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Book Reviews: Two Historical Perspectives on the American Quilt

Quilts and Women of the Mormon Migrations:
Treasures of Transition
Mary Bywater Cross
Rutledge Hill Press, 251 pages $24.95 (paperback), $34.95 (hardcover)

Available at a discount in the Planet Patchwork Bookstore

By Addy Harkavy

Whatever your religious persuasion, this is an important book about the history of quilting in the United States. It is well researched and scholarly yet easy to read and enjoy. It gets my vote as a must-read for anyone who wants a handle on quilts and the women who made them between the years 1830 and 1900.

I don't even know where to begin. To say that the book is loosely divided chronologically into four sections would be to understate its scope. To add that the appendices include quilt analysis, preservation of treasures, chronology of related Mormon History from 1830 to 1900, and Pioneer emigration and migration company lists would be to perpetuate the error. That the book contains notes and an extensive bibliography can be taken for granted in a resource of this type and barely needs to be mentioned.

Since I have to begin somewhere, let me say that the book is an in-depth look at the lives, quilts, and history of Mormon women. The women themselves represent a broad period in quilt history, are highly diverse in their prior experiences, origins, modes of travel, and migration to the Intermountain West. Each quilt covered is accompanied by a table that includes information about the quilt and biographical notes on its maker. Accompanying copy describes the quilt in detail and provides compelling insights into the maker's life. I found this excerpt particularly compelling: "Seventeen-year-old Mary [Young Wilcox] walked three yoke of oxen pulling a heavy wagon across the Plains. Part of her responsibility was yoking and unyoking them, a difficult task for anyone . . . She lived to be ninety-eight and had 625 descendents . . . ."

Cross organizes the quilts by the women's dates of arrival in Salt Lake City and by the companies with which they traveled. Arranged by arrival dates, the period span 1830 to 1848, 1849 to 1855, 1856 to 1869, and 1870 to 1900. These periods are themselves defined by goals of the Mormon Church to seek the place, to gather in Zion, to welcome the faithful, and to settle the Intermountain West, respectively. Thus, each section opens with a painting depicting an event in Mormon history, an overview of the migration and settlement at the time in question, and personal glimpses of the quilters with discussion about their quilts. Richly illustrated with photographs of clothing, quilts, dwellings, adults, and children, this book is visually rich as well as informationally packed. There's even a chart for the origin and time period of textiles in representative quilts in the study of Mormon quilts that sparked the book.

The quilt analysis section discusses textiles used in these historic works, quilt making techniques, styles and traditions, and features common to these pieces (such as set of blocks, quilting patterns, center block focus, themes, etc.

If you're interested in quilt history, don't miss this book!


Quilts from the Civil War
Barbara Brackman
C&T Publishing, 128 pages $25.95

Available at a discount in the Planet Patchwork Bookstore

Brackman's book is a reasonably successful blend of projects, historical notes, and diary entries. I say reasonably successful because it is as though she had to balance "how to" information (including selection of reproduction fabrics) with history. As the book is structured, each chapter covers a given theme associated with the Civil War, including The Emancipation Proclamation, Union and Secession, Soldiers' Aid Societies, and the like. Quilts from the Civil War era are shown in full color, and historical notes add a great deal of meaning to the quilts Brackman chooses to feature.

Brackman notes in the book's introduction that "The book encourages the reader to make a connection to the women of the Civil War era by copying their quilts. Some quilter make a faithful copy of the original, matching each block to reproduction fabrics. These faithful copies are wonderful exercises in quilt history, teaching the copyist much about fabric and design attitudes of the era. Many quilters make an adaptation, beginning with the basic idea, adding and changing borders, updating color schemes, and introducing a modern aesthetic. And some use a quilt or an incident as a point of inspiration, creating an interpretation -- a quilt that might have existed." Accepting that as the book's charge, Brackman achieves her goals. This book would have been more meaningful for me had she included slave quilts, which have been covered extensively in other books and which are, by definition, part of American quilting history before and during the Civil War period.


Addy Harkavy is co-owner of Pinetree Quiltworks and can be reached at addy@TheExperimentalQuilter.com. Copyright 1997 by Addy Harkavy.



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