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.

September 2011By Comments

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 of the bed. K.B.

 

Photograph by Sharon Risedorph, San Francisco, California

Stars and Stripes Quilt

CIRCA 1895
Laura Maria Ott Myers
erath county

Some quilts break all the rules. Here, points on the stars are cut off, stripes don’t match up, edges ripple. It gives the work an exuberance that reminds me of the Fourth of July. Still, there is order: You can see several blue stripes match up to form swastikas. A symbol of good luck in Egypt and of the sun in Germany before being corrupted during World War II, the swastika was also in Native American designs. It’s possible that there was Indian activity in Erath County when this quiltmaker arrived; the Comanche and the Kiowa had raided the area a decade before. She came to Texas from Louisiana in 1880, pregnant with her first son and traveling with her husband, parents, and eight siblings. After piecing together her design, perhaps to patriotically mark a historical date—the fiftieth anniversary of Texas statehood?—she presented it to her first grandson, born in 1910. N.P.

 

Photograph by Sharon Risedorph, San Francisco, California

Roosevelt Rose Quilt

1939
Annie McGlasson Pennington
abilene

The Roosevelt Rose, named after FDR and Eleanor, was a design that first appeared in the January 1934 issue of Good Housekeeping. The pattern, which could be purchased for 25 cents from the magazine’s Needlework Department, gave instructions for making the appliquéd flowers and yo-yos, or puffs, but it left their placement to the whim of the quiltmaker. Thus, though most Roosevelt Rose quilts were black cotton sateen, there are no two identical versions. The quilt top was made during FDR’s second term as president; the quiltmaker’s husband was a “brass-collar Democrat,” the family’s term for a yellow-dog voter. Quilts have long served as expressions for political beliefs. Even when women weren’t encouraged to be politically active, it was acceptable for them to stitch their opinions into their quilts, so it is common to find patterns such as NRA Blue Eagle, Sherman’s March, Underground Railroad, or Whig’s Defeat. K.B.

 

Photograph by Sharon Risedorph, San Francisco, California

Founders’ Star Quilt

1986
Jewel Pearce Patterson
houston

This was a fundraiser quilt pieced by Karey’s mother, Jewel, during the Texas Sesquicentennial. Karey and I are fortunate enough to have learned quilting from our grandmother, great-aunts, and mothers, so we helped quilt it with my mother, Helen, and a friend named Marge Weisheit. Note the Texas theme: the feathered five-pointed star; the four-pointed stars, known as Texas Tears, for the hardships faced by frontier settlers; the Battle of the Alamo blocks in the outer border. The work is representative of a growing shift, from a time when women made bed coverings out of necessity to a time when they had the resources to create art objects. The women’s movement in the sixties renewed an interest in quilting as a female pursuit, and the seventies saw an explosion of quilting organizations, exhibits, books, and classes, as well as fabrics, patterns, and tools. As families changed, and girls no longer learned the craft from their mothers, quilting was preserved by a modern community of guilds and quilt shops. N.P.

 

Photograph by Melissa Karlin Mahoney for Quilters Newsletter Magazine, Golden, Colorado

Joy Ride

1996
Libby Lehman
houston

In 1982, for the first time ever, an “art quilt” was recognized with a Best in Show award at the International Quilt Association’s judged show, in Houston. Six years later, in 1988—also for the first time ever—the prize went to a machine-quilted quilt. These were profound changes; quilting by machine had previously been thought of as cheating. As the nineties rolled in, quilters began experimenting with all sorts of sizes, dyes, materials, and embellishments. The creator of this quilt forever altered the public’s perception of machine quilting. She popularized thread painting, using a sewing machine to embellish the surface of the quilt. As you can see, it gives the work a beautiful luminosity. There’s a structural form to her design, but it is covered in free-form stitching. This was groundbreaking, and Joy Ride was later chosen by industry experts as one of the twentieth century’s one hundred best American quilts. K.B.

 

Photograph by Jim and Judy Lincoln, Austin

Autumn Splendor

2004
Barbara Olivera Hartman
flower mound

I love this one so much that it hangs in a hall of my house. The artist’s favorite season is autumn, and here she uses fall colors to create an impressionistic landscape quilt, with golden trees and a forest floor covered in leaves. Note how many tiny pieces of fabric and stitches there are. Though art quilts give you lots of latitude, they still require meticulous work. This one is an example of improvisational piecing, a technique that’s come about in the last ten years or so. Karey and I are often struck by how our research over the years has mirrored the evolution of quilts from traditional to modern: We went from taking puddle jumpers across the state, arranging for families to show us their quilts in far-flung towns, and using typewriters for our notes to viewing quilts online, consulting blogs and Facebook, and photographing pieces digitally. N.P.

 

Photograph by Jim and Judy Lincoln, Austin

Little Cities

2006
Kathy York
austin

It took this artist several years to make the 1,600 blocks in this quilt; she then finished it in two months. The design is a tip of the hat to the old Log Cabin pattern. The artist told us that when she started out, the arrangement wasn’t apparent to her, but the blocks fell into place as she gradually tried to make sense of the chaos. She was guided by the idea of a city surrounded by water: The center blocks represent the city core, and the blue outer ones represent the water. Within the quilt, there are resources, roadblocks, and little communities. “I have always been fascinated by the way people form groups, for the similarities they embrace and the differences they seek out,” she told us. “At what point do the differences become too much and we need to wall ourselves off?” The quilt reflects our urban, interconnected, information-saturated times. K.B.

 

Photograph by Jim and Judy Lincoln, Austin

Starry Night

2009
Shirley Fowlkes Stevenson
sherman

This final piece perfectly illustrates the transition from traditional quilting to art quilting. That’s why we made it the cover image for our last book. The design is based on a classic pattern, the Mariner’s Compass, and the workmanship is precise. But the saturated colors and the way the artist pieced the background—with stripes, solids, batik fabrics—give the quilt an entirely modern feel. It practically vibrates off the page. Though the quilt was made just as controversy was erupting over the continuation of the space shuttle program, the artist told us that her inspiration actually came from childhood memories of summer nights with her sisters, when they’d spread quilts on the lawn and ask their parents questions about the stars. This anecdote gets at an enduring reality about quilt-making. Our state has changed, and our communities have changed, and our quilts have changed, but the craft embodies the same ties of family and friendship as always. K.B.

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