LIMA — The Allen County Museum’s newest exhibition, “A Century of Quilting,” will allow museum-goers to see local “labors of love” and even learn how to continue those labors.
The exhibition includes 25 quilts from the museum’s permanent collection, almost all of which have Allen County roots.
“We only have one quilt on loan to us right now. All of them came to us in prior years, several even in the 1960s, through donations,” said Brittany Venturella, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs. “All of them come from families who have passed them down through generations, and they have decided they want to share them with everyone else. We are very fortunate that we have such a great collection. That’s due to, one, the prevalence of quilting in this county, and the tradition of it, but also that people were so forward-thinking and kept them and kept them in such great condition.”
Selecting the art
The museum has more than 100 quilts and coverlets in its archives. A committee made up of 12 docents was tasked with selecting those to go in the exhibition.
They started by walking through the rolled up archives with card file pictures of each. That process began about a year and a half ago under former director Patricia Smith.
“I happened to be on our docent committee when our former director (Patricia Smith) had made the announcement she was retiring. One thing she felt bad about was she always hoped to have a quilt show,” said Bev Auchmuty, who has been a docent with the museum for 10 years.
Enter Amy Craft, who will complete her first year as director and executive secretary in July, and Venturella, who is nearing the end of her first month in the position.
“Based on all of that information and research done prior to my coming, I was able to go through the book and started to think … it was incredible the amount of work they themselves put into it,” Craft said. “For me, it was wonderful to know they had really done a good job with the way they approached things and were guided well to get that going by the former director.
“None of them were experts with quilts, but they had done the research,” Craft added. “Both myself and the committee really ended up being right in line with what were thinking in terms of selection – we were just a few pieces off.”
The history of the art
Final selections were made by narrowing down the exhibit to four quilt styles —patchwork, appliqué, crazy and signature — and the conditions of those quilts. There were several fragile ones chosen that couldn’t be displayed.
“If its home-spun, it’s a little more difficult (to work with now) than manufactured fabric. It can’t just be a nice edge, it has to be throughout,” Venturella explained. “There were a few we had originally thought we could sleeve, but there were some repairs within it, so hanging them with the weight might pull those fibers more, so that played into account.”
The quilts have either been sleeved for hanging or are displayed on an A-frame. The oldest quilt of the selection, dated between the 1820s-40s, is on display, laying completely flat.
“One of our most fragile pieces is actually laying flat in the center. We didn’t feel putting it on an A frame would be safe enough,” Venturella said. “What you’ll notice is there’s no light on it,, and that’s because its particularly fragile … UV light can damage the fibers over time.”
Venturella said with this particular exhibit, most of the quilts came with a time frame of when they were originally crafted. For those that didn’t, the museum is able to date the quilts based on their style — think bell-bottoms, Auchmuty suggested.
“For the quilts themselves, there’s different styles. Crazy quilts are pretty easy to date mainly because the height of their popularity was in the 1880s,” Venturella explained. “Everything sort of had its own era, so we can at least have a date range. Sometimes it’s harder to pinpoint an exact date, but we can get within a couple decades, at least with these examples. That’s part of our responsibility here too. Every piece that’s brought into the collection needs to be researched and understood so we can be sure that piece is right for our collection, and we have the story to tell.”
Auchmuty said part of appreciating the art of quilting is recognizing the history behind those who made them.
“I think it goes back to the roots of the people that came in. A lot of them came in from across Europe from religious persecution. You had a strong Swiss Mennonite background, and talk about people that really worked, then the Germans that came in with their background,” she said. “They both brought different quilt styles, but the emphasis was on working and providing for your family, and they were able to do so this way. Let’s face it, women were responsible for the decorating and for making a house a home, and this is one of the ways they did it. For them, I think it was a labor of love.”
Continuing the art
In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will be hosting a series of workshops and lectures for families.
Karlyn Lauer, who has been a docent for about eight years, said the true art of quilting can’t be grasped until one tries it.
“It’s easy to look at the quilts and say, ‘That’s beautiful,’ but until you do it, you don’t understand it’s not easy. It’s something that you almost have to experience yourself before you know,” she said.
Lauer alluded to one particular quilt that was made up of numerous half-inch blocks.
“Think of using that needle and making those stitches small enough,” she explained. “I’ve done a little bit of quilting, but any of them that have points, triangles or diamonds, they don’t look that hard, but i’m telling you, they’re murder. Its very hard to get them lined up just right.”
It was that thought process that inspired the team to develop the workshops — not only to get people to understand the artistry behind the original pieces, but to hopefully those, like Lauer who were inspired by the piece, to try it themselves.
About 10 to 12 of the docents got together to practice the program they were going to present and were surprised about the result.
“We had some people that had never sewn and others that had,” she said. “What we found is we were talking about what were going to have for supper, what you read in the paper about. It became a social event, which I think was important to these ladies … Often times (back then), a lot of quilts had more than one working on it. They would be sitting on quilt frame working together or come together with their piece basket.”
Reach Tara Jones at 567-242-0511.