A sandwich of fabric and filling

April 10, 2003|by Chris Copley

For historian Fawn Valentine, an old quilt is like a time capsule from another era: In its components, Valentine can "read" about the maker's culture, wealth or poverty, and personal values.

"The older quilts are very fine," Valentine said by phone from her office in southern West Virginia. "What is so wonderful is when families have preserved these quilts from the 1850s. These are beautiful quilts. They preserve family history."

Valentine will bring her knowledge of old quilts to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., on Saturday, April 12, for a lecture and quilt "reading" at Mather Training Center. She invites attendees to bring their old quilts to the presentation; Valentine will examine as many as she can and offer her interpretation of their backgrounds.


A quilt is basically a sandwich of fabric and filling, Valentine said. The top layer of a quilt is called, simply, the top. It is the colorful, patterned surface most of us imagine when we think of a quilt. The bottom part of a quilt is typically plain fabric.

The middle part of a quilt is a layer of insulating material. Today it is commercial cotton or polyester batting. In centuries past, it may have been several layers of cotton sheeting or wool from sheep raised by the quiltmaker. Or even an old quilt or a blanket.

After the three parts are assembled, they are quilted - stitched or knotted - together. Stitching may be random or may play a part in the design.

"I call the stiching pattern 'secret writing' - it doesn't make words but tells about the quilt," she said.

Valentine has extensive experience in the history of West Virginia quilts. She and hundreds of other volunteers investigated more than 4,000 quilts during a 1992 research effort called West Virginia Heritage Quilt Search. Valentine shared the results of the study in her book, "West Virginia Quilts and QuiltMakers: Echoes of the Hills."

"In 1992, we went all over the state, doing a quilt search and doing documentation," she said. "We took information on quilt-makers and quilts. We had access to scholars on quilt history. We took oral histories - over 1,000 pages of oral histories."

The quilts of the West Virginia Panhandle are particularly wonderful, Valentine said. It's the part of the state settled earliest as European pioneers migrated across the continent. And many families have done a good job preserving their old quilts.

Valentine identified two traditions of quilt-making she has found in West Virginia: German-American and Scotch-Irish.

"Germans always favor symmetry - bilateral or four-part symmetry," she said. "Also strong color contrast, rather than blending tone on tone - that would be Scotch-Irish - and always distinctive borders."

The colors of Scotch-Irish quilts are generally from a more narrow range than German-American quilts, Valentine said.

"When I first saw Scotch-Irish quilts, I thought there was a color blindness issue - there's often close value, from dark to light," she said. "They're made up the same as German-American quilts, but the fabric choices are so different spometimes it's hard to see the pattern.

"There's also no distinctive border. Sometimes sashing or setting strips - strips between blocks - separate blocks. These are sometimes used for a border."

Valentine's interest in quilts began about a decade ago, just as the heritage quilt project got under way.

"I have a background as a weaver, and I just love cloth," she said. "I put cloth and history and women's study together."

Quilts are the window through which Valentine looks at history, women's history in particular. Each quilt is unique, but it is also part of a craft tradition practiced by women nationwide and through most of American history.

"Women have been making quilts in America since about 1750 on," she said. "The information in the quilt - the stitching patterns, the type of fabric - tells me, maybe, when it was made, access to pattern models, sometimes hints about the life of the quilt or quilt-maker."

Quilts are also a kind of genealogical tool, she said.

"You learn quilt-making from your mother, your grandmother, your neighbor, your mother-in-law," she said. "The technique it was put together with gives you clues to the cultural background of the maker."

Quilts stand at the intersection of fine art and down-to-earth homemaking. Originally made to insulate beds in drafty homes, they became a way to express the creativity, emotions and values of the maker. And to connect the maker to succeeding generations who display or use the quilt.

"Quilts warm the body and the soul," Valentine wrote in her book. "A quilt can wrap the psyche in a loving embrace. Family quilts are symbols of bloodlines reaching across decades and generations."

If you go

"American Quilt History," a lecture and historical assessment of quilts by historian Fawn Valentine

Saturday, April 12

2 p.m.

Mather Training Center

Fillmore Street

Harpers Ferry, W.Va.


Free, reservations required

Attendees are invited to bring quilts for Valentine to examine and interpret during a show-and-tell session following her lecture.

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