Master Pieces

The art of the Texas quilt.

By Comments

Pamela Studstill of Pipe Creek, Texas, 20 miles outside of San Antonio, is a nationally acclaimed artist. Maybe you’ve never heard of her, but her work has been exhibited far and wide—from the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. to the American Craft Museum in New York City to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. She has won two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, one of which, at $15,000, is among the highest possible awards. Museums, galleries, and corporations across America have collected this native Texan’s art, which is now sold almost exclusively through an Atlanta gallery located in the swank neighborhood of Buckhead. And though Studstill was trained as a painter, you won’t see oils or watercolors in these halls of prestige and power. Her masterpieces are all quilts.

Although bearing scant resemblance to what most of us grew up with—homey, patchwork crazy quilts or symmetrically-patterned blankets with quaint names like Double Wedding Ring and Log Cabin—Studstill’s works do have roots in old-fashioned quiltmaking. In fact, her first quilt was a traditional Nine Patch she made under her grandmother’s tutelage when she was 16. Studstill is now known for her art quilts, but her inspiration remains a fundamental passion for cloth, pattern, and color.

That passion is shared by thousands of other Texans who make quilts for a hobby, a profession, or even from a self-confessed obsession. Many of these devotees who love quilts for being so much more than the sum of their pieces, will converge in Houston starting October 29 for the International Quilt Festival, the largest annual quilt show in the world. Last year the festival drew 51,000 afficionados who attended how-to classes, shopped for supplies, and visited more than 30 specialty exhibits. Of all those exhibits, serious quiltmakers will be focused on the one hosted by the International Quilt Association. The IQA show will give out $67,500 in prize money for the top quilts in 16 categories, including $10,000 awarded to the Best of Show quilt.

Along with other quilt exhibitions such as Visions in San Diego, California, Quilt National in Athens, Ohio, and the annual American Quilter’s Society show in Paducah, Kentucky, the Houston expo is a competitive international showcase. But whatever the venue, quilts by Texas artists can always be counted on to rank among the best. In this issue, we’ll introduce you to some of these homegrown textile treasures and the artists behind them. We’ll also point you in the direction of quilt shows in your area, explain how you can appraise the value of quilts you might own, and provide information on how to have a quilt custom-made for you.

Textile Treasures

“I was going to be a painter,” says Studstill, “but the first thing I did after I got my BFA—it was really odd—was make a quilt.” Perhaps it was in her genes. Studstill, who grew up in San Antonio, is the granddaughter of a quiltmaker whom she visited often as a child. At her grandmother’s side, she learned quilting techniques by the age of 7. Now in her mid-40s, Studstill ranks among the top art-quilters in America. Museums that have collected her work include the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, the American Craft Museum in New York City, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. Studstill colors almost all of her fabric by hand with acrylic paint. Combined with her intricate patterning, the results, as shown by #44 Quilt, can resemble pointillist paintings. This one, she says, “was inspired by seeing the wind whip through waving grasses probably seen on the side of the road in Texas or New Mexico.”

Studstill says she gives her quilts numbers rather than names so that people will feel free to see different things in them. She is now working on #135. Of all of her works, she has kept only two. That’s because she enjoys the process even more than the finished product. “I’m perfectly happy to have them floating around out there in the world,” she says.

Crewell Swirl

Traditional Quilt: Six Times Six Comes Up Roses (front), Kathleen McCrady

While Studstill was stitching her way into the art-quilt spotlight, Kathleen McCrady of Austin was developing a reputation around the state as a maker of exquisite traditional quilts. One of her most noted works is the hand-pieced, hand-quilted Six Times Six Comes Up Roses. She recreated the central pattern of six-pointed stars from a photograph of an unusual 19th-century quilt owned by the Long Island Historical Society. She based the rest of the design on patterns from quilts of the same period. Six Times Six took First Place in a master’s division at the 1990 IQA show and a Second Place award in 1992 at the American Quilter’s Society annual show. McCrady says that only after she started Six Times Six did she realize why the star-and-grid pattern is so rare: “It’s a very intricate thing to piece. Nine or 10 points come together in some places. Anyone who quilts knows it’s a tedious thing to get that many pieces to come together right.” Four months of labor resulted in a finished quilt that has been published in at least three national quilting magazines, including on the cover of the industry’s bible, Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine.

