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The quilt survey movement in the United States, a phenomenon of the last 24 years, began in Kentucky in 1981 and quickly spread across the country. As a founder of the first project, I have been amazed by the projects' evolution, their ability to embrace many points of view and their continuing allure. Most of these surveys were designed and run by quilt enthusiasts rather than trained scholars. Never conceived as a national effort with standardized goals and methods, the movement continues to be vital. I welcome this opportunity, coinciding with Quilter's Newsletter Magazine's thirty-fifth birthday, to share my unique perspective on the quilt documentation projects.

Affairs of State: Documenting the Past for Future

Originally published in Quilter's Newletter Magazine, November 2004

 

Introduction

The quilt survey movement in the United States, a phenomenon of the last 24 years, began in Kentucky in 1981 and quickly spread across the country. As a founder of the first project, I have been amazed by the projects' evolution, their ability to embrace many points of view and their continuing allure. Most of these surveys were designed and run by quilt enthusiasts rather than trained scholars. Never conceived as a national effort with standardized goals and methods, the movement continues to be vital. I welcome this opportunity, coinciding with Quilter's Newsletter Magazine's thirty-fifth birthday, to share my unique perspective on the quilt documentation projects.

The First State Quilt Project

The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc., was formed in early 1981 and took two years to bring to fruition. To gather the quilts, we took The Project to the people by developing Quilt Days as an event. Twelve of them were held in Kentucky. No one had to travel more than fifty miles to participate in a Quilt Day. They were heavily advertised with the help of a network of local organizations. The volunteer effort was assisted by the newly formed Kentucky Heritage Quilt Society. Quilt Days became magical happenings as quilts that had been "hiding" in closets, trunks, and cupboards were raised to a hanging position-many seen on the wall for the first time. Talks were given about preservation and donation of quilts to Kentucky museums. Excitement filled the air at each Quilt Day. People didn't want to go home until the very last quilt had been raised and discussed. The Kentucky Sun, the cover quilt of our book, turned up at the Somerset Quilt Day, as did some wonderful 19th-century examples of quilting and applique. Many women were perplexed and surprised to see us make such a fuss over the poorly quilted and roughly pieced wool everyday quilt. To this day, it remains my personal favorite from that Kentucky search.

Because this was a pioneering effort, we started from scratch. As founder Eleanor Bingham Miller stated: "We worked for pleasure, without dreaming what a landmark project in the history of quilt scholarship this survey would become. Yet, from the beginning we wanted to leave precise records for any future groups which might become interested in what we had done."

We created a one-page documentation sheet, took a brief oral history about each quilt that was registered, and chose 44 for the exhibition, representing the breadth of Kentucky quiltmaking in the 1800s. Unlike most projects that followed, we never intended to fully document the 1,000 quilts that we saw. John Finley, a catalogue author, extensively researched these 44 quilts and families. Jonathan Holstein, part of the project from the outset, wrote for the catalogue as well. The exhibition Kentucky Quilts: 1800-1900 opened in 1983 at the Louisville Science Center and then, under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), traveled for two years to twelve other museums, the only state quilt project to do so. First published in 1982, Kentucky Quilts: 1800-1900 told the story of this first large-scale documentation effort. It has sold more than 28,000 copies and is still in print.

Within our group were people with fundraising expertise, public relations savvy, legal skills, business management and accounting experience. Also on board were volunteers, quilt enthusiasts, scholars, and makers. Some were new to quilts and others quite versed in the subject. All were welcome. We recognized the importance of the volunteer "support" effort, but at the end of the day, if we hadn't gotten good funding, if we hadn't sought out and received national publicity, if we hadn't produced a quality catalogue, and if we hadn't gotten SITES to travel the exhibition, the project could not have energized other groups as it did. We made it much easier for the projects that followed. Ours was an excellent model to use. We gave birth, but we didn't claim ownership. Many groups that followed did their surveys differently and in the course of the past 24 years many have contributed significantly to advancing quilt scholarship.

