The Art, the History and the Beauty of Quilts
By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper
Pam Weeks knows a lot about quilts. She is not only a person who can create a quilt, but her descriptions of the time periods, the people and even the fabrics used in quilting create images of various time periods in history.
When you listen to Pam speak about inscribed quilts, wedding quilts, and presentation quilts, for example, and the years the quilts were created, you are catapulted back in time. There you are, in your imagination, sitting beside a Civil War era wife as she stitches fabrics together by the light of a fireplace or kerosene lamp, or you might imagine yourself in the 1970s when a young person is making quilts at a time when arts and crafts saw a resurgence. Perhaps, as Pam describes a particular quilt or time period, you imagine yourself among a group of women who stitched a quilt together in a church hall or someone’s living room.
“I come from a long line of crafters,” Pam says. In the 1970s, Pam, who is originally from Gilford, New Hampshire, was making quilts. “I am a tenth generation NH resident and I love family stories.”
With a college background in art education, Pam also loves the outdoors and was the first director of the Nordic ski program at Gunstock in Gilford. In the summer, she was the recreation director for Gunstock’s campground. Leading arts and crafts classes led Pam to do a quilting class.
“I made my first quilt in about 1976 or 1977,” she remembers. Pam’s love of quilting and her interest in her family history led her on a quest to find a quilt made by her great, great, great grandmother. “I thought if I looked hard enough, I could maybe find a signature quilt made by her. Well, I got lucky and found a quilt with what I thought was her signature at an auction in Epsom, New Hampshire.”
Pam laughs as she recalls that after doing further research, she discovered the quilt was made and signed by someone with the same name as her ancestor. Although it could have been a big disappointment, it got Pam even more interested in historic quilts and eventually led to her current job as the Binney Family Curator of the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.
As well as her job at the museum, Pam is a lecturer on the roster of speakers with NH Humanities. She travels to locations all over the state and beyond, giving talks on quilt-making and quilt history. Pam uses quilts to tell stories of the Civil War, women's history, and industrial history and her audiences always leave a program with a lot of knowledge and a sense of the fun Pam brings to her programs.
“Historically, lots of people made quilts,” she says. While quilting remained somewhat popular in other places, it died out in New Hampshire until the craft revival of the 1970s, the time period when Pam made her first quilt.
In her lectures, Pam invites audience questions and also encourages people to bring in a quilt they own. She can tell a lot about the time period a quilt was made (which is a question often asked by those who attend a lecture), by looking at the fabric in a quilt and the colors.
“There were color fads throughout history,” Pam explains. “In the 1840s, Prussian blue was popular; the 1850s to 1870s saw a lot of quilts with a white background and red and green applique. The Civil War era saw many patriotic quilts and in the 1880s, charm quilts were popular, using different fabrics. In the early 1900s, quilts focused on the Colonial revival movement.”
Pam adds that the Industrial Revolution started in England in the 1790s, making fabric much more available to the general public. The Revolution swept into America, and suddenly Americans also had greater access to fabrics.
The notion that women made quilts out of whatever scraps they could find, such as worn-out clothing, is somewhat incorrect. Most people, according to Pam, were able to find and afford fabrics for quilting. “By the 1830s and 1840s, most people could afford fabric. Women were making quilts for everything from the utilitarian purpose of warmth to amazing, beautiful quilts kept for special occasions.”
The quilts that were kept for use on a bed when an honored guest came to stay overnight are known as a show-off or show quilt. The quilt was placed on the top of the bed, and two to three blankets were under the quilt to keep the guest warm. Such a quilt also showcased the needlework skill of the maker.
There is a picture many people have of quilting bees and sewing circles, where a group of women sat together working on a single quilt. All the women stitched the quilt pieces by hand, and the gathering was a social event as well as a practical project. While these events did take place, Pam says many women sewed quilts at home, on their own…on a sewing machine.
“By the 1850s, the sewing machine was available and many quilts were machine pieced. For example, out of a group of 20 surviving quilts made during the Civil War, 11 have machine quilting on the surface,” Pam explains. “But women also quilted together at socials.”
This leads Pam to speak about a quilt she deems “remarkable” at the Ashland (New Hampshire) Historical Society. The quilt is on display at the Society and is called an autograph quilt because about 406 people from the town signed the quilt. (Volunteers at the Society went through the archives and were able to identify 48 of the signers and even found on a town census map from the 1890s where the signers lived in Ashland.)
