Why Quilts Matter – Question and Answer with Lynne Bassett
“Since quilts were made—not by artisans—but by ordinary women whose lives they closely reflect, they are fonts of information about the people and periods they represent.”
Why Quilts Matter: History, Art and Politics
Who better to talk about Episode 2: Quilts Bring History Alive and the great stories behind quilts than quilt historian and textile scholar Lynne Bassett? Lynn’s professional expertise and passion for quilt and textile history resonates with all the Civil War reproduction fabric quilt makers, designers and reenactors who are commemorating the recent 150th Anniversary of the Civil War in America. The questions we asked Lynne came from the “Quilts Bring History Alive” chapter found in the Why Quilts Matter Discussion Guide.
How does the acquisition and documentation of quilt history help inform our understanding of women’s history?
I would argue that documenting and understanding quilt history informs us not only of women’s history, but also of history in general. Quilts manifest the social values, art, and economy of a people. By analyzing quilt designs, we see cultural identity demonstrated within geographic regions and ethnicities; by examining the fabrics, we see domestic and national economies, labor, and technology; by researching the motivation behind the making of a quilt, or the keeping of a quilt, we see social values as well as very personal histories. This history does not belong to women alone—it is everyone’s history.
How are quilts unique primary sources?
While I think that costume, like quilts, offers multiple opportunities to research domestic and national economies, labor, technology, social values, art, and personal expression, the one thing that seems to make quilts stand out is how individuals and families invest them with powerful stories of their personal and family history. Quilts are public history. I can think of no other object that as a category offers so many facets of study and relevance.
Quilts are an outlet for sharing stories. What quilt(s) hold your favorite story?
There are so many, how can I possibly choose? Having recently finished the exhibition and book, Homefront & Battlefield: Quilts & Context in the Civil War, with my colleague Madelyn Shaw, every quilt we included had a remarkable and often poignant story. One of my greatest favorites, though, would have to be the wool embroidered and appliquéd quilt attributed to Emily Wiley Munroe of Lynnfield, Mass.I first researched this quilt for the MassQuilts project and was glad to have the opportunity to use it again for H & B.
Part of the reason I love this quilt is that the story wasn’t handed to me on a silver platter, but I was given bits of evidence that I then had to fill out with research to discover the whole story, which is great fun! And while I can’t be 100% certain that I got the story exactly correct, I’m 95% sure. The family called it a “Civil War” quilt (but without further explanation), and they knew a couple of the family members to whom the quilt had been passed down—and so I took those tidbits and laid them out and started to fill in the blank spots in between.
I figured out that the quilt must have been made by Emily Wiley Munroe—she was the only woman of the right age in the right place in the line of descent. When I researched her family, I found that four of her brothers enlisted in the Civil War, two in the cavalry—and her quilt is appliquéd with horses. In fact, the quilt beautifully supports the documentary evidence found about the family in my research—the fabrics that it is made from are pieces of work clothing and household textiles such as you would find in a farming family in 19th-century New England. I love looking at the fabrics and recognizing the black superfine broadcloth of a worn-out “best” coat, or wool trousers with a seat that’s worn smooth and shiny, or the green baize lining of an old cloak.
The other reason I love this quilt is that it is a unique and beautiful piece of American folk art. I am thrilled by Emily’s artistry in the overall design and in the details—how she twisted two different colored yarns to outline the flowers, how she chose a coarsely woven wool fabric to create a furry dog…. We have the outlines of a story—the older sister with four brothers fighting in the war—and we can imagine how she stitched her worry into this quilt, hoping and praying that her little brothers (one of them only 16 years old) would come home safely to the house she appliquéd in the center—the house surrounded by pots of flowers and depictions of pets. And I love this story because it has a happy ending—all of her brothers came home.
What is next for you?
My next major project, which includes an exhibition and catalog, is about Romantic Era costume (1810-1860) for the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut—opening in June, 2014. In the meantime, I will keep abreast of quilt studies through my work as the editor of Uncoverings, the annual journal of the American Quilt Study Group.
More about Lynne
Lynne Zacek Bassett is an award-winning independent scholar specializing in New England’s historic costume and textiles. From 1995 to 2000 she was the curator of textiles and fine arts at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. In addition to her exhibition publications, Lynne has contributed to numerous publications, including her most recent book Homefront & Battlefield: Civil War Quilts in Context (co-authored with Madelyn Shaw). Lynne is the primary author of Massachusetts Quilts: Our Common Wealth, and the editor of the journal, Uncoverings, for the American Quilt Study Group. More information about Lynne can be found at Antique Quilt Dating.