Since Kentucky: Surveying State Quilts

In 1981 The Kentucky Quilt Project was formed to survey the state's quilts. It was the first of the state quilt documentation projects. Since 1981 groups in most states, as well as Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia have undertaken quilt surveys informed by the methods and directions of The Kentucky Quilt Project, thereby spawning the largest grassroots movement in the decorative arts in the last half of the 20th century.

More than 200,000 quilts have been documented at more than 2000 “Quilt Days,” and additional projects are starting every year. The Kentucky Quilt Project’s mission has greatly expanded from its original goal of documentation, exhibition and publication of Kentucky’s 19th century quilts. The project has spawned a series of exhibitions, conferences and publications in a number of areas of quilt interest over the past 22 years.

In Barbara Brackman’s June, 1990 Americana magazine article “Crescendo of Quilts,” she said “Surveys recording this country’s arts and crafts are not new. The major project to document folk art before quilt projects was during the Depression. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) organized the Index of American Design, commissioning artists to record important classic Americana including quilts.”

As the introduction by Holger Cahill in the resulting publication Index of American Design describes, “State Index projects of any size set up their own research staffs made up of persons familiar with the history of American crafts or expert in some particular field… It was the function of research staffs to make surveys of local material, to select from it the objects to be recorded, checking on their history and authenticity… In January 1936, a preliminary Index manual was issued by the Washington office of the Federal Art Project outlining the scope of the new activity, its purpose, plan or organization, methods of recording, research, classification and filing, together with specimen copies of data sheets to accompany each drawing.”

For me, the Index of American Design became a point of reference. As I reread its introduction, I realized the imperfections of the methodology yet at the same time recognized that studying the Index helped me to put into perspective the value of the state quilt projects. I was able to acknowledge the projects’ deficiencies as part of the evolutionary process.

To draw in the quilts for study, we took The Kentucky Quilt Project to the people with the “Quilt Days” concept. One-hundred-dollar prizes were offered for the oldest, best preserved, 19th century, Kentucky-made quilts with provenance. We had 12 Quilt Days within 50 miles of everywhere in the state – heavily advertised in advance with the help of local organizers and the newly formed Kentucky Heritage Quilt Society. At each Quilt Day our team of experts studied, photographed, and documented the quilts; lectured on the care and necessity of preserving quilts and donating them to museums; and showed quilting films. The Quilt Days were very successful, thanks to local volunteer groups, resulting in documentation of over 1,000 19th-century Kentucky quilts in one year.

When we began, none of us knew much about quilts except that we loved them. I was just beginning my study of quilts. I consider The Kentucky Quilt Project my two year Ph.D. in quilts. I had to learn to separate the myth from the reality, the story from the object, and to recognize that history often changed from one generation to another through oral history. It was “on-the-job” training.

The quilt project movement is unique in both its scope and its grassroots origins. Many projects were initiated, directed, and staffed by volunteers, whose original qualifications often include little academic or on-the-job experience. In the end, according to project directors, energy and organizational skill, a curiosity about women’s history, and a love of quilts made up for a lack of formal training. Today, it is not unusual to hear project volunteers discussing videodisks and oral-history methods. 

We planned to have Quilt Days for only one year. We knew we had to define our parameters. We instinctively knew to take the concept to the grassroots, one of the elements that other states have subsequently found to be critical. We never intended to fully document all of the quilts that we saw. We did it differently. We had only 12 Quilt Days. We surveyed only 1,000 quilts. We had a very short, one-page documentation sheet and took a brief oral history. We photographed each quilt. We noted important details on the form. We chose the quilts we wanted for the exhibition, and then went back to interview those owners more completely. Only 44 quilts were chosen to show the breadth of Kentucky quiltmaking. I lectured to everybody at each Quilt Day about preservation and donation of their quilts to museums within the state. But we did not attempt to do the kind of documentation that is taking place today.

In an article written for Antique Review in 1989, I said that “A review of the projects started during the last 10 years clearly indicates that there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ quilt project. Each one is deeply influenced by the interest and background of its organizers, and the goals they set for the project.”

We acknowledged the importance of the volunteer support effort, but quickly came to realize that it was the volunteer leadership effort that made the difference at the onset. We had previous experience with organizing large volunteer organizations, serving on community boards , writing funding proposals, and meeting with donors. We saw the need to open an office with a paid professional at the helm. Because we were able to secure funding early on, we were able to produce a high quality catalogue and arrange for the exhibition to travel with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The ensuing national publicity energized other state groups to use our model and start their own projects.

Barbara Brackman commented in her 1990 Americana article that, “Beyond recording the stories of individual textiles, these ever-more-detailed state efforts are now beginning to flesh out the larger chronicle of the American quilt and its role in women’s and family history as well. In the same article she also stated “The quilt projects are surveys using amateur fieldworkers (a common tradition in folklore research that is cost-effective and educational). The interview information must be used with the knowledge of the limitations inherent in all oral history – problems with memory, perspective, omissions, and additions. The interviewers have recorded much about today’s traditions and our perspective of the past.”

Today, criticism of data and methodology has led to better surveys and better analysis of the existing data. As the Internet enhances the access to information in a myriad of ways, its capabilities have enriched the depth and breath of the approaches to all areas of American study. Quilt study is a major beneficiary of what the Internet has to offer since so much of what had been written and studied about quilts was previously largely inaccessible.

In 1992 while doing research for the state project component of a Quilt Index conference, it was clear that quilt project originators wanted to learn more about quilt history by examining existing project data. The interest was there then to continue to do research employing this data and now many more people from different disciplines want to do similar research. This will necessitate the refinement of research techniques. People will continue to do Quilt Days, continue to reanalyze raw data, continue to go beyond artificial state boundaries. We are pressed to find other ways of interpreting existing information. The Quilt Index has been developed to facilitate these next steps and other pathways to new interpretations of quilt scholarship in ways we are just beginning to understand. This landmark online resource crosses eras and collections to provide first-of-its-kind access to information and images on this original American art form.

Resources: Expanding Quilt Scholarship – The Lectures, Conferences and other Presentations of Louisville Celebrates the American Quilt, Shelly Zegart and Jonathan Holstein, editors; The Kentucky Quilt Project, Inc., Louisville, Kentucky, 1994.

Credits: Author/Curator: Shelly Zegart, Founder of The Kentucky Quilt Project Jan Hawley, Alliance for American Quilts (typesetter) Editorial Consultant: Justine Richardson, Quilt Index Project Manager, MATRIX.

  • Documentation Project

    Kentucky Quilt Project

    University of Louisville

  • 1876-1900

    Lone Star

    Fleming, Mrs. Bell

  • 1876-1900

    Full and Change o...

    Armstrong, Ann John...

  • 1850-1875

    Appliqué, possib...

    Moran, Amanda Estil...

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