The Story of the Nebraska Quilt Project: Uncovering the Art of Common Folks

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By Christine Humphrey

“Princess Feather,” made by Rebecca Gouffin Wilson (1829–1899) and Isabella Irene Wilson Rhodes (1850–1929), North English, Iowa, c. 1865, Cotton, 85 × 85 inches, Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection. (International Quilt Study Center & Museum)During the 1970s, quilt makers, dealers and collectors began to ask questions about the origins of quilt making and how women contributed to the history of their families, communities and nation through their quilts. By 1980, increased interest in quilts had created a growing market for antique quilts. Unfortunately, once quilts left family hands, their unique history was lost.

In 1981 the first statewide quilt project, the Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc., was organized. The success of the Kentucky project inspired an international movement: since 1981, a group in virtually every state has organized a documentation project.

The Lincoln Quilters Guild formed the Nebraska Quilt Project (NQP) committee in 1985. Project organizers, along with consultants, studied Nebraska history, immigration and demography to create a strategy that would target the rich immigrant history of Nebraska’s settlement period prior to 1920.

The Nebraska Quilt Project: Uncovering the Art of Common Folks officially began in January 1985. The documentation phase of the project was completed in May 1989. An exhibition at Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery (now Sheldon Museum of Art) was held in 1990. The publication of the project’s book, “Nebraska Quilts & Quiltmakers,” edited by Patricia Crews and Ronald Naugle, in 1991 concluded the project. During that six-year period, the project committee planned the project, organized 28 documentation days, held an exhibition and assisted the editors in researching, writing and publishing the book.

Motivations and Goals of the Nebraska Quilt Project

Frances Best served as the director of the Nebraska Quilt Project. The first objective of the project was to encourage families to keep their quilts or donate them to museums. They hoped “to stay the flow of Nebraska quilts on the back seat of dealer’s vans to other parts of the country.” In addition to questions about aesthetics, trends, ethnic influences and historic influences, final goals for the project included a permanent archive, publication of findings and encouragement of further research on quilts. Linda Ulrich, in an article for the Sunday Lincoln Journal Star, quoted Francis Best as saying, “We’re not just looking for art, we’re looking for history and meaning and sentiment.”

Organization and Composition of the NQP Committee

The NQP emphasized professionalism and academic integrity. The committee contacted faculty members from the history department of Nebraska Wesleyan University and the textiles department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) for guidance. Dr. Ronald Naugle, chairman of the History Department of Nebraska Wesleyan University; Lynn Ireland, coordinator of Museum Programs and Public Relations for the Museum of Nebraska History and John Carter, curator of photography of the Nebraska State Historical Society gave advice on choosing documentation sites. They recommended sites based on “ethnic, cultural, and economic makeup” in order to document a full picture of quilt making in Nebraska. In contrast to other states, Nebraska sought first to achieve ethnic representation and secondarily geographic representation. Thirteen of the documentation days were held in counties where 29 “foreign-born groups” tended to concentrate.

Dr. Patricia Crews, UNL professor of textiles and now director of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, served as a consultant for the project on textile analysis, identification and history. She conducted a three-day training session for NQP committee members on textiles—fiber, yarn and fabric analysis—prior to the beginning of the documentation days. Other training for these volunteers covered textile identification and history, how best to complete documentation forms, oral history interviewing processes, photography procedures for quilts and pattern identification and quilt dating techniques.

The first Quilt History Day was held in Lincoln on March 13, 1987. The committee and local volunteers invited local area residents to bring their quilts to a central location for documentation. Families were encouraged to bring in photographs, diaries, newspaper articles and stories about both the quilt and quilt maker. Families would complete forms about the history of the maker, the history of the quilt and the importance of the quilt to the owner. A trained documenter would then complete a second form about the physical traits of the quilt, including size, color, style and fabrics. Finally, the quilt would be photographed and returned to the owner.

The Quilt History Days were major events in the rural areas of the state: by 1:30 in the afternoon on the Bassett Quilt History Day, 144 quilts had been documented. The Quilt History Day in Benkelman added 226 quilts to the records. Dorchester’s Quilt History Day was the busiest with 450 quilts documented. Information supplied by participants shows the sense of heritage—more personal than artistic, cultural or community—that brought them to the event. Connection to a family member, whether dead or still living, influenced an owner’s perception of the importance of the quilt. A Lincoln quilt owner described quilts as an important tradition “for future generations to cherish” and from which to “gain insight to past generations.” Other owners spoke of the use of scraps in the quilts that reminded them of old clothes and loved ones.

People who attended could view the quilts as they were photographed, in addition to viewing quilts that had been loaned for display purposes only. In many locations, additional activities were planned around the event, including a slide show of quilts found at other sites and a lecture about quilt history and quilting demonstrations

In total, nearly 5,000 quilts were documented during the 28 Quilt History Days. The information acquired through the documentation days led to multiple publications and research projects and an exhibition in 1991. The project book, “Nebraska Quilts & Quiltmakers,” won the 1993 Smithsonian’s Frost Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American Crafts.

Summary

The most important thing about the Nebraska Quilt Project, and the documentation projects in other states as well, was the history that they preserved. These projects were a unique way to record the histories and stories of thousands of women from multiple generations who otherwise might not have had their stories told. Quilts provide a tangible link between present and past generations; the documentation projects were a way to create a link with future generations who might not have the physical object any longer. The projects fostered a sense of community by creating public records of women and their objects that would otherwise have remained private family stories.

The outpouring of quilts to be documented over the last 30 years is incredible. The success of the Nebraska Quilt Project is just one example, showing how important material culture is to our past. In having their family quilts recorded, owners helped to preserve the identity of the quilt makers and to establish a community for women—past, present and future—in which they would be recognized for their contributions to the histories of their states and nation, even if their contributions might only be recorded through the stitching of a quilt.

The exhibition “Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers,” showing at Lincoln, Neb.’s International Quilt Study Center and Museum through Oct. 2, 2011, features quilts documented by a dedicated group of Lincoln quilters 25 years ago. The project’s success and the publication of an award-winning book chronicling the process are credited in part to the decision of benefactors Robert and Ardis James to donate the first 1,000 quilts to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and to establish an endowment for the care of the quilts. Since 1997, the collection has grown to include over 3,500 quilts, making it the world’s largest public collection.

 

Immigration in Nebraska