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Essay: A rescued quilt shines brightly

An antique quilt becomes room-brightening artwork.

By Joan Donaldson / February 7, 2008

Visitors to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg browsed the colorful, award-winning quilts on display last month. Many of the quilts are traditional in design, while others are contemporary.

Dan Marschka/Intelligencer Journal/AP

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Thirty years ago, my husband and I noticed a garage sale at a nearby home that boasted a state of Michigan centennial farm marker. Another sign swung from a maple shading the driveway and proclaimed that the Greens tilled this land called Green Acres. Turning right, John and I parked our car by the two-story white farmhouse and roamed through the sale.

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While John perused used tools and peanut butter jars filled with various screws and bolts, I wandered around the tables smothered with bric-a-brac, crocheted potholders, and assorted household supplies.

I selected a Belleek honey pot and then spied a small stack of quilts. Two were comforters sewn from squares of wool and tied to a flannel back, but the other two were hand pieced from 19th-century calicos and hand-quilted. Even as a novice quilter, I recognized the superior workmanship. The crispness of the fabric relayed the fact that probably one of the quilts had never been washed.

Didn't Mrs. Green realize the historic value of these quilts and that they should remain on this centennial farm?

"Excuse me," I said while holding both quilts. "You really shouldn't sell these. They're heirlooms. Surely, someone in your family should have them."

Mrs. Green shook her head. "No one wants them."

I continued to laud the fine piecing, the 12 stitches to an inch, and the perfectly straight borders. I pleaded with her, explaining that the quilts represented not only the quilter's skill, but were part of the farm's history.

Mrs. Green merely smiled. "I think you should have them," she said. "Because you understand."

I had defeated my own case.

"I can't afford both of them." I eyed the $25 price tags, more than what I, as a young wife, spent weekly for groceries in those days.

"Then choose," she suggested.

I spread the quilts out, side by side. One was created from unbleached muslin and a rainbow of calico scraps, while on the other, hot pink triangles swirled in blocks with a background of sprigged brown percale. While the first recorded the family's wardrobe, the other vibrated as the pink zinged across a sea of hot chocolate. This 19th-century quiltmaker's creation leapt across the decades and showed the sophistication of modern art now displayed in contemporary quilts.

John walked over, eyed both, and shrugged his shoulders.

"I'll take the brown one," I finally said. I paid for it and the honey pot. And after returning home, I stored the quilt in a closet, as I was unsure how to utilize my new treasure.

Not too many years later, John and I attended Christmas Country Dance School at Berea College in Kentucky, a week filled with workshops teaching traditional Appalachian, New England, and English country dances, plus other folk arts.

The first night, snow skittered across the college's sidewalks as we hurried toward the evening dance. We shed our coats and slipped into the hall. I gasped. A wreath of quilts garlanded the room.

In 1980, the quilt renaissance had begun, but I had never observed numerous quilts displayed purely as art. While the band warmed up, I examined the quilts, fascinated not only by the ribbons of color exploding from the center of a Bethlehem star quilt, but by the warmth radiating from the calicos out into the room.

Every night that week, I reveled in how the quilts transformed the hall and how the repetition of the blocks and designs echoed the repeated steps of the Kentucky Running sets and the 32-bar reels driving our feet.

On New Year's Day, John and I returned home to a deep Michigan winter. January winds drove veils of snow through the cherry orchard north of our two-room apartment and the dark paneling pressed around us as the blizzard kept us snowbound.

Yet the music and enchantment of Christmas Country Dance Week still glowed within me, and one gray afternoon while piecing blocks for a quilt top, I mulled over the power of Berea's quilts. I pulled out the antique quilt I'd purchased from Mrs. Green, stitched loops onto it, and we hung it over the imitation wood paneling.

The pink pulsed. The white sprigs in the brown percale shimmered. Despite the snow pelting the windows, the colors defied the frosty outside; the room expanded and felt cozier. Although this heirloom no longer resided on the land where the quilter created it, most likely she would have been pleased by how her work of art warmed and brightened the home of two neighboring farmers. And that afternoon, I hoped that the blocks I sewed would one day do the same.

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