Thursday, January 24, 2013

The study of history via textiles

After the Festival of Gingerbread was over, Registrar Karen Butler-Clary moved into our board room to photograph and otherwise document 135 large textiles that belong to the Historical Society. The effort required setting up a slant board the approximate size of two double beds, unfolding and positioning each textile on the board, taking several hundred photographs, verifying the information about each item and reattaching tags to many for the data base of items in our collection.

According to Karen, “Each artifact in the Historical Society’s collection is assigned a unique three part registration number. This number connects that artifact to all the information about it. We can search by the number in our database to pull up the information or look through hardcopy information in the register books and files which are organized by registration number.

“Each artifact number begins with the year the object was donated, the order the donation was received during that year and the object number within the donation. For example, a quilt with the registration number 91.17.1 was donated in 1991, it was the 17th donation the historical society received during that year and it was the first object from the donation to be cataloged and added to the records.

“The database is used to organize and access information on the Historical Society’s collection. We can look up artifacts by registration number, date, location, object name and several other categories.  It is an essential tool when you are trying to organize information for almost 30,000 artifacts.”

Due to the nature of textiles, particularly those that are “bed-sized”, displaying these items is difficult in our building due to the cost of properly hanging or displaying the works on slant boards and the amount of space they would take up.

“Many of our large textiles are too fragile to be hung and would require their own platform for display,” said Karen. “Fabric is also particularly sensitive to damage from light exposure and environmental pollutants so not only do we have space limitations, there is also concern for providing the proper environment to safely display textiles without causing harm.”

Michelle Oberly, writing for the web site, discusses the significance of studying history via textiles.

“We can learn much about the past by studying textiles. People slept under them, ate on top of them, and even peered from behind them to observe what was going on outside, just as we do today…By studying the textiles we can learn about the lives of the people who owned or made them and compare their beliefs and lifestyles with ours.”

Oberly says that the textiles given to local historical societies most often date from the Victorian Period. As you can see from the photo below, one of the earliest pieces Karen photographed is dated 1839, two years after Queen Victoria began her reign. The Industrial Revolution spurred a wider use of fabric as it became more cost affordable. Prior to that time, cloth was spun and or woven by hand. Can you imagine having to weave the cloth to make a dress or coat? No wonder so many of the garments people wore were plain.

Much of the handmade fabric is now lost to historians because of the advent of dry goods stores all over the country that could provide ready-made fabric produced in the Eastern United States and delivered by train to points west.

This was a time when all girls learned to sew and a woman was not considered well educated if she could not handle needle and thread with grace. Samplers were a way to record family history and learn basic stitches while also providing artwork for the home.

“Textiles played a very important role in the Victorian household. Expensive fabrics were used to cover windows, beds, and tables, while the rags washed dishes and cleaned up spills. It is not the hardworking textiles that one finds in the local history museum, just as one is unlikely to save a dish rag or paper napkin. Instead, one finds textiles that were hand-made or expensive and pretty and decorative. These were the artistic pieces of the home, lovingly made, treasured, saved, and valued from one generation to the next.”

Two of the pieces that we photographed for this blog post are “friendship quilts”. The quilt of blue and white contains the signatures of parishioners of a pastor who was the recipient of the quilt. This quilt was given to Reverend George Davies and his wife Mabel from their first congregation, Bethany Presbyterian Church, in 1899 as a parting gift. It was made by the ladies of the church.

The other quilt is a Friendship Quilt (91.17.1), pieced together by Katie A. Weiler from 1914 to 1917. It includes the names of friends and relatives, many of whom are from the Lakeside Neighborhood. This is a wonderful example of how no scrap of fabric was wasted!

Oberly writes, “This style of quilt served the same purpose as an autograph book. The squares contained signatures of family members or friends that were usually embroidered with brightly colored floss on a light-colored ground so the signatures will stand out. Often the quilt was a group project, each person being responsible for decorating and returning her square. When pieced together, the finished quilt would be a wonderful, sentimental keepsake. It was a memento of friends living far away or a creative way to record your family tree.

“Making friendship quilts was a popular activity for women's groups. (quilts)… may have been made to celebrate a church anniversary by recording its members names or used for a fundraising raffle. (Quilt raffles were good money makers for the church.) .. Quilting parties, or ‘bees’ as they were called, brought women together and allowed them to exchange ideas and socialize. Many hands not only speeded up the sewing process, but provided a bit of fun to an otherwise time-consuming, repetitious process. Although quilting bees were organized for a practical purpose, they were also a good excuse to get together, talk, and enjoy each other's company.”

Quilts are still popular as an art form but in days gone by they were made for a more practical purpose. Because quilts are two layers of material with “batting” in between, they are warmer than a standard blanket and in houses that were heated with a wood stove or fireplace, those extra layers kept you warm while you slept. The layers are stitched together either with a design or simply to hold the fabric in place and sometimes “tied” whereby small pieces of yarn are drawn through the fabric at regular intervals and tied in a knot.

Not being one to waste anything, the housewife of the 1800s through the Depression often made quilts from left over fabric. My grandmother would make two new house dresses every spring. The oldest of her dresses became aprons, the oldest aprons became the fabric of sunbonnets for her gardening and the oldest of the sunbonnets…well, I’m not sure she threw them away because she was the ultimate recycler, but you get the drift. She also took worn out clothing and made quilt pieces from the best spots. Seldom did she make a quilt with new fabric, but I do have a wedding ring quilt that she made from what I have to assume is new material.

“The most common type of quilt is called patchwork...These quilts were often called ‘scrap’ quilts because they were made using a great variety of fabrics, usually odd bits left over from clothing construction projects. It was considered wasteful to throw away even oddly shaped fabric pieces because they could be put to good use by making a quilt.”

Oberly says, “In different regions, some patterns became so popular that historians can tell by its appearance and quilting technique where the quilt is from.”

The American Textile History Museum, on its website,  shows a photo of a stamped bed coverlet similar to one in our collection. It was made (hand sewn, stenciled and block printed) by Mrs. Reason (Frances) Tucker c. 1812 and donated to the DAR (who later donated their collection to us) in the 1920s or 1930s. It was donated by the Nathaniel Fitch family heirs and they refer to Mrs. Reason Tucker as “Granny.” On it appears Mrs. Reason Tucker was born in Maryland, moved to Ohio and had chidlren there and then moved into Perry township. Nathaniel Fitch was a blacksmith on the canal and a farmer in Perry township.

And just because they are beautiful, here are a couple of closeups of other items that were photographed:


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