Crewell Swirl

Traditional Quilt: Six Times Six Comes Up Roses (back), Kathleen McCrady

McCrady was born in Marysville, and has lived in Texas for most of her 73 years. She learned to quilt as a teenager from her mother and mother-in-law who were taught by their mothers. During the sesquicentennial, the McCrady women’s work appeared in an exclusive exhibit at Austin’s Dougherty Arts Center. McCrady was invited to present 36 pieces, some dating back to the 1930s, all made by McCrady and her foremothers. McCrady says quiltmaking gives her a sense of connection “with every woman who has ever had a needle in her hand to create something beautiful.”

Crewell Swirl

Traditional Quilt: Painted Pineapple, Mary Ann Herndon

Unlike McCrady, Mary Ann Herndon was in her 40s before she started quilting. Still, some of her innovative pieces have won blue ribbons in respected international competitions. In January, Herndon’s neon-bright Painted Pineapple took first in a a contest hosted by the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society, beating out 60 entries from 15 states, Canada, Japan, and Australia. Herndon’s design recreates traditional pineapple patterns by setting them along diagonal lines and against a backdrop of black, purples, fiery reds, oranges, and bright yellow. Her use of bold color was one of the reasons MAQS awarded her First Prize.

Crewell Swirl

Traditional Quilt: Amish Paint, Mary Ann Herndon

Herndon’s Amish Paint has also been praised for its use of color. The rich palette of saturated reds, browns, and oranges enhances the warm look of this sampler quilt made of traditional schoolhouse blocks. Amish Paint won First Place in its category at the 1986 IQA show and also appeared on the cover of Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine.

Herndon says she became a quilting convert 20 years ago. A resident of Memorial, Texas, near Houston, she went to a meeting of the Greater Houston Quilt Guild where she heard nationally-known quilter Yvonne Porcella give a speech. After that, her love of fabric and color took over, and she’s been quilting ever since. “To me, quiltmaking is an art form, not just a craft,” says Herndon. “The really fine art quilts belong with fine paintings—and certainly quilts take much longer!”

International Quilt Festival, Houston

Each year, the International Quilt Festival turns Texas into a mecca for quiltmakers from around the world. It is Houston’s biggest convention, with more participants than the annual Offshore Technology Conference or the Astroworld series of dog shows. Given that most Texans know at least one quilter, either in their own family or someone else’s, it’s surprising that more people don’t know about the festival. “We’re celebrating our 24th anniversary this year, and yet there are many Texans who’ve never heard of it,” says public information director Nancy O’Bryant. Between the three-day International Quilt Market for trade members and the four-day open festival that follows, the Houston expo goes a long way toward generating the estimated $1.2 billion dollars spent on quiltmaking each year.

IQF is the brainchild of O’Bryant’s cousin Karey Bresenhan, a fifth-generation Texas quiltmaker who is now its director. Bresenhan held the first show in her Houston antique shop in 1974, one year after an unsuccessful bid for the Texas State Legislature. To her surprise, several thousand people came for the lectures and exhibits, and they bought $20,000 worth of quilts in just two days. Bresenhan credits timing for the wild success of that first show. The bicentennial was just two years away, and Americans were rediscovering a fondness for old-fashioned handicrafts and folk art. And the women’s movement, which Bresenhan very much supported, was changing the value placed on traditional “women’s work.”

Bresenhan went on to channel the energy that would have gone into a political career into developing the quiltmaking industry in Texas. With the help of other women in her family, she founded the Quilt Guild of Greater Houston, the International Quilt Festival, the American International Quilt Association, and a host of quilt conservation and education projects under the umbrella of her company, Quilts, Inc.

2009 Texas Fall Quilt Shows

Canton Quilt Show When: October 9-10, 9am-5pm; October 17, 9am-4pm Where: Canton Civic Center, Flea Market Road off Hwy 64 W, Canton Information: Jackie (903) 873-3949

Midland Quilter’s Guild Show When: October 3, 2009 9am-5pm Where: Midland Center, 105 N Main Street, Midland Information: Becky (432) 570-5207 or Email Mary

Brazos Bluebonnet Quilt Guild Show When: September 11, 10am-5:30pm; September 12, 10am-5pm Where: The Brazos Center, 3232 Briarcrest Drive (east of Earl Rudder Fwy), Bryan Information: Email Dawn M. Belleville International Quilt Market (open to trade professionals only) When: October 10-11, 9:30am-6pm; October 12, 9am-4pm Where: George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas, Houston Information: (713) 781-6864 or email [email protected]