Of course, there are things we could have done differently. Could we have done more extensive documentation? Absolutely! Could we have done a better job of oral history? Definitely. Could we have enlisted the support of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress? Yes! We didn't know the extent of their availability for just these kinds of projects and for no charge. And, the computerů If only we knew then what we know now!!

The Projects Evolve

By 1984, 11 other quilt projects were underway. Between 1985 and 1988, 30 more were established, with 11 begun in 1987 alone. During these years, approximately 1,015 Quilt Days were held, making 1985 through 1988 the peak years for state quilt projects.

Data gathering in most states concentrated on sampling quilts from the entire state. Others limited their scope. For example, boundaries were narrowed in Pennsylvania to counties, with at least 31 regional projects. Arkansas targeted the Ozark counties. New Mexico focused on the Hispanic quiltmaking in Taos County. Kentucky concentrated on 19th-century quilts, while other states elected to include more contemporary quilts. Nebraska chose as its cutoff date 1920, a year that coincided with the end of the Homestead Act's influence on the state's settlement.

Some projects widened their geographic boundaries but in unintended ways. Projects in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Montana saw patterns of migration in their searches through quilts brought in that had actually been made earlier in Kentucky, Ohio, or Pennsylvania. Such quilts would have been missed in their home-state surveys.

As early as 1982, the quilt project movement went international. Australia was the first project done outside the U.S. Projects were subsequently completed in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ulster (Northern Ireland). The United Kingdom completed the first documentation project in Europe, and an excellent publication resulted.

Once the data was collected and an exhibition or book completed, many groups felt their task was finished. Some projects, however, chose to continue. The Texas Quilt Search, after their first project on the state's first 100 years, went on to have an additional search, exhibition, and book about quilts made between 1936 and 1986. Kentucky also had several phases, the most notable of which was Louisville Celebrates the American Quilt. In 1992, the six-month-long event was comprised of six exhibitions, four academic conferences and three publications, all designed to illustrate and further the extraordinary developments in the field since 1971, the date of the landmark exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts.

Right now, in 2004, interest is still high as evidenced by the many currently active projects such as those in Minnesota, Connecticut, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Hawaii, and Chester County, Pennsylvania. The Minnesota book won't be finished until June 2005, after fifteen years of documentation work. The Sunshine State Quilter's Guild in Florida began their documentation project again as Florida did not have a statewide cohesive group when the project began. During the past five years alone, seven more project publications were produced.

Influences on the Projects

There is no such thing as a "typical" quilt project-the shape of each is influenced by the interests and backgrounds of its organizers and their goals. Many are initiated, directed, and staffed by volunteers whose original qualifications include little academic or on-the-job experience. In the end, energy and organizational skill, a curiosity about women's history, and love of quilts make up for the lack of formal training.

Projects organized by folklorists and historians brought their unique perspectives. The Tennessee Quilt Project emphasized local history. Sponsorship of the New York Quilt Project by the American Folk Art Museum in 1992 brought a new level of scholarship and visibility, as did the inclusion of academics, historians, folklorists, and contemporary quiltmakers on the New York Project's panel of consultants.

At the beginning, the quilt project movement was virtually a white middle-class women's movement. Very few projects addressed women of color and Native American populations. (Similar criticisms were leveled at feminism in the early 1970s). Work is broadening in these areas. The Michigan State University Museum, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and ATATL (a national professional American Indian artist's service organization), developed a major exhibition featuring quilts from Native Hawaiian and North American Indian communities. The exhibition (1997) placed the quiltmaking traditions in the larger continuum of American Indian culture and other American quiltmaking traditions.

