On the Road, Again

Phew! I’m a bit discombobulated right now and I haven’t finished half this month’s comings and goings. But suffice it to say that I’m a little bit here and a lot there—there being Virginia, Minnesota, and Chicago. I love to travel, but I’m also a real homebody and so there’s always a little conflict in my soul when it’s time to head out. There’s never a trip I’m sorry I made, once I’ve made it, but I always resist going away…always!

My most recent venture was to Virginia, for my niece Anna’s vocal performance senior recital. For an hour my sisters and I and our husbands and my nephew, Anna’s brother Karl, sat dumbfounded as we listened to Anna sing. I don’t see her often and was in awe at the growth in her vocal abilities and at her stage presence. Even her parents and brother were left with their mouths hanging open. I loved the way her friends pitched in and performed parts, both from operas and musicals, to add fullness to the evening.  (That’s her to the left, wearing a honey cowl. She’s so gratifying to knit and sew for: I’ve made her two Birdie slings  —here and here—and she’s used them until they fall apart. This time she opened the honey cowl and immediately put it on and wore it all afternoon.)

Photo courtesy of VA Quilt Museum

While the event was lovely and it was fun to be with family, Virginia itself was a real highlight. Daffodils, forsythia, and budding trees gave me hope that spring might eventually come. We wandered through the farmer’s market, sampling doughnuts from Mennonite bakers and locally roasted cups of coffee. We took a little hike along a rushing stream, where bloodroot and May apples pushed up, through the forest floor. And we even stepped inside the Virginia Quilt Museum for a look at Material Witnesses, an exhibition by the Manhattan Quilter’s Guild of New York City. There were also a few Civil War quilts—so graphic and so amazingly preserved.

VA Quilt Museum civil war display—hexagons have a long history!

Heading out to MN tomorrow for a weekend with my aunt, in honor of her 87th birthday. I delayed my trip by two days, as we’ve been having torrential rains and flooding and she’s getting snow. But she says it’s for the best, because there’s a quilt show there this weekend. I’ll try and take a few photos!

Old Friends

I think that every quilter was attracted to a traditional quilt at one time or another. Whether you were fortunate enough to have one passed down through your family that you snuggled under at night, or a quilt caught your eye as you perused the merchandise at an antique store, old quilts often are what got us quilting in the first place.

But just because we loved or were intrigued by an old quilt, doesn’t mean that’s the kind of quilt we want to make. My initial interest in piecing came not from a family quilt, but from patchwork-y things I made in the 1970s, like the purple and brown floor-length patchwork skirt I stitched in high school. In recent years, it’s contemporary fabrics that make me want to sew and I’m an unabashed color whore color hound (but I am pretty promiscuous in my love of color).

So I was surprised to find myself bringing home an antique quilt. Every year there’s a show in Kalona and the displayed quilts are a combination of antique and contemporary. I’d gone to see a quilt made by quilter extraordinaire Erick Wolfmeyer  and was sucked in by the antique quilts. There were three that I was drawn to and when Marilyn Woodin (original owner of Woodin Wheel antiques and founder of the Kalona Quilt show and the textile museum there) told me I’d made good choices, I couldn’t help but buy one. (When I got home with it, Paul said, “You’ve been with an enabler.” Indeed I was. Marilyn complimented my choices and told me this quilt was the perfect start to my collection. Which doesn’t exist. Yet.)

According to Marilyn, this quilt is from the 1880s and the cheddar fabric is likely from the 1860s (it’s not just my friend Mary Lou who believes every quilt needs some cheddar). And Marilyn said this is a T-square block, popular with the followers of the temperance movement.

I think it’s got a lot in common with contemporary quilts—it’s graphic and there are certainly some unexpected colors and fabrics in there. Everything old is new again. I’ve got it atop the spare bed in my study, where I can see it every day, and see something new in it every day, as well.

Button up

For about a month now I’ve been working on a post for Etsy about the Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa. The post finally went up today, and I am amazed (and thrilled) at all the comments…guess I didn’t realize that lots of folks had a mother-of-pearl button obsession, just like I do! (Check out the Etsy post here.)

I’ve always loved pearl buttons, but was amazed to learn that so many of them came from the small town just 40 miles from my home. I keep spouting this statistic to everyone, (whether they’re interested or not): in 1905, 37 percent of the world’s buttons (and that’d be 1.5 billion) came from Muscatine.

The museum is small, but the exhibits are nicely done and I learned a tremendous amount from them. Plus, they have some nice interactive displays: you can plunge your hands in buckets of side-by-side pearl and plastic buttons to feel and hear the difference; you can read memories of people whose relatives worked in button factories, you can try your hand at sorting a gross of buttons with a specially made paddle.