International Quilt Festival
When: October 15-17, 10am-7pm; October 18, 11am-5pm; Daily Admission: $9.00
Where: George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de las Americas, Houston
Information: 713/781-6864 or email [email protected]

2009 Alamo Heritage Quilt Guild When: September 18-20, 9am-5:30pm Where: Live Oak Civic Center, 8101 Pat Booker Road, San Antonio Information: 210/653-9494 or Email Beth Barron

South Plains Quilters Guild Show When: November 1-30, Mon-Thu 9am-9pm; Fri-Sat 9am-6pm; Sun 1-5pm Where: Garden Arts Center, 4215 University Avenue, Lubbock, TX Information: Quilt Shop II: 806/793-2485 or Quilter’s Front Porch: 806/687-6264

Cut from the same cloth: A history

Quilting appears to date back to ancient Egypt. Evidence of this comes from a 5400-year-old ivory figure in the British Museum in London. Found at the Temple of Osiris in 1903, it depicts a pharaoh whose cloak is carved in diamond patterns typical of quilted fabric. Bresenhan describes the figure in a book about the history of quilting, Hands All Around. In it, she explains how cloth relics from Egypt, Mongolia, and India suggest that forms of needlework associated with quiltmaking evolved first in Asia. During the Middle Ages, Crusaders returning from the East brought these techniques to Europe. Colonists in turn brought quiltmaking from Europe to North America during the 17th and 18th centuries. Quilts were such a necessity, especially in New England, but in other regions as well, that most young girls could sew and quilt before they turned 8.

Quilts came to Texas with the first Anglo settlers in the early 1800s. The untamed territory demanded total self-sufficiency. To make quilts, pioneer women had to pick, gin, and card their own cotton; spin thread; weave cloth; and dye fabric at home. Even after 1845, when Texas obtained statehood, frontier women faced daunting threats to their physical and mental survival: Comanche Indians, yellow fever, poisonous reptiles and insects, and long periods of isolation. The orderly process of making a patchwork scrap quilt of one’s very own design was one of the few pleasures life afforded. Suzanne Labry, a quilt historian and author of Texas Quilts, Texas Women, says 19th-century diaries and letters show that “for many pioneer women in Texas, while quilting was definitely part of their workload, it was also a creative and emotional outlet for them.”

Most quilts of this era were treated to a rough life: they were made of fabric scraps that were old to begin with, used to the point of tattering, boiled in vats by way of washing, and bleached by the sun when left out to dry. Some, however, were made to be more than everyday blankets. These “best” quilts were often made for important occasions such as weddings or the birth of a baby. Among them are quilts of great beauty and artistry that reflect the consummate skill that comes from early training. Because the themes and images in these quilts are from the life experiences of their makers, they are now valuable records of the history and culture of early Texas. In recognition of this important legacy, in 1983 Texas became the second state to conduct a statewide search for valuable quilts in private hands. Supported by grants from the Texas Commission on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, Karey Bresenhan, serving as dating expert and historian, and Nancy O’Bryant, acting as photographer, traversed the state for two years. They documented 3,500 of the finest Texas quilts and published 62 of them in Lone Stars: A Legacy of Texas Quilts, 1836-1936.

If anything, it’s variety that characterizes the quilts from Texas’ first 100 years. And today, quilt patterns are just as plentiful. They are based on time-honored patterns such as the Nine Patch, the Mariner’s Compass, and the Flower Garden, some of which are over 100 years old. (The Lone Star pattern, by the way, is not named after the five-pointed star of Texas, but after the biblical Star of Bethlehem. But it has been so popular with Texas quilters, says Bresenhan, that many call it the “national quilt of Texas.” The background image featured throughout this story is an example of this popular pattern.)

Innovative Quilts

Crewell Swirl

Innovative Quilt: Crewell Swirl, Patricia Creswell

Those quilts that don’t follow a distinct pattern are termed “innovative” quilts. They are original creations aimed at a fairly broad audience. Often they are based on traditional favorites, but the end results reflect the creative whimsy of their makers.

Art Quilts

Spirit Dancers

Art Quilt: Spirit Dancers, Earth, Beth Kennedy

Art quilts, or contemporary quilts, evolved 15-20 years ago from the innovative quilts, as a means of embracing the abstract and asymmetrical. Art quilts appeal to the refined or acquired taste. They are intended for appreciation in the context of painting, sculpture, and other contemporary fine art. Art quilts adorn walls, not beds. They can be made with bits of paper, paint, and even small ornaments, and ever since their emergence in the 1970s, they have stretched the seams of the very definition of quilt. Art quilters consider themselves quilting’s avant-garde; they use cutting-edge techniques to transform fabric into multimedia marvels.

