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HISTORICAL QUILTS: Civil War Quilt Finds its Home
Published in The Virtual Quilt #26, August 1998
In 1995 TVQ published an article about an old Georgia quilt found in a thrift shop in the small town of Rockmart, a couple of hours northwest of Atlanta. (You can read it at Planet Patchwork at http://planetpatchwork.com/cwquilt.htm ). A rough-hewn utility quilt made of woolens and suitings, it caught the eye of Diane and Jim Lockwood, who lived a part of each year at Jim's family's homestead in Rockmart. After a few weeks of admiring it in the window of the store, Jim and Diane dickered with the store owner and purchased the quilt for $85.
During their "courtship" with the quilt, the Lockwoods spent a good deal of time talking to the store owner and others in an attempt to reconstruct its history. As they were drawn deeper into the quilt's story, and that of the family to whom it belonged, the
more fascinated they became. It emerged that the quilt was probably made in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area sometime in the late 19th century. Despite its rough materials, its style is that of a crazy quilt, with chicken track stitching around irregular shaped pieces, many of which showed their origins as sleeves, pocket-flaps, or pantslegs. It has no batting, and is backed with fertilizer sacks.
Having reconstructed part of the quilt's provenance, or history, the Lockwoods took the process a step beyond informal oral history and showed it to historians and textile experts at Pickett's Mill Battlefield Historic Site in Dallas, Georgia. These experts immediately recognized some of the material in the quilt as being from a Union uniform from the civil war. There were also swatches of gray in the quilt which the historians suspected were from Confederate uniforms, but this could not be proven conclusively.
The folks at Pickett's Mill recommended the Lockwoods take the quilt to the Atlanta History Center, a well-resourced museum and restoration staffed with professional historians. There they met Betsy Weyburn, Curator of Costumes and Textiles, and Gordon Jones, Curator of Military Collections. Betsy and Gordon confirmed the findings of the Pickett's Mill experts and were quite excited about the quilt. When asked if they would be interested in having such a quilt in their collection they enthusiastically said "yes!"
Gordon and Betsy provided the Lockwoods with some ideas on how to further pursue the quilt's provenance, and Diane and Jim were on their way back to their permanent home in California. But Diane resolved that some day, "after enjoying it for a while," she would donate the quilt to the History Center, returning it to its home in Georgia.
I didn't hear from Diane, with whom I'd corresponded by e-mail about the quilt, for some time. Then a few weeks ago she wrote me to say she and Jim were about to wrap up their homestead business in Georgia and that the time had come to give the quilt, the "old dear," as she called it, to the History Center. Lynn and I ware honored to be invited to the informal ceremony, which took place August 13.
So this past Thursday a small entourage of the quilt's admirers met at the History Center to participate in the ceremony. Included were Jean Ann Eitel, editor of Quilt Magazine, Dawn Young-Schaeffer and Clare Gilliland of the Lavender Mountain Quilt Guild (where Diane belongs) my wife Lynn and myself, and Lynn's parents, Bob and Barbara North. As well, of course, as Jim and Diane.
We were met in one of the Center's classrooms by Betsy and Gordon and the quilt was removed from its acid-free box, separated from its acid-free tissue, and spread out on several tables for examination and photos. Since the History Center doesn't allow photographs of its quilts, this was our last opportunity to get pictures.
Although I wrote the earlier article about the quilt, this was the first time I had seen it, and found it to be more beautiful than the photo I had seen. It was clearly made as a utility item, for keeping folks warm in their beds in homes not blessed with central heating, and it must have performed that function quite well. But because of its lowly nature it was not highly valued by the family which made it. While other more decorative quilts were valued and preserved by the family (and eventually sold), this quilt was found in the basement of their home. It took the appreciative eye of the Lockwoods to recognize its potential historical significance.
Betsy Weyburn and Gordon Jones of the History Center were clearly happy that the Lockwoods were donating the quilt. Gordon acknowledged the great value of this quilt, not just for itself, but for the provenance that came with it. "We get a great many quilts and textiles with no provenance whatsoever," he said. "What we know about this quilt and its origins makes it quite remarkable, particularly for a utility item of this type." Usually such quilts are simply used up by those who make them.
Asked about the History Center's textile collection, Betsy said it contains thousands of items, including costumes and uniforms, as well as about 200 quilts. "We have lots of crazy quilts and an extensive collection ranging from the early 19th to the mid-20th century." The quilts are not on permanent display but some are rotated into a variety of special exhibits. Currently the Center is featuring the Roland Freeman African-American quilt exhibition "Communion of the Spirits" which is touring the country. It is quite a moving exhibit if you plan to be in the Atlanta area in the next few months. In November the Center plans an exhibit of some 80 historic quilts documented by the Georgia Quilt project.
Those of us who attended the donation ceremony then visited the Freeman exhibit and some of us had lunch at the History Center's restaurant, the Swan Coach House. It made for a very pleasant morning, and a good feeling that a historically valuable quilt had been recognized and protected.
As most quilters know, many families have no idea of the value of the quilts that were made by great-grandmothers and they often end up in a heap at the estate sale. Unless an appreciative quilter comes along and rescues them, they may be lost. Even if the quilts are preserved, the origins of many are lost to memory because of a lack of documentation. The importance of even a simple label with the name of the maker and the date can't be overstated.
Beyond this, since many of us don't have the knowledge, know-how, or facilities for the proper preservation of textiles, donating valuable quilts to local historical centers is something we should all consider. If you have an "old dear" that you suspect is historically valuable, have an expert look at it. Then, after you've enjoyed it for a while, be sure that it goes to a safe home where it can be studied and appreciated by all of us who value quilts.
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