Alphabet Quilt - Back to School, by Bill Volckening

Back to School – by Bill Volckening

It’s back to school time! In the ninth episode of Why Quilts Matter, Shelly Zegart talks about quilt scholarship.

“Quilts are icons of American culture,” said Zegart. “Scholars have recognized their centrality to folklore, folk art, art history, sociology, women’s studies, American history and the decorative arts. Yet quilt study retains its own unique character.”

Quilt scholarship is very much a grassroots field. Knowledge is in a lot of different places, and research often requires weeding through romanticized ideas. The educational opportunities can lead in all directions. So, what’s the best way to learn about quilts? I say try every avenue until you discover the fast track.

If you’re just getting your feet wet and want to check things out, quilt exhibits and books are accessible and allow you to go at your own pace. My book collection has grown as quickly as my quilt collection, and I’ve got a long wish list on Amazon. Of course, you don’t have to own a lot of books. Many guilds have libraries, as do quilt and textile centers.

Some quilt books are also exhibit catalogs. After seeing the mind-blowing “Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibit at The Whitney, I marched down to the gift shop to get the catalog. It would help me remember what I’d seen, and give me time to read more about these extraordinary women and their marvelous quilts.

Most of the books are fairly specific and look at genres or periods in time, but some volumes are more like art history books, with chronological, historical surveys. Two of my favorites are “The American Quilt, A History of Cloth and Comfort: 1750-1950” by Roderick Kiracofe, and “Quilts, The Democratic Art: 1780-2007” by Robert Shaw.

Classes are good, too. You can find quilt history and textile dating classes at certain quilt shows. Last year, I took some courses at the American Quilters Society Show in Paducah. The classes were geared toward appraising, and much of the focus was on valuation. However, the experience was good for anyone who enjoys being immersed in quilts. Everyone brought show and tell, and that was the icing on the cake.

If you’re really hooked on quilts, join the local and national quilt study groups. Local quilt study groups are great because they look at real quilts and provide a forum for sharing ideas in person. The American Quilt Study Group (AQSG) has an annual meeting called the Seminar. This year will be my first time attending, and from all accounts it’s like a great, big quilt history convention.

Much of the interaction in the quilt history community happens online. Two of my favorite online resources are The Quilt Index and the International Quilt Study Center collection browser. Both sites allow users to search with specific words or terms, but with more than 50,000 records, The Quilt Index is by far the largest online database of documented quilts.

The most interactive online resource I’ve found is the Facebook group, Quilts-Vintage and Antique created by Lynn Miller of Gilbert, Arizona. The group was originally intended to be a virtual museum for sharing pictures of quilts, but it’s taken on a life of its own. Pictures of quilts with questions and comments are rolling by all day, every day.

If you’re like me and don’t have a lot of sewing experience, one of the most valuable resources is the local quilt guild. Interacting with quiltmakers is always a learning experience for me. I’ve learned all about materials, equipment and construction- and quiltmakers have many interesting observations when viewing antique and vintage quilts.

That’s how I went back to school to learn about quilts. I tried every avenue and realized I needed to drive down all of them to be on the fast track. It can be a wild ride at times, but oh, what a view!

Bill Volckening
Portland, Oregon


Image Credits:
Photo courtesy of Bill Volckening.

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