Hugs and Kisses

Art Quilt: Hugs and Kisses, Beth Kennedy

“There is a less distinct line now between paintings and quilts,” says Beth Kennedy, a maker, teacher, and judge of art quilts. “Quilts are doing well and acknowledged in multimedia art shows. They are being recognized as art by the art community and not just by quilters.”

A Nuestra Señora

Art Quilt: A Nuestra Señora, Beth Kennedy

Representational or abstract, venerable or irreverent, art quilts are designed as freely as the imagination roams. At art quilt shows such as the prestigious biennial Quilt National in Athens, Ohio, quilts need only have two layers in order to qualify for selection, says Kennedy. She has broken even that convention with her Texas Cave Art series, comprising quilts made entirely of hand-dyed batting, the stuffing that normally goes inside a quilt.

Kennedy is a former linguist who professes a love for communication, especially through images, and for cloth. So it seems natural that she is fascinated with the earliest attempts at visual communication—cave drawings. Cave drawings found in Spain inspired her series of Spirit Dancers quilts. Spirit Dancers, Earth is made from hand-dyed and discharged cotton cloth that she pieced and quilted by machine. She left a small trail of fabric on the bottom left side, she says, “to allow the spirits a way out.”

Kennedy, who took many trips to Mexico while growing up in Dallas, fell in love with the Spanish language and with Mexican culture while still a teenager. As a feminist during the sixties, she also began to appreciate female imagery. These interests come together in her best known work, A Nuestra Señora, La Virgen de Guadalupe. Named after the patron saint of Mexico, A Nuestra Señora is designed to resemble Mexican retablos, or home shrines. She based it on a traditional medallion pattern but embellished it with embroidery, tiny yarn dolls, and milagro charms. This quilt was selected for exhibition at Quilt National in 1991, after which it toured in Texas and overseas for two years.

A Nuestra Señora

Art Quilt: Rapture, Libby Lehman

Also working in this genre is Houston art-quilter Libby Lehman. Lehman’s quilts are so beguiling, one pair of gallery-goers is said to have left convinced that she embroidered them with human hair. Lehman says she learned to make quilts the way most people have since the late 1970s: by taking classes at local quilt shops, going to regional seminars, and following instructions in how-to books. She insists that until she pieced her first quilt top at the age of 24, “Holly Hobby decoupage” was the peak of her artistic ability. Now 50, she has gained an international reputation as a master art quilter, with corporate clients including Visa International and Texas-based Cogen Technologies.

A Nuestra Señora

Art Quilt: A Snickeroo, Libby Lehman

The unique look of her quilts comes from a technique she has perfected called sheer ribbon illusion. It creates an appearance of translucence on the surface of her quilts. Rapture, the first quilt she made with this technique, won an Award of Excellence at the IQA show in 1991. She also used the technique with Escapade, an art quilt that has been purchased by the Museum of the American Quilter’s Society, and with Joy Ride, an innovative piece based on the Diamond-in-a-Square pattern. Lehman now travels most of each year teaching her style of quilt-making as far away as New Zealand, Switzerland, and Japan.

Though quilts have evolved from the coverlets that kept Texas’ earliest settlers protected from the elements to wall-hangings that serve as cultural icons, they continue to retain the handicraft spirit—one in which the mastery is not invisible in the art. No matter how sophisticated the method or the medium, quilts possess an inherent humility that will make these works accessible for years to come.

Remnants Appraisal

Quilts can seem at once familiar and inscrutable—familiar, because they remind us of childhood, home, and family; mysterious, because so many come to us without any clues as to who made them, when, and under what circumstances. The details of a quilt’s origin and existence, or “provenance,” are important in helping establish its monetary value. If you want to piece together the history of the quilts in your home, or to learn what they are worth in dollar terms, there are experts who can help you. These are trained, professional appraisers who know how to judge quilts in the context of the world of art and antiques. But because these appraisers are not required to be certified by any government agency, it can be hard to decide whose services to use. Here Shelly Zegert, a nationally recognized appraiser based in Louisville, Kentucky explains what determines a quilt’s value and how to size up a qualified appraiser.

