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The Power Behind the Needle: The Quilt Projects of the 1980’s

The air stunk.

The scent from the wood pulp at Domtar Paper Company clung to the humidity, and obviously had no intention of leaving.  Despite the fact Plymouth, North Carolina was on the “inner parts” of the Outer Banks, there was no breeze – ocean or otherwise – to send the odor wafting on its way.  A woman in an old 1978 Impala paused at the intersection of Main and Adams streets to consult a black and white Quilt Intake Day flyer in the seat beside her.  The building she was seeking was up the street about a block, the parking was in the rear.  Hesitating for just a second, she finally pressed the gas pedal, and the car took off.  Her purse gently rocked back and forth in the seat beside her as Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love for You wafted from the speakers.  But in the back — in the backseat the quilts she had dug out of her closets and her momma’s closets remained folded in a neat stack. 


Winston-Salem was a tangle of intersections, highways, and streets known only as a number.  In 1985, the city was already bursting at the seams and spreading out even further than the city limit signs.  Two major hospitals.  A women’s college.  Old Salem.  And Wake Forest University.  It boasted a large mall and was the fifth largest city in North Carolina.  But tucked back off of Country Club Road, South Fork Community Center had its doors open and the parking lot was full, despite the early hour.  Three women, one middle-aged, one in her twenties, and an older one trudged up the sidewalk, their arms full of family heirlooms – quilts – and paused at the doors of the center.

“Here, let me help you,” said a woman, standing up from a table just inside the entrance and she reached for the quilts.  On the table was a sign: “Quilt Intake Today!”  The woman wore a name tag which said Forsyth Piecers and Quilters.  The three women handed off their burden and the middle aged and younger woman reached for the paperwork as the older one settled in a nearby chair.  It was hot.  And despite the fact she was already tired and sweaty, the woman was resolute.  Her quilts needed to be documented before the family forgot how important they were – how each quilt was as much a part of the quilt maker as the air they breathed.

 “Momma, we need to make sure we have the stories right,” declared the middle aged one, who along with the young one, filled out the forms, often consulting with seated woman in the process.  The oldest woman sighed as she answered questions and gave out dates.  She knew those old quilts backwards and forwards – every stitch.  She and her momma and her grandma and her aunts had pieced and quilted every one of them.


Scenes such as this twined their way across the United States in the mid-to-late eighties.  Supported by history and art museums, quilt bees and quilt guilds, states began a concerted effort to document their quilts.  Coming off the “high” from the Bicentennial, a point in time where home crafts and old skills were highlighted and introduced to a new generation, quilters decided their states needed to document their quilts before the textiles fell apart or were ill-used by heirs who didn’t know their worth.  The idea spread first from Kentucky to eventually thirty-four of the fifty states during the 1980’s.  In the end, approximately 177,000 quilts were photographed, their history taken, and their maker named. 


I have wanted to write this blog for a long time – a couple of years actually.  However, there is precious little written about the quilt documentation – called the Quilt Projects.  It took chasing down some folks for interviews and relying on what little was available on the internet to get the information needed.  And since these events took place over 20 years ago, some of the project leaders have since passed away.  However, this subject is close to my heart.  In 1985, the year North Carolina began its Quilt Project, I was pregnant with my first child.  I had just started to sew and had simple blocks cut out for a baby quilt.  I remember there was a flyer about the local quilt intake day at Piece Goods.  As I read it, I must have wondered how many quilts and what kind of quilts would be documented.  By the time I was fully vested in quilting, a friend gave me this book:

Which is the direct result of the North Carolina Quilt Project.  Being the nerd I am, I read it cover-to-cover and poured over the pictures.  Later, I wondered how this project got started, who started it, and would there be another. 

Which brings us to this blog.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it.


In order to understand where the Quilt Projects are historically, you need to put quilts and quilting in a general historical timeline.  It’s easy to recognize the important place quilts played in our early ancestors’ lives.  They were made for warmth and as a creative outlet.  They were primarily bedcovers.  Most women sewed then, so quilting was a staple in most families.  Quilts could be made to proport a political statement, help raise money for charities, rolled into a bedroll on the back of a soldier, or used simply keep you warm at night.  They were given as wedding and going away gifts.

