By Karen B. Alexander
“What is it about quilts with you?” is a question heard frequently by quilt historians.
To answer that question, the members of The 1876 Centennial Quilt Project invite the public to attend the first-ever exhibit of an amazing 1876 quilt on May 6, 10–3 p.m., at Woodman Hall.
Among the many answers to the question – why we study quilts – is that quilt history is a natural vehicle for wide-range learning in the fields of social history, women’s history and textile manufacturing history. Sadly, most quilts lose their maker’s story over the generations, especially once the quilt leaves the family. But sometimes, these lost quilts are rediscovered.
In May of 2015, I discovered a quilt which contained over 70 different patterns set in a medallion-style arrangement. It contained the date 1876 and the initials EMC in four separate large circles.
The quilt was simply stunning. I knew I had to share the image of this quilt with the members of my bee, the Ladies of Tuesday Night. I did not tell the group what I hoped, i.e. that they would help persuade Anne Dawson, owner of our island’s quilt shop The Quilter’s Studio, to draft the more than 70 patterns. I waited to see their reactions first. But sure enough, several responded with the same joyful exclamation: “I want to make this quilt! Let’s ask Anne if she will draft it for us.”
Only Anne can tell the full story of what she went through wrestling with herself over whether or not to take on this enormous challenge, but eventually, she said yes. Then the owner, Barbara Menasian of Connecticut, agreed to allow us to pattern it. That meant our 1876 project was a go!
All the block patterns in this quilt have been around for well over 100 years. However, it is the “arrangement” of the blocks in this quilt that is so unique and so exacting. Originally Anne thought only six to eight quilters might enroll in her class. But what a response! 17 from the San Juan Islands, Bellingham and Seattle signed up including the Connecticut owner, who decided to join us — by correspondence — and finally learn how to quilt herself.
The journey has been taxing on all, not the least on Barbara Gonce of Lopez Island, who is making three versions of the quilt at the same time to showcase how changing fabric styles and colors affects the overall appearance of this quilt.
We still have questions to solve. We know nothing more about the original maker, other than her initials – EMC. Did she make the quilt in Connecticut where it was found? We think so. At least two are working to track her down.
Come see the original 1876 quilt plus all of our versions on May 6, Woodmen Hall, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will be flown in from Connecticut with its owner for this very special unveiling.