The Benefits

Being a part of these historic events was a defining moment for many, myself included. The projects reaffirmed the volunteers' own good judgment about quilts and it was now their time in the limelight. Comprised of volunteers gathering information from families, local archives, and women's histories, the projects have been the training grounds and inspiration for many women who went in new directions. Laurel Horton, a folklorist and quilt scholar, has commented that she has seen the quilt projects as training grounds for students in textiles, museum studies, history, community organizing, material culture, folklore, and other related fields. Another important benefit has been an increased respect for quilts and their origins. Collectors are more interested in the history of the quilt than ever before.

With more than 100 state, regional, and international quilt projects, documentation has been completed on more than 200,000 quilts at approximately 2,000 Quilt Days, spawning at least 50 exhibitions and 40 publications worldwide. It can safely be said that the quilt project movement is the largest grassroots phenomenon in the last half of the 20th century. The projects have contributed significantly to a global understanding of the quilt as a cultural icon. In the 21st century we will see even greater worldwide interest, awareness, and understanding of the quilt and its role in peoples' lives. Accessibility to the information about quiltmakers and quilting, past and present, is the key to the success of future research. The Quilt Index (www.centerforthequilt.org) is the keystone for the future for quilts and quilt scholarship. This online resource makes information about quilts available to people everywhere, providing unique, unprecedented access to unpublished documentation about quilts and quiltmaking. Four state quilt projects were the pilot projects for the Index: Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, and Michigan. One thousand quilts from these four projects can now be cross-searched in many fields using the latest technology. As funds become available more projects will be added.* The Index was conceived and developed by The Alliance for American Quilts and is being implemented in partnership with MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online and the Michigan State University Museum. The Alliance for American Quilts, a nonprofit organization I co-founded in 1993, links the world of quilts, scholarship and the general public. It develops projects in partnership with museums, universities and grassroots organizations around the country, and its mission is to document, preserve and share our great American quilt heritage.

It is particularly exciting for me to have been there at the birth of the quilt project movement-actually at my kitchen table-and now it is equally exciting to be a part of the work of The Alliance for American Quilts to make accessible to future generations the quilts and the quilt history that we all love and cherish.

Next Steps: Documenting the Projects

The Quilt Index currently includes 1,000 quilts from four projects. Quilts from additional projects will be added as soon as funding permits.* While many more quilt documentation projects have published books, developed exhibits of found quilts, and continue to organize Quilt Days, it has been difficult to track information about these projects. Many have not been reported on or even formally recognized, and several projects have had several phases or iterations with changes in leadership or funding. In order to better track all of the varied quilt documentation efforts and to enhance communication between communities of interest, The Alliance for American Quilts is developing a repository of information related to documentation projects that will become a part of the Quilt Index and accessible to all.

This initiative has several goals: 1) to create an online public repository of information about quilt documentation efforts; 2) to identify those projects that have not been formally recognized by earlier studies and those that have not been formally recognized by earlier studies and those that have not been described in published books; and 3) to identify and describe structural models for successful and ongoing quilt documentation efforts.

Notes

In the fall of 2004, too late to make QNM's publication date, the Quilt Index was awarded a nearly half-million dollar grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Washington, D.C., to lead a national initiative to link and access the repositories of museums and libraries around the country.

The $495,996 award, from the IMLS's National Leadership Grant for Library-Museum Collaboration program, supports the further development and expansion of the Quilt Index as an innovative national model. In this new phase, the grant will support new Index partnerships with the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum; the Museum of the American Quilter's Society; the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum; the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries; and the Winedale Center for the Quilt at the Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin. This phase will expand the Quilt Index from the current 1,823 to more than 15,000 quilts and the associated documentation available for searches across the collections for patterns, individual quiltmakers, themes, techniques, and many other characteristics. Moreover, it will result in a model for repositories--of any size and anywhere in the world--to make thematic collections of any kind more accessible and useful for education and research.

Quilt collector and historian Shelly Zegart lives in Louisville, Kentucky. She thanks Jan Hawley and Maureen Flanagan Battistella for their invaluable assistance with this article.

Note: Article excerpts are reprinted with generous permission from publisher. All unauthorized use is illegal.

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