I am packing my duffle for the weekend and awaiting my ride 80 miles to the north—somewhere north of Polson, Montana—with Jane, a woman I have only met through email. Jeans, t-shirts, Griz sweatshirt, underwear, socks, computer, bottle of wine, homemade gingersnaps, and homework go into the bag. I think hard about where I am going and the why, turn around and wiggle my sewing machine out from under the table where it sits since last May, and carry it to the hallway assembly point. I hear the doorbell— my ride announcing her arrival. Swallowing hard, hoping I pass the visual test, I smile and open the door to find a small-framed, blonde, middle-aged woman sporting a bobbed haircut, wearing a Griz Nation t-shirt and jeans. “Ready?” she asks. I nod. We load my gear, climb in her SUV and drive off—to the quilt retreat. Spending the weekend among quilt ladies should feel as comfortable as an old pair of slippers, but instead I feel as if on a secret undercover mission, embedded with the troops. We are unrelated sisters in the Missoula Quilters Guild.
My mother does not quilt. Neither did her mother or sisters or aunties, but she learned to sew clothing as a child in the late 1930’s, when 4-H was thriving in rural Indiana. She signs me up for 4-H, in rural Sonoma County, California, as soon as I am old enough, at age nine. I take clothing and cooking as my projects, and make the requisite progression from ditty bag to drawstring apron to skirt with a v-necked blouse. My orange, cotton, A-lined skirt and blouse set takes blue ribbons at the county fair and red ribbons at the California State Fair, in no small part to my mother’s advice and knowledge of making reversible garments, saving the headache of stitching in facings. The 4-H leaders do not know her tricks—mom is my secret weapon. She guides me from skirts, to dresses of plaids that have to be matched at the seams, to dresses of checked wools and box pleats that confound and send me, pattern in hand, to her for patient explanations. I construct prom dresses, psychedelic sixties day-glow paisley shifts with white cotton collars and front tabs, jams and jellies of polished cotton with ruffles, and a brown herringbone wool-skirt- with-matching- vest set to take to college. Leaving home for college is not painful, as long as I can take some bit of security along— my used, 301 A Singer sewing machine.
College, marriage, teaching, and children follow. My sewing machine becomes a utility machine, useful from time to time, but not for constructing clothes. I make curtains and a bed comforter for one boyfriend, pillow covers for my studio apartment (no larger than a closet with a view of the Space Needle), sew leather patches on jeans, and hem always-too-long pants. When fellow teachers have babies I make flannel double-sided blankets with a satin edge— they become my specialty. After the birth of my two daughters I select and sew Simplicity patterns for dresses and rompers out of the glossy, encyclopedic books in the back of the fabric store. When our third child— son Stuart— arrives, the machine goes back into the closet. I am out of time and creativity, struggling to tend three children under four. Down comforters with flannel duvets are sensible and easy for warmth in Northwest Washington in these years, the seventies and early eighties. There are no quilts in my home.
In the early 70s, on the national scene in New York City, where art and museums and designers and innovators break ground, quilts are emerging from a slumber that began in the 1950’s. Jonathan Holstein and Gail Vanderhoof are collecting quilts with strong graphic design elements—buying them cheaply alongside the road, at public auction, and at flea markets on the weekends in Pennsylvania, on their Sunday drives out of New York City. Jonathan has art connections in the city, and bends the ear of someone who knows someone at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1972 a show of quilts is arranged, displaying thirty chosen for their modern art bent, as art objects aesthetically linked with contemporary painters of the time. The art critics are stunned and consider.
This is revolutionary. Quilts have been treated as household bedding, and studied as artifacts of material culture— historically documented in centuries-old inventories within wills— not art. This new angle of consideration spurs an awakening and revival of interest in quilts and collecting and quilting, and begins with the suddenness of a meteorite hitting earth, explosive bits traveling from coast to coast. Art dealers, antique collectors and some quilters—a nearly dying breed—take notice. Ironically, the 1930’s Amish Quilts in the exhibit, showcased with subdued indirect lighting, which creates light and shadows as they hang on the beige walls in the bastion of modern art— the Whitney—receive the most attention, noted for their use of a limited palette of solid colors paired with black. They were bold, super saturated colors: hot pink, emerald green, navy blue, eggplant purple, pomegranate red, and always black. Amish rules of prescribed dress and color, translated into their functional tradition of quilt making, and made art waves that splashed from coast to coast, reawakening interest in an old craft.
