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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Book Review by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

By Eleanor Levie
pub. by American Quilter's Society

As I read this book, I tried to imagine myself as a quilt historian and quilter in the year 2050. What came to mind was the wish that someone in the 1850s would have done the same thing for us. It was so much fun to read a history book about quilts that was describing an era I lived through . . . an antique quilt became my bedcover in 1974, and I took my first quilting class in 1976.

Eleanor Levie reveals wonderful tidbits and secrets through quotes, facts and interviews with quilters we all know and appreciate, who are pioneers in the revolution that began in the second half of the 20th century. For instance, Penny McMorris talks about the first time with her TV show audience when she was trying to teach them to use the Electric Quilt software program her husband invented. She had no idea how it worked. From under the desk, out of view of the cameras, sat her husband and together they were able to make it look like she did. The story is delightful. It is anecdotes like these that make this book really special and intimate for the reader.

Eleanor taps into designer fabrics and trends as they appeared on the market -- reproduction fabrics, plaids, African prints, hand dyes -- telling us who, when, what, and sometimes the why. This is a fun chapter down memory lane, or was it a walk through my stash?  She takes a similar stroll through quilt styles, devoting a chapter each to patchwork, appliqué, and quilting.

Not too long ago, my List Serve quilt friends were trying to recall who started or invented the rotary cutter in quiltmaking. This book gives every detail. After reading about it,  I don't think I have ever heard the whole story . Here is a hint: it was invented to cut many layers of fabric for kimonos in Japan, and Marti Mitchell wasn't just making templates!  Now how about the first wide ruler?

I found the book to be full of truly interesting and sometimes astounding information right from the start. Although Eleanor tells the reader in the Introduction that this book can be read in any order they prefer, I chose to start with Chapter One, what I would describe as the social history of the last 25 years of expansion. On the first page, we learn that Irene Preston Miller and her willing, albeit bewildered friends, made an appliquéd pictorial quilt that raised $23,100 through an auction to raise funds to clean the Hudson River. That is a great deal of money for a group quilt to bring in, even in today's quilt market, and this happened in 1972. This quilt is now in the collection of the American Folk Art Museum in NYC.

Quilts and women were strong then, and they just kept on getting stronger. Women have been raising money through quilts since before the Civil War. Eleanor describes the period following the Civil War, 1860 -1880, as the first quilt revival. The second revival came because of  the depression in the 1930s, and the third revival began in the early 1970s, following the post-war adjustment period.

So you think 1970 is too early? The National Quilt Association (NQA), sponsored their first quilt show in 1970, and Quilter's Newsletter Magazine (QNM), began as a newsletter for their quilting mail order business, in 1969. Ladies Patchwork Circle magazine began in 1970. In the 1960s, however, women's magazines began putting quilts on their cover because they sold their magazines like crazy, and they put patterns and ideas inside. Eleanor believes this was a wake up call to sewing, fabric and quilt related companies. She credits Quilt Market, started by Karey Bresenhan and her mother Jewel Patterson in 1979, as the turning point where quilting went from  hobby to big business.

There is another comparison Eleanor draws I found as equally interesting: she likens the birth of guild-sponsored quilt shows to the 'show and tells,' which began in their monthly meetings, and before that, informally during private quilt get-togethers women held in their homes. Formalized quilt guilds didn't begin until the late 1970s. Guild Round Robins and quilt challenges came in the late 1980s, and mystery quilt projects came about a decade after that.

The many  photographs in the book help to bring our color sense back to the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I don't necessarily like to go there myself, but they bring the text into better focus, let's say. There's always the last chapter, where Eleanor writes about the Art Quilt movement, to bring us back to the full spectrum of colors.

Since I am a quilter who also cherishes antique quilts and the history supporting  their characteristics, I found it fascinating that the first two major quilt study associations to form were both predicated on the history of quilts. The first was the Quilter's Hall of Fame (QHF), started by Hazel Carter (see an interview with Hazel), in Virginia, in 1979. (In case you haven't heard, the restored home of Marie Webster had its Grand Opening in July 2004, which is where the Hall of Fame will reside.) The second was the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG). It was started right here in California, near San Francisco, by Sally Garoutte, in 1980. They had their first seminar that same year. Today, it is housed at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and is dedicated to the study of quilt history. (For more information on either organization, go to my Links page; both are worthy of your support through membership.) Not long after, in 1981, Shelly Zegart developed The Kentucky Quilt Project, the first statewide quilt documentation organization. Reading this book, you realize that we are making history.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I learned a lot and laughed many times. From start to finish, I related. I highly recommend you read this book and keep it on your shelf for reference. It will likely be a college textbook soon, as there is no other book like it. My sense is that it will be reprinted for decades to come.

You can order this book from AQS or Amazon

Book publishers and authors: if you would like your bookreviewed on this Website, and it falls within the scope of topics, pleasecontact me.


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© 2004 - 2016 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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