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The Powerful Stories Told Through Quilts

Posted on 06/09/2020 at 04:00 PM by Allison Sheridan




Pieced together, one section of fabric at a time, quilts tell stories through patterns, or in some cases, a purposeful absence of pattern. The geometry of quilt-work explores current events, biblical stories, memories, family, nature and so much more. Though makers often go unrecognized, and quilt-making is often passed over as merely a women’s craft, much can be learned by studying quilts and quilt-making, as it was one of the most significant forms of creative expression available to American women during the Civil War and Victorian eras. 

Many families in rural Iowa and across the country possess quilts, often treasured family heirlooms passed down from generation to generation. Quilts were given as gifts during the 1800s and early 1900s to mark celebratory occasions such as marriage and birth. From humble fabrics and simplistic designs, to lush rich textiles and detailed embroidery, through their intricate patterns the quilts in the Farm House Museum’s collection still speak their stories to visitors in each of the seven bedrooms. Many historic family quilts hardly see the light of day due to fragility as well as exposure to UV light, wear, abrasion, dirt, dust, heat and organisms, thus the ongoing rotation of quilts on exhibition at the Farm House Museum is a rare occasion to view the craft of quilt-making.



ABOVE IMAGE: Lone Star Quilt, c. 1900-1910. Gift of Mary Barton. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 80.3.3

HEADER IMAGE: Trail of the Covered Wagon Quilt, c. 1900. Gift of Mary Barton. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 74.4.22

Quilting, the art of stitching two layers of cloth together with batting in between, may have originated as long ago as Ancient Egypt, but was brought to Western Europe through the cultural exchange of the Medieval Crusades. Quilting was brought to America with European colonization. Until the advancements of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the price of cloth made quilting largely the domain of the wealthy. The advent of the Industrial Revolution saw colorful, printed, and dyed fabrics readily available to a larger population, and the popularity of quilting grew throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sometimes cloth was hand-dyed with natural dyes by the home quilter or was constructed from reclaimed fabric from clothes. Examples of quilts made from men’s suiting, velvet and corduroy can be seen in the collection. 

Crazy quilts became particularly popular in the Victorian era, as did fruit, flower, and nature motifs. The Farm House Museum’s collection of over 75 quilts boasts a diverse assortment of sizes and patterns, including: Honeycomb, Diamond, Irish Chain, Pink Birds, New Hourglass, Colonial Bowtie, Fool’s Puzzle, Job’s Troubles, Covered Wagon, and the non-formulaic pattern Crazy. 

Not all quilts were designed to be used, however. Some quilts were designed as family memorials – mourning quilts or “graveyard” quilts. They feature a genealogist’s dream of names and birth/death dates – documenting entire family trees. Though the Farm House Museum’s collection doesn’t contain this type of quilt, one excellent example is in the Kentucky Historical Society collection . The mourning quilt was made by Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell in 1843 and features a cemetery fenced-in with paper coffins embroidered with each family’s name. While morbid, this quilt is an excellent example of nineteenth century mourning customs as well as an illustration of the emotions and experiences that were often expressed by women through their quilts. A passion for history and objects runs deep in my family – the early research on this unique quilt was performed in the mid-1960s by my mother, Elizabeth Riley [Sheridan], during a college internship at the Kentucky Historical Society. She would tell stories many years later of deciphering the text on the “cemetery” quilt and helping the archivist catalog and preserve it. 



IMAGE: Crazy Quilt, c. 1881by Lydia Carver Stark (American, 1850-1926). Gift of Margaret Johnson. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 86.4.1

In the Farm House Museum, we are fortunate to have other wonderful examples of one-of-a-kind quilts. The Crazy quilt pictured was handmade in 1881-82 by Lydia Carver Stark (American, 1850-1926). The quilt has a burgundy velvet border with chaotic patchwork shapes of different colors, fabrics, embroidery pieces, appliqué and even some hand-painted pieces. On some Crazy quilts, each piece of fabric has an embroidered image such as an anchor, boys and girls, roses, farm images and others. Large feather stitching links seams between pieces in brightly colored embroidery thread. This particular quilt won a prize at the Illinois State Fair in 1888. Crazy quilts became popular in the U.S. in the late 1800s, likely due to the influence of English embroidery and Japanese art that was displayed at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  The design is abstract and free flowing ignoring the normal block style treatment of traditional quilting patterns. 

Examples of lighter and thinner quilts for the spring or summertime are often pastel tones, patriotic, or bright floral motifs such as the Southern-style quilt by Lurana Bucklin Hoyt (1808-n.d) in the collection, or the Tulip appliqued quilt c. 1870s and the 8-pointed Lone Star quilt c. 1900, both donated by noted Iowa quilt historian Mary Barton. 

Much is owed in quilting history to Iowa quilt historian Mary Barton (1917–2003). The legacy and culmination of her life’s work was the preservation of quilts and historic textiles, along with the information she collected about them. Beginning in the 1970s, she donated items from her personal collection to various organizations including: the Farm House Museum, the Textiles and Clothing Department at ISU, Living History Farms, and Simpson College. Special Collections, ISU, houses several hundred fashion plates from magazines that Barton collected. In 1987 and 1988, Barton presented her famous Heritage Quilt to the Iowa State Historical Museum, along with a major gift of sixty-seven quilts and countless notebooks about nineteenth-century textiles.

The Farm House Museum houses and exhibits the quilt collection regularly and with pride. These quilts tell the story of life in America pre-1910 and the artists who often anonymously crafted these intricate textile works of art.  

TOP LEFT: Fool’s Puzzle Quilt, c. 1910. Gift of Mary Barton. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 80.3.4

BOTTOM LEFT: Detail of Tulip variation Quilt, c. 1870. Gift of Mary Barton. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 80.3.2

RIGHT: Quilt, c. 1870 by Lurana Bucklin Hoyt (American, 1808–). Gift of Mary E. Cowan and Jack Wm. Peters. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 80.2.1

 

SOURCES

Kentucky Historical Society, online collection

Quilter’s Hall of Fame, Mary Barton entry

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