American quilts aren't just on beds anymore

American quilts have a new adoring audience. The upsurge of interest in Americana both here and abroad has turned many collectors to this nostalgic folk art.

Today, antique American quilts have an international appeal. According to one dealer, they have a Canadian following, and Europeans, such as the French, Belgians, and Dutch, are buying them for the "country look." In America, the current market for quilts is especially active in California and in the East, centering in New York.

Although quilts are in demand and increasing in value, Phyllis Haders, a well- known authority on American and Amish quilts, does not advocate a purely mercenary motive for acquiring them. "People should not collect quilts as an investment," she says. "People should collect things because they love them."

Mrs. Haders says those interested in starting a quilt collection should "be very careful, learn all they can before buying, and get professional advice." She advises novice collectors to go to museums and galleries to study quilts on exhibition, to read books on the subject, and to talk to dealers.

Mrs. Haders says prospective buyers should examine a quilt for true color, good condition, sturdy construction, and fine craftsmanship. The proportions and design of the quilt should be visually pleasing and the stitches small and even.

When it comes to buying, Mrs. Haders recommends purchasing a quilt in good condition from a reputable dealer. Prices for rare museum quality quilts can run anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000, she says, but people can still scout out charming quilts at more affordable prices. As a general rule, advises Mrs. Haders, "Always try to acquire the very best you can in your price range."

Most quilts fall into two basic categories -- applique and patchwork. In an applique quilt, the pieces in the design are cut out of different materials and sewn onto a plain background with a fine hemming stitch. In a patchwork or pieced quilt, the pieces are cut into geometric shapes and sewn together to form a pattern in a block. The blocks are then sewn together to form the quilt cover.

According to Mrs. Haders, the choice of which type to buy is a very subjective thing. After all, she says, "It's a very personal thing to collect."

Michael Malce, a New York dealer, links the rising interest in quilts to the increasing numbers of quilters making them today. "They know how much work goes into the craft," he says, and they "feel an affinity" for those who produced them in earlier days. He also sees the influence of the women's movement in the growing respect "for the anonymous women of the past who made these beautiful things and, in many cases, didn't even sign their work."

Mr. Malce says people also appreciate antique quilts as unique individual expressions. For example, even if a traditional pattern was used, quilters tended to alter it slightly to make it their own, he says. Women often made quilts from scraps of clothing from their trousseau, from friends, and even from their wedding dress. Bridal quilts sometimes included remnants of clothing the bride wore as a child. "There is a biography in every quilt," he says.

Young women were taught how to sew at an early age and, traditionally, were expected to have made 13 quilts by the time they married. Until the mid-1800s, their brothers were also taught to sew to help contribute to the household needs. Although industrialization and the advent of the sewing machine made their skills less necessary, men have participated in the craft to the present time. Such notables as Presidents Eisenhower and Coolidge both had a hand in making quilts as young boys.

Today, many people keep quilts in the family as heirlooms and some are purchasing antique quilts to pass on to their sons and daughters.

"It's nice to see people enjoying quilts," says Rachel Alexander, a partner in Mountain Colors, a quilt shop in Boston. "They're a big thing in interior decorating now. People are hanging them on the wall, using them on tables, and covering couches with them -- quilts aren't just on beds anymore."

Ms. Alexander also notes that each quilt has a story, and "if you study it long enough you can piece it together." If the quilt is not signed, the design can help to determine when and where a quilt was made. Certain patterns were popular during particular eras, and some quilters named their designs according to important events happening at the time.

The quilting pattern itself (the design of the stitching holding the layers together) can also help date a quilt. For example, Ms. Alexander says it seems many current New England quilters are using a seashell quilting pattern that may date their quilts to the 1980s in the future.

The shell design also illustrates how quilters often borrow motifs from their surroundings. In the case of antique quilts, these may help determine the geographical region where a quilt was made. "If you're living in the Midwest," says Ms. Alexander, "you won't be sewing seashells on your quilt."

James W. M. Carroll, a New England quilt dealer working from Franconia, N.H., says color can be a good clue in dating quilts. Green and turkey-red pieces appliqued to a white background were common from the 1830s through the 1850s. Next, clear browns, reds, blues, and black and white came into vogue. Very small prints of horses, hunting dogs, horseshoes, and other tiny shapes were popular in the mid-1800s followed by the somber tones of the Victorian era. Shortly after the turn of the century colors became muted and pastel shades prevailed through the 1920s.

Indigo blue and white quilts from the 1870s are especially popular now in the New England area, says Mr. Carroll, and are more expensive than comparable quilts in other colors. Album or signature quilts are also sought after. These quilts were made by many friends who made one block each, signed their name with embroidery or indelible ink, and then gathered to sew the blocks together and finish the quilt. These friendship quilts were usually presented to a favorite minister or a bride.

Although quilts are getting harder to obtain, flea markets and yard sales can still yield some finds. "Look until you find one that really speaks to you," says Mr. Carroll. "Then look it over." Quilts that are hand- quilted are more valuable than those that are just tied or tacked at intervals to hold the layers together. The quilting pattern should also complement the patchwork or applique design. The blocks should lie flat and corners should meet.

Mr. Carroll also offers these tips on how to store and care for quilts:

* Wrap quilts in fabric for storage. Do not wrap them in paper or plastic bags, especially if the bags are sealed.

* Mothballs can be used for protection, but should not touch the antique fabric.

* Roll a quilt rather than fold a quilt for storage. Folding can cause the quilting on the creases to weaken and give out. If it must be folded, refold the quilt periodically.

* Quilts in storage should be taken out and aired as much as possible.

* Change hanging quilts periodically. Exposure to sunlight can fade the fabrics.

* To clean a quilt, gently wash it in a bathtub with mild soap and rinse well. Do not dry clean.

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