Quilts and quilting received a popularity boost in the 1930’s with the introduction of specialty printed feed sacks and the Chicago World’s Fair, when Sears hosted the Mother of All Quilt Shows.  However, World War II curtailed the hobby as more women entered the workforce to cover for the men who were away fighting.  Quilting’s popularity waned until the mid-to-late 1960’s (quilt historians don’t all agree on an exact year), when the “Back to Earth” movement began.  Young people sought a slower lifestyle, one which lived more in harmony with nature, and cherished handmade items.  Quilting once again became popular.  As the 1970’s and our national bicentennial loomed, early American folk art gained a huge following, which pushed quilting back into the limelight.  By the end of the seventies, the new quilters realized something vitally important:  In order to keep the art flourishing, they needed to introduce more folks to quilting as well as develop a supportive network where quilters of all levels could develop their skills, have quilty fellowship, as well as have fun.  Thus quilt guilds were born. These guilds were so important.  In the 34 states who undertook the Quilt Projects, quilt guilds either spearheaded the effort or provided support to the quilt historians. 

As stated earlier, Kentucky was the first state who documented their quilts.  Their Quilt Project began in 1981.  Word spread not only to other states, but also to Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, who also developed their own Quilt Projects.  All this effort developed into the perfect storm for quilt documentation – but in a good way.  Women’s studies began to gain a foothold not only on college and university campuses, but also in the general public’s awareness.  Couple this with a country-wide interest in local history (somewhat leftover from the Bicentennial), and the media (which at this point consisted of some magazines and your local and national news) felt these Quilt Projects were worthy of coverage.  Quilts were a tangible part of women’s history, it was still a vital part of the arts and crafts world, and there were local quilt guilds. The Quilt Projects were perfect for an above-the-fold newspaper article or as a story on the nightly local newscast. 

In this blog, I want to review the five states – Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Kansas, and Nebraska — which had the most successful quilt projects.  I want to discuss what made these Quilt Projects so successful and why these states agreed to take on the documentation.  We’ll start with the first state to undertake this momentous task:  Kentucky.

Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc.

In early 1980, Kentuckian Bruce Mann, a quilt dealer, became alarmed at the number of Kentucky quilts which were being sold to out-of-state quilt enthusiasts.  While he had no particular qualms about these quilts going to good homes where they would be well-taken care of, he was afraid his state was losing a tangible, real part of its history.  Since Jonathan Holstein and Gail van der Hoof had their quilt exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, the demand for quilts as artwork, not bed covers, had increased.  And while Mann was making good money dealing in quilts, he was concerned that Kentucky history was becoming lost with each quilt sold to out-of-state buyers.  He began the initial program but died before he could see it implemented.  However, Shelly Zegart, Eleanor Bingham Miller, and Eunice Ray, along with consultant Kathy Christopherson took over and formed the Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc. These women created a plan to document quilts owned by Kentucky families.  They planned 12 documentation days between July 1981 and March 1982.  A total of 1,200 quilts were documented and the organizers published a catalog of a select group of quilts and organized an exhibition for the Louisville Museum of Natural History and Science.  The exhibition was popular enough that the Smithsonian Institution of Traveling Exhibit Services picked it up and made it one of theirs.  The quilts traveled across the United States and internationally. This traveling exhibit of Kentucky quilts is why the Kentucky Quilt Project is so important.  It pushed American quilts and American quilters into the forefront of our country’s and the rest of the world’s consciousness, spurring 33 other states to document their own quilts. 

Texas Sesquicentennial Quilt Association

Around the same time Kentucky began organizing its Quilt Project, Texas began planning theirs.  This organization was a bit different from the Kentucky project as it was launched as part of Texas’s Sesquicentennial.  The primary goal was to document Texas quilts and quilters.  An exhibition of the best quilts would be held as part of the Sesquicentennial celebration.  Documentation began in February 1983 and ended in March 1985, resulting in two published catalogues and the exhibition hung in the capital’s rotunda for a week.  Despite the fact organizers were warned this quilt project had the distinct possibility of being a bust – Texas was a pioneer state and most of the folks settling the area had left their best textiles back on the East Coast, the TSQA was able to document about 3,500 quilts over 27 documentation days.

North Carolina Quilt Project

This is a quilt project which began with a quilt guild.  The Forsyth Piecers and Quilters (one of those guilds which formed from the 1970’s quilt revival), began the NCQP in 1983, and incorporated it in 1985.  By the end of 1986, the board of directors had organized and overseen more than 73 quilt documentation days (originally they had only planned for 70, but the documentation days were wildly popular), often with several documentation events occurring the same day at different locations.  Numerically, this established the NCQP as one of the most successful quilt projects.  Additional help was provided by the North Carolina Museum of History, which eventually became a co-sponsor of the NCQP, as well as a repository for all the information gleaned from documentation days.  This support, as well as a generous grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, served to “illuminate the ways in which quilts and quilt making have been a part of life in North Carolina.”  The NCQP only documented quilts made prior to the 1976 Bicentennial.   The final result was permanent archive of more than 10,000 quilts, an exhibition, and the publication of North Carolina Quilts.