One of the quilts Pam has learned of are remembrance or presentation quilts, which might be made by church members and given to a pastor when he was retiring or leaving the church. “These types of quilts celebrate a person’s civic or religious work,” Pam says.
Pam has collected quilts from many areas and she has seen quilts in private collections. She says her collection is modest and she uses it specifically as examples of quilts made at various times, and in many colors and fabrics, for her lectures.
A big part of Pam’s lectures show that an initial interest in dating or finding out more about a quilt can lead to new hobbies or interests. Perhaps, for example, you own a quilt made primarily in blue colors. You are curious about that blue, and when and why it was so popular. You research it and learn about the Industrial Revolution and manufacturing history. This might lead to further interests, proving that quilts are a gateway to finding out about our past and leading us to other interests.
When Pam invites attendees to her lectures to bring in a quilt they own, she asks that they share whatever they may know about the quilt. Sometimes the owner knows very little or maybe only that it was made by an ancestor. With years of studying quilts, Pam is skilled at dating quilts by fabrics, colors and fads, as mentioned above. She will arrange quilts in chronological order and talk about how fabric was made and local mills that served as manufacturers of fabrics.
Certainly Pam knows a great deal about Civil War era quilts and she has even co-authored (with Don Bell) a well-respected book on the subject titled “Civil War Quilts.”
One of Pam’s lectures is called “Jane Stickle Revealed”. In the 150th anniversary year of the making of the beautiful Jane Stickle quilt, Pam was invited to examine and do further research on the iconic Civil War quilt. Her lecture reveals the results of her research and sheds light on the life of a Vermont farm wife who made the incredible quilt. (The Stickle Quilt is made up of 169 five-in. blocks, each in different patterns, with an amazing 5,602 pieces surrounded by a unique scalloped border.)
Another lecture focuses on quilts made for use by soldiers during the Civil War. These quilts are very rare. Only 17 such quilts are known (so far) to exist, and Pam has studied most of them in person. In her lecture, she outlines the origins of the U.S. Sanitary Commission at the beginning of the Civil War; the roles women played on the home front, and on the battlefield and features the stories of 14 actual Civil War soldiers’ quilts.
Over the years Pam has seen thousands of quilts, and some, she says, belong in museums. If you are the lucky owner of a quilt (especially an older quilt), there are some things you should know and do to protect your prized possession.
First, inspect the quilt to see if it is structurally sound enough to be displayed. Obviously, if the quilt is coming apart or looks fragile, hanging or displaying it in any manner is not advisable. If you do hang a quilt that is in good condition, display it in a place without exposure to direct sunlight. “And don’t display the quilt for more than two or three months at a time,” Pam cautions.
Storing should be done by wrapping the quilt in a sheet and placing on a shelf vs. putting in a box. “Quilt fabric needs to breathe,” Pam adds.
For someone who loves quilts and history, having a job as curator at a special place such as the New England Quilt Museum is a dream-come-true. As part of her job, Pam says she travels a lot and is in contact with people who have quilt exhibit ideas. “I get to see a lot of good stuff,” she says with a laugh.
Currently, the New England Quilt Museum is featuring an exhibit called “The Fabric Collage Quilts of Susan Carlson.” Pam is clearly excited about the exhibit, which is up until December 30 of this year. (Carlson is known as a quilter extraordinaire who creates scenes with vivid colors in her large quilts.)
Pam’s job is interesting, and because eight exhibits take place every year at the museum, she meets many quilting artists and continues to see collections, both private and public. “A lot of people collect quilts because they recognize their artistic value,” she says.
Although she moves in the most respected of quilting communities, meeting all sorts of artists and experts, Pam remains down-to-earth and proud of her Lakes Region roots. Family is certainly important to her, and she speaks once more of the thing that got her interested in quilting so long ago.
With a bit of the thrill of the hunt excitement in her voice, she says, “I sure would like to find another quilt with one of my ancestor’s names on it…”
To learn more about Pam’s lectures via the NH Humanities, visit www.nhhumanities.org. To learn more about the New England Quilting Museum, visit www.nequiltmuseum.org. For information about Pam weeks, visit www.pamweeksquilts.com.