RANCH: What are the main factors that determine the value of a quilt?

Shelly Zegert: If I had to say just one factor, it would be condition. Also, it has to be a great quilt aesthetically. Those two factors, along with authenticity and age, are the first set of major factors. You’d also take into account the quilt’s provenance, the technical execution and design, and what’s going on in the marketplace: what’s selling now, and the current economic conditions.

RANCH: Aren’t the quality of workmanship and the age of the quilt really important?

SZ: Stitching is not key. It’s not a defining factor in an appraisal unless the quilt is of excellent quality. The most expensive quilts ever sold were not that extensively quilted. They were original statements of the maker. Age matters, but usually historical factors don’t lead the parade. Appraisers must provide a rationale for their evaluation. They have to fit that into the grand scheme of the world of art.

RANCH: How do you find a qualified appraiser in your own area?

SZ: It’s like finding any other professional. Get recommendations from friends and from people who use the services of appraisers regularly, people such as lawyers, accountants, trust officers, and museum officials. Try to find an appraiser who belongs to a non-profit, professional association that abides by the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice, or USPAP. These groups include the American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Association of America, and the International Society of Appraisers.

RANCH: What information should the appraisal report include?

SZ: It depends on what kind of appraisal you want. Do you need it for determining resale value, an IRS write-off, or value for insurance purposes? Generally though, expect a full and detailed description of the quilt, including the name of the pattern, colors, size, fiber content, condition, and so forth. It should also date the quilt and tell where it was made and, if possible, by whom. And it should give provenance: Has it won prizes? Has it been published? Is it linked to any historical figures?

RANCH: How much does an appraisal cost?

SZ: Expect to pay between $25 and $50 for a full written appraisal that isn’t for a tax deduction. If it’s for a tax deduction, it could cost more because there is a lot more research involved, looking up auction records and such, to accurately document the value that the donor is claiming.

Caring for quilts.

Caring for quilts is fairly simple. Here are some tips from the Austin Area Quilt Guild (from First Aid for Family Quilts by Nancy O’Bryant) for preserving your quilt inheritance.

Quilts need fresh air. Air your quilts outdoors—out of direct sunlight—each fall and spring.

When you refold a quilt for storage, avoid creasing it in the same places each time. This will help prevent dark fold lines.

Store quilts in a cool, dry place. Put them inside sheets or pillowcases so they can “breathe.” Never store them in plastic.

Prevent contact with acids in wood by placing a second sheet or pillowcase between the quilt and wooden shelves or chests.

Before you wash a quilt, test the fabrics and threads to make sure colors won’t run. Don’t put it in a dryer, where it might shrink. Lay it flat on a clean mattress pad or outdoors on top of towels laid on the grass in a shady spot.

If you’ve inherited a quilt top or individual blocks and want someone to make them into a quilt, it’s easy to locate a quilter who can do this for you. Contact a quilt shop or guild in your area. They can usually put you in touch with local artisans who will transform those pieces into a custom-made, newly-minted, ready-to-show-off quilt.

Having a quilt made for you.

Eddy Branch, a professional quilter in Arlington, says you should expect to pay around $250 for quilts of average complexity. Turnaround time varies with the quilter’s work load and with the design’s intricacy, but two to six months is typical.

If you want a quilt made from scratch, you’ll need a professional whose expertise matches the type of design you want. Traditional and innovative quiltmakers can usually be found through local quilt guilds, quilt shops and church-based quilting groups. Art quilters can be located through the Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), a national non-profit organization whose members specialize in nontraditional designs and techniques.

Before you place an order, you should ask to see the quiltmaker’s portfolio. Photographs or digital images are helpful, but ideally you should see his or her actual work. Be prepared to discuss your preferences of color and patterns, types of fabric, thickness and how you will use or display the quilt. Next, the artist will usually submit sketches for your approval.

Most quilters will accommodate your request for a specific theme (say, places you’ve lived) or certain visual images (cultural icons, for example). “A lot of artists are very flexible in what they’re willing to do,” says Kennedy, who has made quilts on commissions for about 12 years. “I think you just have to be comfortable with the style they work in.”

Art quilters may charge anywhere from $150 per square foot to $400 per square foot for their work, not including materials. This fee varies with the amount of work involved. Often, partial payment is required up front, followed by two or three additional payments along the way. Kennedy says she requires about eight months to complete a project.

Related Content