Nebraska Quilt Project

This was another Quilt Project which began with a guild.  The Lincoln Quilters formed the Nebraska Quilt Project (NQP) committee in 1985 and developed a quilt project unlike any other.  Twenty-one members of the guild served as the NQP organizing committee and as the trained documenters.  The organizers, along with consultants from local museums and universities, studied Nebraska history, immigration, and demography to create a strategy which would target the rich immigrant history of the state’s settlement prior to 1920.  Through this study, they were able to identify 13 areas to host the documentation days which would represent the different immigrant groups. 

Held in two phases, the Quilt History Documentation Days followed a pilot documentation held in Lincoln in March 1987.  The first phase ran from April through September 1987.  This phase included thirteen different locations in rural Nebraska.  The second phase ran from March 1988 to May 1989 in the most populated areas of the state.  In total, about 5,000 quilts were documented across the span of 28 quilt intake days.  The 1991 publication of the project’s book, Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers, concluded the project and received the 1993 Smithsonian’s Frost Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Crafts.

Kansas Quilt Project

In 1986, Nancy Hornback and Eleanor Malone spearheaded the Kansas Quilt Project:  Documenting Quilts and Quilt Makers (KsQP).  Their board of directors was a diverse group which included not only quilters, but also a nationally known quilt historian, an authority on Kansas folklife and folklore, historians, a woman’s studies professor, and museum professionals.  This project originally had a five-year plan, but it actually took closer to eight years to complete.  Seventy-two quilt documentation days were held over a 16-month period, beginning in 1986.  An astounding 13,107 quilts were documented by April 16, 1988.  The KsQP records show a well-planned, organized, and executed project.  Like the NCQP, there often were several quilt documentation events held the same day.  When the documentation was over, the board of directors then chose to conduct a period of extended research. After all the quilt intake was complete,  they followed up with oral history interviews and in-depth research on selected quilts and quiltmaker topics.  They published their book, Kansas Quilts and Quilters, in 1993.

The idea which may really be difficult for some of my younger readers to wrap their minds around is this:  They did all of this – quite successfully – before the internet and before social media. So, how did all these states pull off such wildly effective Quilt Projects?

  1.  They used little to no paid advertising.  Unlike the NCQP, who received grant money, most Quilt Projects started with what little funds they had.  For most, paid advertising was expensive and out of the question.
  2. They did issue press releases to local news stations, local newspapers, and local magazine-type publications.  Nowadays, it’s difficult to believe a press release could generate much interest.  We’re used to getting news via social media, news apps, and short snips on YouTube.  So much of our news consumption has left the local realm and is trending only on national and international levels.  But the eighties were a different time, and the Quilt Projects were riding the crest of a quilt revival.  Bonnie Leman began publishing Quilters Newsletter.  Jean Ray Laury published her first books.  Guilds were quickly growing and flourishing.  In North Carolina, quilting and guilds had gained such popularity that Ruth Janesick established the North Carolina Quilt Symposium – which also helped with the NCQP and served as an umbrella organization for North Carolina Quilt Guilds.  So when a local or state or even national, news outlet received a press release about quilts, it definitely caught their attention.
  3. The Quilt Projects followed up the press releases with additional information about how well the documentation days went.  In turn, a great deal of the press did follow up articles, which kept the Quilt Projects in the public’s consciousness. 
  4. All of the Projects had human connections which reached far, far beyond the conclusion of the Quilt Projects and any resulting publications.  In Kentucky, Bruce Mann kicked off the KQP, Inc.  Although he passed away before he could see how his idea bore serious quilty fruit, he did stem the flood of Kentucky-made quilts leaving their home state.  Suddenly Kentuckians realized the value of these textiles and their makers.  And beyond these folks, the Smithsonian realized it, too, and with their traveling exhibit, the rest of the United States and parts of the world realized it, also. 

In Texas, quilting was touted in articles and newscasts.  They promoted quilting as a family tradition which was close to becoming extinct but was now experiencing a revival thanks to the increasing number of quilt shops and guilds springing up across the state.  With the ground fertile for both, a woman named Karey Bresenham opened a quilt shop called Great Expectations in Houston.  Through the support of her guild and her customers, she co-founded the Quilt Festival,  now known as the International Quilt Festival.  Then in conjunction with the South/Southwest Quilt Association she and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes formed the International Quilt Association. 

  •  The Quilt Project leaders knew how to work their resources and their sources.  There is no greater example of this than the North Carolina Quilt Project.  From the initial idea generated by the Forsyth Piecers and Quilters, the women quickly put into play an organizational map which was amazing – even by today’s standards.  The women formed a board of directors, who divided the state into regions and then named regional coordinators.  These regional coordinators contacted local guilds and quilt shops to begin organizing in their regions. 