As a modern feminist woman—a baby boomer with high expectations projected onto me from my parents— it is nostalgic to admit a connection between an old boyfriend and quilts. The power of love, or faded love, led me to an encounter with Tom-of-Indiana’s mother Juanita, at church one Sunday in Atwood, Indiana. I was married with children, on a visit to the ancestral farmscape of my mother—who still sings Back Home Again In Indiana to the radio with Jim Neighbors, moments before sweet, elderly Mrs. Tony Hulman croaks out “Gentlemen Start Your Engines,” to begin the Indy 500.
Juanita, whom I suspect still has a soft spot for me deep within her bosom, asked me if I would care to come to her home and see her collection of quilts. “Sure,” I said, not having any idea what we would be examining.
“They are orphans from the Crop Auction,” she said when we started looking through the stacks of quilts of all styles and colors. “They’re the ones no one else will buy. I can’t stand it.” She could not stand by and allow them to remain unsold during the annual fundraiser that mattered to her, so she had become their protector: the patron saint of unwanted, out-of-date-colored, polyester and cotton, flawed funky quilts. Clearly funk not junk in her mind.
I was curious, and something in the textiles spoke to me. Some sort of yearning for creative, functional art sparked, and I asked her advice to sources of quiltmaking in the region. She was knowledgeable of Amish and Mennonite quilters in Elkart, Goshen and La Grange Counties of north central Indiana, a gold mine of opportunity for exploring the art. She gave me a name.
Soon I had made contacts with both Amish and Old Order Mennonite quilters; some with home sales shops in their basements, lit by kerosene or white gas lanterns, as in keeping with the prohibition of publically supplied power in Amish church districts. I grew comfortable seeing horse and buggy combinations along the often graveled roads that crisscrossed the counties, as I drove my grandmother’s old car along, guided by a special map, Hoosier Hank’s, with every road ( paved or gravel) in three counties demarcated. I kept my eyes between the map and the undulating roads as I drove back-road after back-road, marveling at abundant farms and well tended white-framed houses with thoroughbred horses and bright gardens behind fences. Homes that welcomed me and showed me scenes of life I could not have examined without their acceptance of me as a quilt buyer, which I had become.
The generosity of the information doled out remains with me. Edna Fry—the quilt maker and vendor extraordinaire on 300 South, who once had twelve dead chickens floating in a galvanized wash tub awaiting plucking when I pulled into her driveway unannounced—sent me to Elmira-the-rug-maker on County Road 1200 West, who sent me to Edna the painter-turned-card-maker north of Nappanee, who knew Mrs. Fisher with the fancy quilts. Edna and Elmira have passed on now.
I chanced a meeting one summer afternoon, with David Pottinger, former antiques dealer from New York City, hiding behind the retrofitted counter of an Amish general store he had purchased near Shipshewana. I recognized him from a photograph in a glossy paperback book about Amish quilts and customs he had published the previous year. That afternoon he taught my sister and I the short course in antique quilts— their value, how to spot authentic ones—and showed us scores he kept hidden in climate controlled, cedar lined closets, awaiting sale to major museums in his restored white barn behind the store. He graciously entertained us with tales of cold- calls to Amish doorways, following rustlings he had heard from among his network of Amish friends that old Amish quilts might be for sale in exchange for a new Stratford Stratolounger. He was a cutting edge collector with knowledge of the show at the Whitney and its spreading effects and he offered to send some quilts of minor value home with me to test the sales market.
I bought quilts and other homemade crafts of wood from all of them, and in 1998 stocked a small retail store in a tourist town, along the seaside-channel in La Conner, Washington. For six years I travelled back roads of Indiana and then Pennsylvania, buying goods for my store, juggling kids, husband and daycare—and was often asked, “Do you quilt?” I would hang my head a little and say “No.”
The quilt revival which had begun so explosively in the early 70’s was fading a bit. Thousands of antique quilts had changed hands, coming out of grandparent’s closets, trunks and basements into the hands of pickers and dealers and retail establishments. UPS was doing vigorous business, shipping newly made quilt tops to hired quilters across the Amish states and back to their sources for sale to tourists. “Made by the Amish” was the gold standard, however flawed the reality, confusing rural myths of the expert quilting skills of all Amish women, with somewhat hidden modern realities.
I met a Hmong woman one morning, at a farm house near Strasburg, Pennsylvania, delivering completed appliquéd quilt tops to Anna Stoltzfus, who with her mother and sisters would “back, batt and quilt them out” for sale in their roadside shop, as “Amish Made” quilts. It was an intricate underground partnership between ethnic and religious minorities with excellent needlework skills, to create a product in demand, with UPS facilitating.
