Piecing together stories sewn into quilts

Bev Proulx shared her museum-quality quilt collection at the Pine City Library.

For someone with the right knowledge and eye for detail, a quilt has qualities that are similar to DNA or forensic evidence. This was demonstrated recently when the Pine City library hosted Bev Proulx, a quilt collector and appraiser from North Branch.

Proulx, who taught English for many years at Rush City, described herself as a history buff as well as a student of fabrics and quilting techniques. She credits her grandmother with instilling in her an appreciation of the beauty and history embedded in a quilt.

 “Each one tells a story,” Proulx explained.

As she shared a sampling of her museum-quality quilts, many of which date to the early 1800s, she demonstrated how the colors, fabrics, stitching, patterns and other features all tell her something about, not only the age and origin of the quilt, but also who made it and why.

Take blue indigo for example. Historically, indigo was a natural dye extracted from the leaves of certain plants. It was particularly popular in Europe; so much so that indigo plantations became common in certain parts of the southern United States in an effort to meet demand. However, the processing and use with fabrics still occurred overseas, so fabrics with blue indigo coloring  were imported from Europe until the late 1800s when a synthetic version of the dye was made commercially available. This bit of historical knowledge helps Proulx determine the age of quilts, and it suggests that those making quilts with blue indigo in the early and mid 1800s were probably women of financial means since imported fabrics were significantly more expensive than those purchased domestically or spun at home.

Similarly, tying the age of a quilt with a particular quilting pattern or color layout helps tell which part of the country it came from.

“Women quilted what they knew,” Proulx explained.

Since there were no printed patterns until the 1900s, quilters did what they saw others doing. Certain patterns, such as the Baltimore Album, were popular in a region of the country at a particular time in history, while others  – including the Double Wedding Ring and the Soldiers’ Cot quilt – indicated a specific event or occasion.  

Proulx added that different styles of quilting stitches on a comforter probably indicates the work of a family or a group at a quilting bee as opposed to just one person. If a quilt has machine stitching, that helps narrow down a date as well.

The majority of Proulx’s quilts remain in amazing condition with vibrant colors and original stitching intact, which helps to preserve the details that make these quilts so historically enlightening.

Proulx offered these bits of advice on keeping quilts in heirloom condition:

• Do not dry clean a quilt. This ruins it, as does washing in a machine.

• It’s best to air a quilt on a line or table with the weight evenly distributed.

• If a quilt is soiled, soak it in the washer in Orvus soap or some other restorative, then drain and run the spin cycle for just thirty seconds and dry flat with a flannel sheet underneath and a regular sheet on top.

• To properly store a quilt, fold in thirds then accordion fold to avoid creating deep creases. If the fabric does get creased, place it in a rumpled pile somewhere safe until the material relaxes.

At the conclusion of her presentation, Proulx shared with the audience that she is at the point in her life where she’s thinking about what to do with her collection. She enjoys giving them to silent auction fundraisers and also has been checking into donating the remainder to museums, which seems fitting since quilts and the stories they tell are such an important part of the history of our country, commemorating pivotal events and technological advances as well as the details of everyday life.

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