Not content with just contacting the local media, they wrote Southern Living Magazine and Ladies Circle Patchwork Quilts.  Both of these magazines carried articles about the Quilt Projects – particularly North Carolina’s.  Word of the NCQP even reached Germany, and it was highlighted in the German magazine, Deutsches Textiforum.  NBC Nightly News was contacted, and they interviewed the directors and had a feature report on their prime-time newscast.  Likewise the Voice of America received a press release and featured the NCQP on a broadcast. 

Georgia Bonesteel

Then they pulled in the big gun – Georgia Bonesteel, who as well as having a well-watched PBS quilting show, was a North Carolina Quilter.  She featured the project on her show.

All of these sources and resources knew quilting was popular among their readers and viewers during this time period.  It didn’t take a lot of “arm twisting” to get coverage.  The NCQP simply didn’t stop at the local market.  They assumed (rightly so, as it turned out) there would be some interest nationwide. 

At this point, you may be asking why I wrote this blog.  Yes, quilt documentation, preservation, and history are important.  And we can certainly appreciate the books which came out of the Quilt Projects.  But is any of this information relevant today?  Why would we possibly need additional Quilt Projects during a time when it’s so easy to snap a picture and upload it and its history to social media or some other website for posterity?  There certainly are lessons we can take away from the Quilt Projects – lessons which I think do support the need for additional quilt intake and documentation.

Lesson One:  States learned the importance of their own quilts.

One of the main objectives of Kentucky’s Quilt Project was to stave off Kentuckians from selling their family heirlooms to out-of-state quilt dealers or enthusiasts.  Their Quilt Project brought attention to how closely quilts and Kentucky’s history are linked.  When the Smithsonian added the quilts to their traveling exhibit, this only intensified value of Kentucky quilts.  This school of thought bled over into the other state’s projects – remember most, if not all of the other Quilt Projects, looked to Kentucky’s as an example. 

The Kentucky Quilt Project also had an agreement with the press not to publish the names and whereabouts of the quilts.  This prevented quilt owners from being inundated with potential buyers.  Every other quilt project also followed suite. 

Lesson Two:  The Quilt Projects taught people how to take care of their quilts.

Once word was circulated about Quilt Documentation Days, people were pulling their family quilts out of closets, drawers, attics, and basements.  Until this point, most quilt owners (unless perhaps they themselves were quilters) didn’t pay any particular attention to how the quilts were stored.  The Quilt Projects encouraged families to take care of the quilts.  They handed out flyers with information on the proper way to store and clean quilts.  In addition, the NCQP, the TSQA, the KSQP, and the NQP also handed out special quilt labels to go on the quilts, if the owner so desired.  These labels had the project’s documentation information and location of the archives.

Lesson Three:  The Quilt Projects supported the development of the “new” grassroots studies.

The grassroots studies concentrated on the middle- and working-class people, non-whites and minorities, and women as well as men.  These studies often used material items and dealt with the relationship of these items to attitudes.  Quilts were studied for symbolism, representations, and texts within the world they were made.  The grassroots studies pushed for the items to be preserved as they served as documentation of a state’s history and the role women played in this history.  Marsha McDowell, head of the Michigan Quilt Study Project, wrote, “A quilt is a textbook of information…Personal or family history, art, community life, religious beliefs and practices, business and political history…this and more can be gleaned from these textiles, their makers, and their owners.”  It is interesting to note that for many students with an interest in women’s studies, quilts provide nearly the only record left by pre-suffrage housewives and pioneers.

Lesson Four:   Not only were the quilts documented, but many times the Quilt Project served as a permanent home for genealogical records that participants brought with them. 

Many of the quilt projects, but especially the NCQP, encouraged participants to bring written or photographic records which documented the quilts, their makers, and the quilt making.  Kay Bryant, one of the regional coordinators for the NCQP said, “the older ladies were just dying to tell these old stories.”  In many, many ways the NCQP archived not only the women’s creations, but also their voices. 

As quilters, we know what goes into making a quilt – the choices, the decisions, the technique, the hours spent behind a needle or with a needle in hand.  As quilters, we honor each other by complementing each other’s quilts and encircling our quilting families with love and concern.  We value the quilts and the quilters because we know much about each.  But for the nonquilter, this is lost.  It takes something like the Quilt Projects to show how we worked through the social and cultural upheavals in the sixties and seventies…how we dealt with tragedies like the Challenger Explosion and 9/11…how we took up the challenge of Covid.  Quilting, as much as any other art, shows the public how we deal with all life hands us.  It shows them who we are, where we came from, and what we do.

And maybe…just maybe quilting shows people what they could be, if they’d join us, listen to our stories, and realize the power behind holding that needle and thread. 

Until Next Week, Make Your Quilt Yours!

Love and Stitches,

Sherri

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