The mid 90’s brought a new reality: Chinese hand-quilted reproduction quilts, licensed copies of beloved quilts from the American Smithsonian Museum. They flooded the market, and soon were to be found for sale in every home furnishings department store or mail order catalogue for prices as low as $29.99, any size and day. My market for the new quilts was gone, and the flow of antique quilts had stopped, as if water had been fully released from the dam and the creek bed was dry. I closed my store.
I wondered if there was a way to market the information I had gained, and found a quilt appraiser program in its foundling stages sponsored by the American Quilter’s Society of Paducah, Kentucky. I bought an airline ticket, rented a car in Nashville, turned on WLS radio home of the Opry, and listened to Vince Gill croon as I drove along a new landscape, a Southern landscape. Redbud, Dogwood, tales of the Kentucky Derby, hushpuppies and fried catfish, and pork chop sandwiches served on one slice of Wonder Bread invaded my vocabulary. I met women who were also taking informational classes on appraising, and drank beer and ate cheesecake at odd hours in the dining court of the Executive Inn, next to the Ohio River. Out my window I watched tugs pulling overflowingly-loaded barges lazily up the river, songbirds singing in the morning glow, light breezes carrying smells of April, in the south, along an historic river. I had found a vocation and five women who felt like sisters on a journey, and we were quickly dubbed the “Yahoo Girls”—for our dancing exploits in the Silver Saddle Saloon inside the hotel–before the other yahoo on the internet had been invented.
We were tested and certified in April of 1994, and joined 17 others as the only certified quilt appraisers in the country. Some of us were from states with other appraisers; most were the first wave of what would come. We were a bit green, but grew our confidence through networking by exchanging phone calls and letters, in a time before the speed and simplicity of email, web sites and by-subscription electronic auction house reports. Teddy Pruett, Stacy Seeger, Pam Pampe, Susan Fiondella, Lena Beth Carmichel and Ann Nash added to the ranks. Only two of us are appraising now.
But the question kept coming back to me, could I quilt? Embarrassment led me to consider my options: take some classes and learn to quilt, join a quilting guild and be seen among the quilt ladies with good skills, or continue to just say “NO.” Luckily for me the internet was to be my source of inspiration.
Martha Stewart was the new doyen of homemakers and crafters in America. Women swooned to her cookbooks, her directions for decorative crafts, her up-scale country living. She was a featured celebrity in print, on television, on the radio—she was effervescent, everywhere at once, and made creative homemaking all look so easy. Women either embraced her ethics and aesthetics or despised her for selling out feminists. The quilters who chatted on chat groups hated her. While admitting her marketing prowess, they groused that we could all be as creative if we had “staff.” They sent out jabs often, with jokes about Christmas ornaments made from gold spray-painted post-Thanksgiving turkey carcasses, instructive memos detailing how to decorate driveways with spray-painted stencil motifs. Saturday Night Live produced a mock Martha Stewart Naked Christmas segment.
As if on a Martha Stewart silver platter the idea was given to me: I would photo-transfer the snidest remarks onto fabric, bordering a photo transferred image of Queen Martha, posing alongside her exquisite dining table, set with white linens, crystal, china and silver and a model’s smile. I worked possessed, as new ideas tend to motivate creative artists, making up techniques as I went, struggling to fit silverware on the screen of a scanner and to photocopy, print onto transfer paper, cut around delicate edges with an Exacto knife, and heat-set the little bits to fabric, mimicking the dinner place settings of the original cook book cover. It was pure revenge, venting, and joy, covered with hand-applied multi-colored seed beads. It was mine and it was good. Well, it was over-the-top and it made me laugh. I entered Dinner with Martha into the Association of Pacific Northwest Quilters juried show and won a prize. I was shocked, and secretly pleased. The next time I was asked if I quilted I could say, “Yes.”
Thirty photo-transferred quilts, two conventional bed quilts, several reverse appliqué anatomical heart quilts, and numerous fused postcards later I do not worry what traditional quilter’s think of my art. I make what I wish, I sell some in galleries and I am struck with new ideas— nearly always better than the ones before.
