Nov 22, 2013

deep inside the quilt archives of Lincoln, Nebraska

I've always wanted to have one of those "Raiders of the Lost Ark" experiences.

No... not the one with the snakes... but the one at the very end of the movie where after all the excitement, the ark is finally, and some might add sadly, hauled off to be placed deep inside the bowels of a museum. The camera takes us past rows and rows of lonely treasures stored in nondescript crates and boxes...

Well, this week... I finally got to live my museum treasure-hunt moment!

My academic research (more on that below) allowed me access deep inside the bowels of the International Quilt Studies Center & Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska. Yet, rather than the sad and lonely final journey of the Lost Ark, my trek into the collection archive was lively, special and quite simply, fantastic!

International Quilt Studies Center & Museum, Lincoln, NE

Deep inside the collection archives of the International Quilt Studies Center, Lincoln, Neb.
I'm pursuing a Master's degree in Liberal Studies at Rice University and next year, I'll be writing my final thesis (Rice MLS refers to it as a capstone). My research is centered on historical quilts and their influence on the modern art quilt movement.

So, after months of intensive study and discovery, I finally made the trek to Lincoln and was given the priceless opportunity to see (and touch! with gloves, of course) specific quilts I've so far only seen in books. The most interesting part of this viewing was the chance to see the actual colors and the fabrics used in each quilt. Over the years, these quilts have been photographed and reproduced and printed many, many times, but not always with accurate color, and mostly without much photographic detail. So it was a surprise to discover that a few sections of some quilts that I thought were white, or pale colors based on the images in books, were actually detailed, and highly creative, printed fabrics. It was also very cool to be able to see the detail of the stitches up close, because as you study these tiny stitches, you can't help but think of the quilter as she sat and moved her needle up and down.  And this is especially poignant as some of the quilts I studied are well over 100 years old.

The other truly special part about seeing these quilts up close and personal is the opportunity to see the backing. Many of the quilt backs can be just as interesting as the quilt top. Nowadays, we just buy extra-wide fabric (104 or 120 inches wide) to cover the entire back without a cut or a stitch needed - so handy. But these quilt backs have a great many pieces stitched together and therefore, the opportunity to see them helps shape the quilt's whole story.

The staff at IQSC was great to work with and I appreciated all the preparation on their part, as well as their guidance and time I was granted.  I also have to mention that the husband --- who also happens to be a professional photographer (and I must also point out the one who did most of the driving on the car trip) --- was also allowed to accompany me in the viewing area and he took these great pics.

For my thesis (and a semi-related book), I'll be writing about global art trends and challenge conventional notions that Western art, motifs and patterns influence the East by documenting more precisely how influence, commerce, and art, has traveled from the East to the West and vice versa for centuries.

Kim Taylor, left, Collections Manager with IQSC, and Teresa Wong, researcher,
studying historical quilts from the IQSC collection.
IQSC opened about five years ago on the campus of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  The center specializes as hub of academic research for all things quilt related.  They store and archive many notable collections of historic quilts and they have several galleries for exhibition space open to the public.  They also have excellent online resources and photo databases available on their site that can be accessed by everyone.

Photo of the exhibition "Posing with Patchwork" on view at the
International Quilt Studies Center & Museum in Lincoln.
Right now, there is a very special exhibit called "Posing with Patchwork" featuring photographs from 1855-1955 with each photo featuring quilts in one way or another. Janet Finley guest curated this special show in collaboration with Marin Hanson, curator with IQSC. Walking through this gallery you can see poster-sized enlargements of some of the special photos placed alongside the actual historic quilt featured in the picture.

This photo shows a woman sewing a block featured in the quilt hanging next to it.
But if you can't make it to Lincoln, you can read more about these in Janet's wonderful book "Quilts in Everyday Life 1855-1955" which includes detailed description of the time and people shown in hundreds of photographs, as well as the quilts pictured in each setting.  (Her book is available on Amazon). This book is a great read not only for quilt lovers, but for anyone interested in our American history through photography.

Here's a picture of one my favorite quilts from a second exhibition on view. The exhibition features the work of a Nebraska man - an engineer - who one day was critical of the accuracy of the points (or perhaps the lack thereof) on a quilt his wife was making. As he criticized, his wife told him that if he thought he could do it better, he should do it himself!  hmmm... So, what may seem like a common exchange between two married people, began the unlikely journey of 50 years of quiltmaking for Ernest Haight where he perfected ways to strip piece and machine quilt. Very cool collection.

This is one of the quilts on display from the "Ernest Haight Half Century of Quiltmaking" on view inside galleries of the International Quilt Studies Center.

I hope this is the first of many museum moments to come!

Please leave me a comment.


  1. I had the pleasure of not only seeing these two fabulous exhibits last summer but was able to have the museum head curator take me on a behind the scenes tour. The facility is top notch and I wish I lived closer so as to volunteer, etc. You are so lucky to be able to view the treasures the museum holds! Dawn Eckrich Iowa City IA

    1. Thanks Dawn. You're right, this is a real treasure. I also wished I lived closer, but I am very lucky because I have family in the area, so I hope to be back soon. Thanks for sharing your visit!

  2. This would be the dream come true trip for sure. I'm always astounded by what we see in exhibits, but there's so many more they cannot put out that we all would love to see. I would also love to volunteer, but it's a long drive for me too. May your capstone lead you to your dream job.

    1. Thanks Dee! The collections are so vast it is difficult to display very much at one time - but I guess that is a good problem for museums to have. We're lucky they are there to archive these quilts for us though. Hope you get to visit one day! Thanks for your comments!

  3. Wow, that was a great post. I am sharing it on my Facebook page, thanks!