegart says, but the stories behind them appeal to scholars. "Looking at all of these voices," she asks, "how do we gather them, how do we preserve them, how do we share them?"

The project began with three partners in 1999—the Alliance for American Quilts, Michigan State University's Matrix: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online, and the MSU Museum. The index started with 1,824 works on its Web site, Justine Richardson, codirector of the project and manager of Matrix, says about ten thousand new quilts have been added this fall.

The quilts are searchable by artist, pattern, location, time period, or collection. "People can approach the Index from so many layers," she says. "Say we find out later the story isn't quite right—you still have the object itself to study and learn from." She mentions a princess feather quilt made in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1860, which was believed to have been made by a slave on the estate of Richard Cotton. With further research, scholars discovered that the quilter, Mahulda Mize, was actually from a family that had been freed much earlier than the Civil War, and she may not have been a slave at all.

"If we can make this information accessible, we can make it easy for scholars to do good work and not to continue all the myths about quilts," says Zegart.

MacDowell says the Quilt Index brings to public attention "the fact that there were all these stories literally written on the quilts or pieced into quilts." With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the project is growing to include twenty-two collections.

Each quilt collection has its own online index and is part of the integrated system, so users can search across libraries, museums, and private quilt collections. Each institution will continue to add to the index as its collection grows. One feature enables scholars and teachers to write papers and lesson plans that link directly to the quilts in the index using only word processing software.

"They'll be able to publish an online exhibit without knowing html, without knowing any programming, without having to negotiate agreements between these different museums in order to bring these quilts together and share them because they're all part of the same index," says Mark Kornbluh, director of Matrix and codirector of the Quilt Index. "The type of thing that in person would cost hundreds or thousands of dollars and years to negotiate, in the digital world will be facilitated without any technological knowledge on the part of the scholar."

More than twenty million people are involved in quilting in the United States, making it a $3 billion per year industry, Zegart says. Quilting is taught in classes throughout the country. "It's not passed down in the same way as when people were living together in the same community," Zegart says. "You may not have your grandmother to teach you, but people have those stories and love having those experiences when possible."

When MacDowell lectures to a class of two hundred students, usually 80 percent will know a quilter. "Therefore they know an artist," she says. "It's a wonderful hook to get them interested in art history. It's not an abstract realm of study that's disconnected from their lives."

Although people can buy blankets and bed coverings easily, quilters continue to take the time to purchase fabric, cut it, piece it together, and appliqué and embellish it to create a quilt. "A person has invested of themselves-their hopes, dreams, energy, time-to create an object that has meaning," MacDowell says.

Contemporary quilts have been created to commemorate soldiers who have died in Iraq, victims of AIDS, and victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. Quilts are used to raise awareness about breast cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

"People turn to expressive forms—they find an expressive form to convey their deep feelings about issues, about people," MacDowell says. "Some turn to music, some turn to literature, many people turn to visual art. Quilts are just one of those vehicles."

Contemporary quilts continue to reveal family histories. Zelma Dorris, a quilter from Detroit, Michigan, still makes her quilts with atypically large borders because it was the way her great-grandmother taught her to make them. Dorris's ancestors made the quilt borders larger to hide important documents in them during the time of slavery, MacDowell says.

"It also tells you something about how important quilts were in a very functional way, beyond being just a bed cover," MacDowell says.

About the Author

Lori Creel, a senior at the University of Alabama, was an intern at NEH.

Funding Information

NEH has provided $484,997 to the Quilt Index.