Wilene Smith Legacy Project

Kansas, United States

Wilene Smith, a Kansas native, has spent decades of research focused mainly on tracing the history and origins of quilt patterns in the United States. Through her research she has been able to identify and give credit to some of the women who, as designers and business owners, were critical to the spread of patterns and the growing interest in quilts in America. Smith has published numerous articles on her findings and maintains two websites rich in content - Quilt History Tidbits ( and Ladies Art Company (

In her own words that follow, she describes how her interest in quilt patterns got started.

The Kansas Quilt Symposium at the University of Kansas took place in July 1978 the same month that I had opened a quilt shop nestled in a small community of antique shops northeast of Wichita. The numerous lectures included Louise Townsend's about the quilt patterns once published by the Kansas City Star newspaper and its farm paper, the Weekly Kansas City Star. I was immediately mesmerized by this collection and remember wondering if I'd ever be lucky enough to "own a few" of the clippings. At the time, I knew very little about antiques and collectibles, or how to go about finding and collecting them. Several months later, a friend sold me her mother's collection and a second collection soon came to me from a local estate. I was hooked, but found myself faced with a personal dilemma concerning how to arrange the clippings. Although most collectors arrange them alphabetically, this method didn't please me for a variety of reasons, in part because they seemed to make more sense in chronological order. After closing my quilt shop, I embarked on a project to identify and date the entire Kansas City Star collection published from 1928 to 1961. Over a period of seventeen months, I scrolled through 244 rolls of microfilm and ultimately identified 1,068 quilt related clippings, then self-published an Index to the collection in early 1985.

However this was only one published source and one collection, and there were many more that begged for the same attention, especially 19th century published sources. As I had discovered with the Kansas City Star collection, chronological order reveals a story that illustrates how each published source grew and expanded as each editor's or publisher's knowledge and expertise grew and expanded. I also discovered that each published quilt pattern collection is a unique entity distinct from the others even though most 20th century sources share the same initial inspirations--primarily the Ladies Art Company's commercial catalogs from St. Louis, Missouri, and Ruth Finley's 1929 book, Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them, but what was the source (or sources) for the designs sold by Ladies Art? Thirty years of dedicated research and acquisitions has partially answered this question and revealed an unexpected surprise that inspired the beginnings of this collection. It will take many more years of work before this question is fully answered.

Along the way, I acquired several quilt block collections containing different designs, mostly 19th century. Gradually I realized that these were not left over quilt blocks, or stray quilt blocks, but quilt pattern collections many of which pre-dated published quilt block designs. I wrote a research paper about these collections for the American Quilt Study Group in 1986, "Quilt Blocks? -- or -- Quilt Patterns?" presented at their October seminar and included in their annual publication, Uncoverings. To celebrate AQSG's first ten years, this was one of seventeen papers selected for updating and republished in Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths (Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994). My quilt block collection is currently approaching 2,000 examples and continues to grow at a surprising rate.

I bought my first computer in January 1993 and dedicated the next seven years to recording and indexing my collection of vintage quilt patterns and quilt history material into multiple databases, source by published source. These entries were combined into a "master database" that lists every known publication for each quilt design which in turn reveals the path that many designs have taken to becoming familiar favorites today.

My journey continues as more source material is acquired, the databases are expanded, and new sources discovered.

Born in: Kansas, United States.


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