Ernest Byron Haight

Nebraska’s most distinctive quiltmaker, Ernest Haight, belies the notion that quiltmaking is women’s work, and even more paradoxically, his involvement in the art resulted from his father’s example and encouragement, rather than his mother’s. His father, Elmer Haight, had been quilting with a local women’s society for some time when he suggested that Ernest piece a quilt for each of his five children and that he, their grandfather, would hand quilt it. Ernest took up the challenge in 1936, and father and son together completed four of the quilts. The youngest daughter received the first quilt that was both pieced and quilted by her father, Ernest. What a memorable inheritance for the children of Ernest and Isabelle Haight of David City, Nebraska. Many quilt owners have a mother and grandmother’s quilt in their collection, but few can claim one made by their father, or even more rare, father and grandfather.
Ernest pieced many of his quilts on the treadle sewing machine that his maternal grandparents brought by covered wagon to Butler County about 1880. His mother, Dora, quilted for him after his father died, but she managed only one or two a year and could not keep up with his output of pieced tops. Thirty-five or forty tops stood in line for quilting in 1960, when Ernest and his wife, Isabelle, decided to confront the problem. As a first step Ernest replaced the old treadle sewing machine with a new zigzag model. Next he devised a method for quilting by machine. He explains his method in a booklet entitled Practical Machine-Quilting for the Homemaker, published in 1974. His method of machine quiltmaking requires fifty to sixty hours of piecing and eight to twelve hours of machine quilting for each full-sized quilt. Binding on the machine takes another hour and a half. His pioneer ancestors and their quiltmaking friends would have been astounded at Ernest’s speed of production.
The first Haights arrived at their Butler County homestead in 1880, and Ernest, born in 1889, grew up on the farm. He graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1923 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and was awarded the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Key for outstanding scholarship. Love of the land pulled Ernest back to Butler County, where he farmed the family homestead instead of following an engineering career.
In 1928 Ernest married Isabelle Hooper, the pretty daughter of the Baptist minister in David City. Parents and children have shared love and talents for many years, encouraging each other in all their endeavors. In her 1988 interview with a member of the Nebraska Quilt Project, Mrs. Haight said, “The best crop we ever raised on our farm was our crop of boys and girls.” Strong family ties continue to bind the family together and provide an emotional climate often associated with quilts, their makers, and owners.

“Kaleidoscope Star” is the second quilt made by Ernest, the first in the series of four quilts pieced by him and hand-quilted by his seventy-five-year-old father. In 1984 Ernest added a machine-embroidered inscription, “The second quilt pieced by Ernest B Haight about 1937/a special border design for a star pattern quilt/Hand quilted by Ernest’s father, Elmer W. Haight 75 yrs. of age/Presented to his granddaughter, Mae Belle Haight, Sept. 1984.” Ernest used his drafting skills to design this quilt and other variations of the single star pattern. The “Kaleidoscope Star” has a strong art deco feeling, as do many of the Haight quilts. Its perfect symmetry duplicates the mirrored bits of broken glass in a kaleidoscope, so the quilt is well named. The narrow black sashing strips used to separate and outline this eight-pointed star became a Haight signature.
Ernest Haight admonished readers of his book who might want to duplicate the narrow black sashing to “remember this narrow strip does add a little extra width wherever it is used, and it is necessary to make a little correction by cutting one-sixteenth inch off the side of each piece in the block on the edge where the strip is used.” Ernest preached accuracy and absolute precision, a part of his engineer’s personality. His wife, Isabelle, remembers how Ernest called attention to what he considered a “lack of exactness” in her own early 1930s quilts. She retorted, “If you can do any better, prove it. Otherwise, keep still.” Her husband took up the challenge and soon became the quiltmaker of the family as Isabelle followed other creative pursuits. Honed drafting skills, very sharp scissors, and a keen eye are among the prerequisites for making a Haight quilt.
“Patio Tile” illustrates both the effective use of narrow black sashing and strips, and one more solved puzzle, a clever and new method of machine piecing. By age seventy-three, Ernest had discovered an efficient and accurate way of piecing his strong geometric blocks, anticipating methods used by quiltmakers in the 1980s. He found that by sewing larger-than-needed strips together and then cutting them to the desired shape and stitching them into designs, instead of the customary method of sewing small precut pieces together, he could save time and have more hours to spend on the next project. “Patio Tile” is machine quilted in a crosshatch pattern and has a machine-embroidered inscription on the border: “Patio Tile/Original Pattern quilt made by Ernest B. Haight/Presented as a Christmas gift 1986 to Mae Belle Haight.”
Ernest made puzzles before he made quilts. He especially enjoyed carving interlocking wooden blocks and chains. He translated one of his wood puzzles to fabric to produce his red-and-white “Interlocking Squares” quilt. This machine-quilted and machine-pieced quilt illustrates his quilt and puzzlemaking analogy in that “[quilt] pieces have to match precisely. When you put them together you have a nice finished product. When they are spread apart, they are little more than scraps of material.”
Ernest did not keep track of how many quilts he made over the years, but he quilted for fifty years (1936-1986) and, according to his wife, he gave away five to fifteen quilts each year. Therefore the total output would be well over two hundred quilts at a minimum and possibly nearly four times that number. Members of his immediate family received one each Christmas, as well as for other occasions. He also gave them to friends in his community and members of his church. For fifteen years he gave his old friend, the pastor of the David City Baptist Church, a quilt each Christmas. The Haights taught Sunday school and gave quilts to members of their class for graduations, weddings, and other special occasions.
Many Nebraskans have had the good fortune to see the Haight quilts at county and state fairs, where they consistently won prizes. Ernest has entered quilts in the Butler County Fair since the 1940s and began entering quilts in the Nebraska State Fair in 1967. His quilts have also been exhibited throughout Nebraska at numerous shows. A ninety-day show at the Stuhr Museum, Grand Island, in 1971, featured twenty-five of Ernest and Isabelle’s quilts. Other shows include those at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska—Lincoln; Mid-America Arts Alliance Travelling Show; Lincoln Community Playhouse; and Nebraska Center for Continuing Education, University of Nebraska—Lincoln. In 1982 a very well attended one-man show at the Elder Gallery at Nebraska Wesleyan University featured nearly fifty quilts. Ernest is well known to quilters outside the state as well: he and his quilts have been the subject of numerous articles in Quilters Newsletter Magazine.
Ernest Haight quilted to “relieve tension and to keep…out of mischief.” The work was an extension of his interest in puzzles and his inherent drafting ability, and he stopped late in life, only when his health began to fail. Not surprisingly, Ernest Haight joined Grace Snyder as one of the two original members of the Nebraska Quiltmaker’s Hall of Fame in 1986.

Text reproduced from Patricia Cox Crews’ Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers, pages 217-218.
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  • Documentation Project

    Nebraska Quilt Project

    University of Nebraska-Lincoln

  • Ephemera

    Why Ernest Haight Made Quilts

    Gregory, Jonathan

  • 1966

    Nebrasks Centenni...

    Haight, Ernest Byro...

  • 1937

    Kaleidoscope Star...

    Haight, Ernest Byro...

  • 1980


    Haight, Ernest Byro...

  • 1973

    Red Stars and Int...

    Haight, Ernest Byro...

  • 1933

    Patio Tile

    Haight, Ernest Byro...

  • 1968

    Original Design -...

    Haight, Ernest Byro...

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