How old is that heirloom quilt in your attic?

Have you hugged your family's prized quilt today? I hadn't, but upon learning that I could get an expert to inspect an heirloom bedcover and gather tips and pointers about its proper care, I decided it wasn't too late to make amends.

MassQuilts, an organization of Massachusetts quilt enthusiasts, was holding one of its regular documentation days in Lowell recently, so I signed up.

The group is dedicated to identifying, preserving, and uncovering quilts made prior to 1950.

My quilt – an understated, two-tone beauty – came from Grandma Atkin, who lived in Indiana. I delivered it in a clean brown grocery bag to the registration table of the Massachusetts Quilt Documentation Project, a joint undertaking of MassQuilts and the New England Quilt Museum, host to this monthly event.

What I learned before plunking down my $15 for the 20-minute appointment was that Massachusetts is a Johnny-come-lately to quilt documentation.

Quilters in other states have already completed similar projects and published books with the best of what they found. The history-rich Bay State lags behind, because much recent effort has gone toward opening the New England Quilt Museum, one of about a half dozen such museums in the United States.

Besides keeping paperwork on each quilt, the Massachusetts groups are creating a computer database so that researchers can better access the information.

"We know from the experience of other groups that when all those papers sit in someone's garage, they're no good to anyone anymore," says Barbara Bell of MassQuilts.

The hope is that eventually a series of compatible databases will pave the way to doing interesting studies, highlighting regional characteristics of a mountain of social history woven into old quilts.

"If history has mostly been written by men, when you start researching quilts, you learn about women and children and how they lived," says Martha Supnik of the New England Quilt Museum.

"People often don't think of them as a work of art or a piece of history," she adds, "so when we document a quilt, we are teaching the quilt owners what they have, how to care for it, and what its value is historically."

The documentation doesn't resemble anything on TV's "Antiques Road Show." No appraisals are given, but if people ask, they can be referred to certified appraisers.

Because quilters didn't often see a need to sign their work, information about who made the quilts brought in for documentation is missing about 70 percent of the time. Although my quilt was owned by my grandmother, she purchased or won it at an event held at a friend's church in Evansville, Ind. It came with no ID.

As a result, when I sat down with a volunteer assigned to complete the first page of a three-page documentation form, I was of limited help. The answers to numerous questions about the quilter had to be left blank.

While what little I knew was being recorded, my quilt was hung from a large frame in order to take pictures.

"This is often the first time the owner has seen the quilt from a distance," Ms. Supnik says. Hung vertically, its beauty is strikingly, sometimes surprisingly, clear to those who've only viewed it flat on a bed or folded up.

A Polaroid snapshot is clipped to a copy of the paperwork. A digital image is added to the documentation database.

After "posing" in this makeshift studio, the quilt is measured and then moved to a large table, where the documentation team gets to work.

Four women (I'm the only man in the room) are assigned to compile the technical information.

On this occasion they are led by Julie Crossland, a documenter who has trained in dating fabrics and identifying designs. She is assisted by a recorder and two other volunteers, who wear white gloves to protect the quilts while handling them.

Through close inspection, all sorts of sewing-related information is recorded: fabric (cotton); block shape (squares); layout (alternate blocks and diagonal/on point); stitches per inch (eight); and much more.

By comparing the pattern to those cataloged in books, Ms. Crossland concludes that it's a Shooting Star design of the kind popular with Mennonites.

In her 2-1/2 years documenting for the project, which she expects to soon surpass its goal of 3,000 quilts, she says she hasn't found one she couldn't date within a quarter century, which she calls "perfectly acceptable."

She places this quilt in the 1900-1925 period. Its shade of yellow offers an important clue. It falls between a 19th-century Cheddar yellow and a brighter Depression-era yellow.

While assessed as structurally sound, the quilt's white fabric is slightly discolored in places, but not enough to worry about. In fact, cleaning can sometimes do more harm than good, I'm told. "When in doubt, don't" is the operative advice.

"We often tell people that if a quilt has a couple of spots on it and is 150 years old, they should just appreciate it for what it's worth," Supnik says.

Since the most frequently asked question at the documentation events is "How should I care for my quilt?" MassQuilts distributes an information sheet (see sidebar on page 15) with advice.

People who bring in quilts naturally hope the documentation team will express interest in them. The good news is that Crossland doesn't have to feign enthusiasm. "Some are more exciting than others because they are unusual, but each quilt is exciting in its own way," she notes. "To me, every quilt is like an original painting. Even though there are patterns, each quiltmaker puts her spin on it."

Almost every documentation session, she says, yields a surprise of some sort, and on this day it was the the excellent condition of a crazy quilt brought in by Lucy Ogden of Newton, Mass..

Mrs. Ogden brought in three quilts, but the Victorian-era crazy quilt was the most intriguing, with its explosion of color and the variety and intricacy of the stitching. She knows who the quilter was – her great-grandmother, who lived in La Belle, Mo. The woman and her husband owned a general store.

"I'm sure she got a lot of fabrics because of this store," Ogden says, citing an old newspaper story that describes her great-grandmother "as a little woman with scissors around her neck."

Ogden recalls seeing the quilt only a few times while she was growing up. She figures that her mother intuitively knew its value. "If I could, I would hang it on the wall, but I wouldn't after they [the documenters] told me it's too fragile," Ogden says.

Instead of storing it in a box for her daughters, she'd rather give it to the quilt museum for safekeeping and sharing. That way, if her daughters want to see the quilt, it will be available for viewing.

As for my grandmother's quilt – well, it's not really museum-caliber. The best I can do is file the documentation paper at home, stitch on an informational label supplied by MassQuilts, and, of course, study those care instructions closely.

Storing and caring for old quilts

"The worst thing for a quilt is sunlight," says Julie Crossland, a volunteer with the Massachusetts Quilt Documentation Project (see main story, page 14).

To protect old quilts from fading and fiber damage by the sun requires extra caution by the owner. During the day, close bedroom curtains or blinds. At night, it's fine to put out a quilt to show it off when company's coming.

Here are other care and storage pointers compiled by MassQuilts, the volunteer group that orchestrates the documentation project:

• To prevent moisture and mildew problems, do not store quilts in plastic bags. Wrapping them in a clean cotton sheet is better.

• Avoid storing quilts in cardboard boxes unless the boxes are acid-free. Also, don't place them on unsealed wooden shelves, whose acidic content can stain and damage quilt fibers. Metal shelves should be rustproofed and wooden ones protected with several coats of polyurethane varnish. Then cover the shelves with acid-free tissue paper or clean muslin before placing quilts on them.

• Fold quilts in thirds, not halves, and air out and refold every six months. Do not stack folded quilts on top of each other, since it deepens crease marks.

• Quilts need substantial support when displayed to avoid stresses on the fabric, and for the same reason, should not be left folded or hanging in the same position for long periods.

• Quilts do best when they are not subjected to temperature and humidity extremes or frequent fluctuations.

• Never dry-clean any quilt. If a quilt is more than 100 years old, do not wash it. Consult an expert for cleaning advice.

• To remove dust, gently vacuum, using a mesh stocking over a dusting attachment.

• To discourage pests in the storage space, keep the area clean and quilts aired out. Instead of mothballs, which emit gases that can damage quilts, place several sachet bags with dried lavender flowers in each quilt.

For further information on documenting and caring for quilts, here are several helpful websites:

New England Quilt Museum www.nequiltmuseum.org.

Smithsonian Institution www.si.edu/resource/faq/nmah/ antqtext.htm.

Lost Quilt Come Home www.lostquilt.com/ Documenting.html.

Center for the Quilt On-Line www.quiltcenter.org.

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