July 2, 2014

When I Really Fell in Love With Quilts

After I graduated from college in 1977, I stayed on campus, working on the data base of one of the profs.  I spent most of my days on the computer, editing transcribed field notes on monkey social organization.  

At that time, the state-of-the-art was the big mainframe computer to which we submitted jobs and waited, and waited, and waited, for output.  I really needed some color and handwork in my life.  My mom was always saving sewing scraps and talking about making a quilt.  We never did do it, but that's what gave me the idea to try quilting with a little, 6-week, just-for-fun class at the student union.  

After a few years of pillows and placemats and my first big quilt, I was in San Francisco visiting some friends, and decided to hop over to Oakland and see the quilt exhibit there.  The exhibit was curated by Pat Ferrero, Linda Reuther, and Julie Silber.  It was life-changing for me!  And I guess it was life-changing for lots of folks, since it became a landmark exhibit.  

I recently discovered the out-of-print catalog on a used book website.  I was so excited!

This exhibit came 10 years after the famous Whitney Museum exhibit in 1971 that first hung quilts on the wall and discussed them as art.  The curators in Oakland had an additional theme, and gathered period photos and artifacts and family stories and arranged them alongside the quilts.  They presented the quilts as windows into women's lives.

One story that always has stayed with me is this:  There was a set of beautifully made and unusually colored quilts, interesting dark purple-ish and maroon colors.  Turns out, these pieces had all been dyed black, by the quilter, while she was going through a deep depression.  I was struck both by the incredible sadness that she expressed so eloquently, and by the thoughtfulness of her descendants, who kept the quilts and her story to honor her.  

The catalog has wonderful essays by several historians about quilts as objects that express everyday history and the lives of everyday people.  This concept has become a big part of my love of quilts.  It's one of the reasons I feel so good about repairing and preserving quilts.  I wrote about this in two of my previous posts: Thoughts About Repairing Antique Quilts and Textile Stories.  And I like the idea that today's quilters are creating this same kind of history for future historians to enjoy.

The three curators also produced some of my favorite books and videos - and I am deeee-lighted to add this one to my collection.  (I have no connection with their business, just spreading the word, especially for newer quilters who may not be familiar with their work.)


  1. I thought the story of the quilter who dyed her quilt black was a myth. Very interesting to know it is true. It's also interesting how we react to color in quilts. When I was depressed I needed quilts with soothing violets and teals (and they are still my favorites), and as things began to look up I relished bright colors and lots of white.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Dora. Violet and teal would be a soothing combination for me, too.