There’s also a wonderful collection of buttons and mother-of-pearl artifacts and an entire display case of buttons sewn on those wonderful vintage cards. I’m sure anyone who knows me is tired of hearing about it, but I love learning about things like this and thinking about an unusual industry that supported an entire community. Today there are still three button factories in Muscatine, but the buttons they make are plastic.

While the story is wonderful and quirky, there is definitely a dark side: children worked in many button factories, the working conditions were unpleasant at best and often downright dangerous, and dust from shells created breathing problems for many workers. A strike by button workers turned violent and one man was killed. But despite this grim side, the city of Muscatine is proud of its heritage and enjoys its moniker “Pearl City.” If you’re button-obsessed (or just interested in history) it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood…and even worth a detour if you’re not.

Over there

During my junior year of college, I had the amazing good fortune to spend the first half of one semester in Florence and and the second half in London. We studied architecture, art history, and theater. Was I lucky or what?


At the End of the Day’, hanging, Natasha Kerr, 2007. Museum no. T.43-2008
In London I discovered the Victoria and Albert Museum.  It was the first time I realized that people preserved and studied textiles like they studied the Medici Chapel in Florence or the paintings of Whistler at the Tate in London. I spent hours just hanging out there, perusing the exhibitions, “paging” through the textile files, incredulous at what anyone who walked in off the street could access. It’s remained one of my favorite museums.

Bishops Court quilt, Unknown, 1690-1700. Museum no. T.201-1984


My camp friend Susie just pointed out that there’s a quilt exhibition starting this month at the V&A. The web site has some great info, including a curator’s blog (can you imagine having that job?) and description of the exhibition. There’s even a free Amy Butler quilt pattern to download (although I’m not quite sure why they didn’t pick a British quilter for this…after all, Amy’s Midwest Modern, right?).


Check out the web site, and if you’re lucky enough to be heading to London-town, slot a visit into your schedule.

Stimulating the economy

I’ve been doing my part lately to keep quilt shops afloat. But before reading about my patriotic efforts, I suggest you run to Madison, WI, to the Chazen Museum of Art to see Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities. This visual feast of an exhibition includes more than 500 textiles, mostly clothing, that are well worth drooling over if you’re in the Madison area before April 18. (After that it will be moving to Santa Fe.) A description of the exhibition noted that many of these people had no written language and that these textiles were they way they told a person’s story—I loved that idea! I also loved the way one garment combined numerous patches and bands incorporating various textile treatments: embroidery, weaving, piecing, resist dying, metalwork, and more.

Now on to my personal stimulus efforts:

Paul had to go to Madison last week for work, so I tagged along. He had to work all day Wednesday, so I took the opportunity to visit quilt shops. The first was Stitcher’s Crossing, a shop I’d written about in 2006 for the 2007 Best of Quilt Sampler “bookazine.” It was my first big assignment for Meredith and a terrific learning experience for me. I got to interview 20 shop owners who’d been featured in the past in Quilt Sampler in order to update their shop profiles.

It’s always a treat when I get to meet in person the people I’ve interviewed by phone and Quilter’s Crossing owner Sharon Luehring was no exception. She’s friendly and warm and her sunny and cheerful shop is fabulous—a terrific selection of cottons and wools, plus yarn for knitting and other fiber crafts. Her staff was very helpful and after I’d admired a purse, a staffer led me to the pattern, a creation of a local designer. I just loved both the very small and largest bags—I nearly bought fabric to make them, but decided instead I’d wait and see what I had in my stash. They also suggested a couple more shops I could visit in the Madison area, so my day was set! I decided that this trip would be my version of buying locally grown food—I’d buy locally produced patterns.


Next on the tour was the Mill House Quilts in Waunakee. Again, a very friendly staff (they took one pattern right off a display for me because it was the last one in the shop). Tons of sample quilts hung from the wooden rafters of the old building and fabric, patterns, and kits were plentiful. Again, I opted for patterns designed by local designers. I’ve got a bunch of Heather Bailey Freshcut fabric that will work perfectly for the Ingrid Barlow pattern and while the other is a bit more traditional looking than the patterns I’m drawn to, they also had it made up in 30s repro fabrics and I realized it could look just as great in contemporary brights.

Finally, I went to JJ Stitches in Sun Prairie. If you’re a fan of traditional quilting and antique and reproduction quilts, this is the place for you. The brick walls of the shop perfectly set off the quilt samples that line the walls. It turned out I’d interviewed Julie Hendricksen, the shop owner, for American Patchwork and Quilting about a year ago. The back room of JJ Stitches was awash with bright 30s fabrics and three mannequins sported aprons. I bought this last pattern, thinking that the without the lace and with its cinched waist it had a bit of sass that would look good on a young thing…I happen to know a few.