As editor of FaveQuilts.com, I see hundreds of quilts every day from the isolation of my computer desk, but I have to admit it’s been a long time since I’ve actually been in the same room as a quilt that isn’t mine. I don’t know many quilters in my area, and my semi-rural hometown in the north Chicago suburbs is too small to host a train station, much less a quilt shop. But it just so happens that right down the street from me, tucked into a forest preserve between a few farms and cycling paths, is the Lake County Discovery Museum, which is currently hosting a quilt exhibit as part of Northern Illinois Quilt Fest.
I would never have known about the quilt exhibit (or even the museum) if I hadn’t made a friend who works there and sent me this blog post about the Benwell Crazy Quilt. I was intrigued to find out that the quilt was made over a century ago just a mile or two from my home. I can’t help but get shivers just thinking about it! The quilt incorporates pieces of buckskin that were used to carry treasure back from the 1848 gold rush.
Once I had seen the photos of this quilt and I knew there was a whole room full of fabric bits steeped in history waiting just down the road, I had to visit. Although the Quilt Treasures exhibit was small, it made me think a lot about the way quilts speak to us. The simplest handmade quilt is like a love note from the quilter to the recipient — a tactile greeting card that transmits comfort and care from one person to another. From this point, a quilt can grow exponentially in its potential for expression. I was struck by how much the quilts in the exhibit talked. The plain quilts that were simply pieced together and quilted seemed hushed compared to the lively chatter of the signature quilts and crazy quilts the museum had collected. I particularly enjoyed this simply constructed quilt put together by the Lake County Homemakers Extension Association nearly half a century ago.
The block quilt, which reminds me of a modern t-shirt quilt in a way, features embroidered squares representing the many communities in the Association. These blocks are more than just impressive embroidery samples; they talk about the ways that each community is pictured by its inhabitants. As a lifelong Lake County resident, it surprises me to see the enduring qualities of each village as well as the natural beauty of the region represented faithfully in each square.
I was also fascinated by the signature quilts, which functioned as petitions and charity drives that allowed women to voice their opinions and campaign for causes. One of the signature quilts even includes important information like marriages and deaths. These quilts are not just domestic crafts; they are a form of media and a record of history.
While the signature quilts represent a community effort, like a newspaper, the crazy quilts read like personal journals. The collections of novelty fabric and bits of clothing and other textiles carry significance for the women who created them. As you trace the bright patterns of embroidery, you can’t help but think about how much time the creator spent with the quilt. Day in and day out she held the quilt in her hands, working through every mood. This dedication to the craft becomes even more apparent when you look even closer at the scraps in the quilt. Some of the hand embroidered patches are so obviously time consuming, and in the Benwell quilt there is even a hand-painted scene of the family’s farm in Lake County. The haphazard piecing and mixed media of crazy quilts allows quilters the freedom to imbue their quilts with their own personality, emotions, and sense of design.
In the quilting community, we often talk about the importance of labeling a quilt for posterity, but I begin to wonder why we put bylines on quilts that haven’t said anything. If I piece a few yards of fabric together in an established pattern, I can certainly credit myself as the creator, but does it make any difference if I or another quilter ran it through the sewing machine? I’m inspired by this exhibit to speak through my quilts about my family, my thoughts, and my daily life. It’s not an itch to express metaphysical truths through art; it’s a plain desire to be known, to connect, and to tell a story in a form of communication that is tangible, visible, and meaningful.
What would your crafts say if they ended up in a museum some day? Have you ever thought about it?