My appraising uses separate skills from creating. It is a chore of documenting, verifying, analyzing, identifying, describing, photographing and typing to the page. I have a respectable research library of books with thousands of black and white line drawings of historic quilt patterns painstakingly recorded by Barbara Brackman of Kansas, who has made this her life’s work. I have guides to pricing, guides to museum collections, coffee-table books full of stunning antique quilts, photographed under optimal conditions to enhance their unique personalities. I have fabric-dating guides with one-inch full-color photographic swatches produced by fellow appraiser Eileen Trestain, who has made this and sewing reproduction costumes her life’s work. I have an official metal seal, that looks like that of a notary public, with which I affix my name and certification to every appraisal that I send out, hoping that my calculations and informed estimates of value will stand, and that a disgruntled client or husband of same will not call me to court, midst their unfortunate divorce negotiations, to defend my values.
For these reasons I keep a low profile around quilters in guilds, who often pick my brain for information that I can give, but cause me worry least they exaggerate or misquote me. I try to observe the new techniques of contemporary styled and art quilters—I must understand them to keep my appraisal skills current—and ask questions because I am genuinely interested in their work. But I keep my quilts to myself, fearful they will judge my style inadequate, unschooled, Outsider Art.
I would love to be called an Outsider Artist, for it denotes innovation, exploration and creation of art without formal schooling. I adore Howard Finster, the successful southern madman painter and his paintings, with ranting text that nearly cover his images. He is my hero: making art his own way, confident that there is no wrong way, only differences in how we express ourselves. Art for art’s sake—
a human response to life.
We arrive at the retreat center along Flathead Lake, a Presbyterian Church Camp, along the lake’s edge, north of Polson. The landscape is of pines and dry grass, shimmering water, lofty mountains, full sun. It is an enormous log cabin, two floors of dorm rooms with peeled bark bunk beds, a dining room, a quilting-style work space, two decks with Adirondack chairs, a room with a stone fire place. I am awed once again by the beauty of Montana and its architecture. I am assigned a room with two roommates, and choose a lower bunk, a sort of cave within the room. My roommates are delightful, and we chatter like new girls at camp, a bit more reserved at first, but opening up like a spring flowers, little by little as confidence delivers.
I have come to write, with my sewing machine along as a prop to allay fears that I am not a quilter. But somehow the quilting fever catches me— I pull out fabric just purchased from a quilt-shop-stop in Polson and begin deciphering instructions to a pattern purchased in Bozeman in August. A pattern I think I may use to make a quilt for my son, my only child without a quilt his mother has made. He says he does not want one, but I don’t believe any child could not cherish a gift his mother has made with him specifically in mind. It is enough to push me along for now; I will make a quilt that I can keep if he seems resentful of my intentions. It will be wild, with purple squiggles on a lime green background, accented by three batiks carefully chosen in Polson. It is a complicated star pattern; requiring a plastic see-through square template to align the parts, cutting trapezoids and triangles, carefully maneuvering the rotary cutter. He has no idea how far I have come to be among these quilt women of Montana— in a room of laughter, jokes, talk of mortgages, parking issues on the U of M campus, children still on the payroll, trends in banking and birthing, dogs, homemade beer and chocolate, stories of divorce and remarriage, children and ever smart grandchildren, loss and renewal. Community. Friendship. Love.
Peggy wears her Griz nation sweats and T-shirt and cons the facilities director into bringing a TV down to the sewing room so she can call plays during the away game. Darlene quietly fits quilters with her custom jacket patterns. Martha delights in poking fun at newcomers when they go to her custom ironing board for the first time to press a seam, and see the nearly naked poster boy, covered with a heat sensitive fig leaf, that disappears when hot. The three Marlene’s share one part in a murder-mystery dinner play script, acted out after dinner over the three nights. Elaine drink too much wine and starts singing show tunes and pop songs from the sixties and seventies. Patsy, diligently sewing across the table from me, sings to herself, lost in summer-camp-style tunes. Lana shares stories of her Hawaiian grandmother and the quilts she used to make. I concentrate on making star points for my sons’ quilt, and listen to the history being shared and valued. I am lucky to be here.
Sunday morning I go for a walk, bushwhacking across weeds and Oregon Grape, past portions of an adventure course with ropes and tree platforms high above, following an animal trail, heading to the shore. I feel so much more than an outsider, a temporary visitor to the state, to the quilt guild, to the retreat. I think of becoming a Presbyterian. I think about enjoying one day at a time and my daughter Brooke, pregnant and expecting in March and the baby quilt I could make.
No longer feeling like a reporter in a quilt war zone, I smile feeling they have embedded themselves in my life. Our memoirs have merged, we will remember one another; they have accepted me for more of a quilter than I think I am. They ask me, “Will you come again next year?”
“Yes,” I say “of course I will.”
Footnote: A new quilt show has opened in Boston this April. Curated by Gerry Roy, it is a dazzling display as noted by critics: