Common Threads

Almost thirty years ago, Karey Patterson Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes began an unprecedented and ambitious endeavor: to catalog the quilts of Texas from 1836 to the present. With the publication this month of their book Lone Stars III, that project is finally complete. Here are ten of the quilts they found, works that tell the story of an art form and our state over 175 years.
Common Threads
Autumn Splendor Quilt

It goes without saying that a great work of art should both stir the senses and move the soul. But art can also touch us in literal ways—when it covers our beds, keeps our children warm, or reminds us, folded carefully away in tissue paper inside the linen closet, of our wedding day. This is the distinctive power of a quilt. And as fifth-generation quilters Karey Patterson Bresenhan and Nancy O’Bryant Puentes will tell you, this art form is a reflection not just of family but of the communities to which we belong.

They should know. The two cousins, who live in Houston and Austin, respectively, grew up on stories of their great-great-grandmother quilting by lamplight on the Texas prairie. They inherited quilt tops made especially for them by their great-grandmother, who also stitched quilts for every Methodist minister who arrived in her town of Sabinal. They have both created quilting guilds, and Bresenhan has run one of the largest quilt shops in the country. The shop’s success led the women to develop the International Quilt Festival, which began in 1974 and is now the largest annual quilt celebration and trade show in the world, attracting some 60,000 fans and more than $18 million to the city of Houston every fall.

Perhaps most important, the two are responsible for one of the first historical projects of its kind: cataloging the quilts of Texas. The endeavor began in 1983 as an effort to recognize the cultural contributions of women during the Texas Sesquicentennial. Bresenhan and Puentes set out across the state, organizing “quilt days” in 27 cities and towns for families to bring out their heirloom bedspreads. After driving hundreds of miles, catching puddle jumpers to far-flung corners, and maxing out credit cards, the cousins published the best of their findings in 1986 as Lone Stars: A Legacy of Texas Quilts, 1836–1936, a book that spanned the state’s first one hundred years. Then they kept going, following up in 1990 with Lone Stars II: A Legacy of Texas Quilts, 1936–1986. Now, this month, they publish the third installment of their monumental project, Lone Stars III: A Legacy of Texas Quilts, 1986–2011 (University of Texas Press). Not only is this final book the culmination of research on 175 years of quilt-making, but it also serves as the catalog for landmark exhibits at this year’s International Quilt Festival (November 3–6) and the brand-new Texas Quilt Museum, in La Grange, a brainchild of Bresenhan and Puentes’s that opens November 13.

Inasmuch as the work of Bresenhan and Puentes traces the evolution of a craft, it also traces the evolution of Texas: from a cotton-picking, rural state to an industrialized, urban one. For this issue, we asked the two experts to choose ten of the best quilts from their archives and tell us what makes each one unique. The works that follow speak of the women who created them, the communities they belonged to, and the state that shaped such artistry. Their story is our story.

 


Photograph by Sharon Risedorph, San Francisco, California

Lotus Flower Quilt

CIRCA 1835
Quiltmaker unknown
bagwell, red river county

This is the oldest quilt we found made in Texas. The lotus flower is an unusual theme, because in the nineteenth century it was a symbol of indolence and forgetfulness—not esteemed traits in pioneer times. The pattern is also unusual because the flowers are so out of proportion with their tiny pots. The red x on one pot represents a “deliberate error,” added in the belief that, since only God is perfect, to make a perfect quilt is to lack humility. There are knots all over the back of this quilt. We thought the quiltmaker must not have known to “pop” her knots into the batting, to hide them, but then we realized that she was working with such short lengths of thread—most likely from another quilt—that she had no other option. That was frontier life; you recycled out of necessity. It’s an astounding design for such a rural, remote area. N.P.

 


Photograph by Sharon Risedorph, San Francisco, California

Texas Star Friendship Quilt

CIRCA 1868
Margaret Ann Eppright Johnson 
liberty hill, williamson county

A friendship quilt was typically made by women at a quilting bee to commemorate a special occasion, like the birth of a baby, a graduation, or the arrival of a minister. In this case, the quilt was made by thirteen women and presented to one of their own—Margaret Ann Eppright Johnson—for her wedding on May 20, 1868. What’s distinctive is that, rather than going for the usual rose, flower basket, or double wedding ring pattern, Johnson chose an original design, with a star for each of her friends. The stars are appliquéd randomly, which makes them look off-kilter and full of movement. As was the custom, her friends then quilted their names into the piece. You can still see pencil traces of these names—some around the vine border and three in the main body—because the group project, a “best” quilt brought out only on special occasions, has never been washed. N.P.

 


Photograph by Sharon Risedorph, San Francisco, California

sunburst quilt

CIRCA 1885
Sally Beaird Lewellin
brown county

We had never seen this design in a quilt before, nor had anyone else. What’s impressive are the optical effects and mathematical precision, particularly considering that the quilter had probably never studied geometry. But more than that it’s her technique: The vines and leaves, which would usually be appliquéd—sewn onto the quilt—are in fact pieced into the quilt. This is rarely done, because of its difficulty, so this woman was a master. She grew up in Georgia during the Civil War before moving to Texas and marrying a rancher; she used to tell of her fear of the Northern soldiers, who burned barns and scattered cows. This quilt was likely part of her wedding trousseau: Women back then married with thirteen quilts, to cover the beds of their future households. The half-suns, which resemble rising or setting suns, were planned to cover the pillows at the head

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