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Judging a quilt by its cover

Text by Linda Fowler. Photographs by Stephanie Madsen

Pary Woehlcke holds up the friendship quilt inscribed to “the Reverend John Jones & Ludy” from their Cape May friends.

Not many marriages are perfect, but one exception might be for the one between creativity and practicality. Among the offspring of this union, one of the most beloved is the American quilt.

So many quilts, so many tales. The art of making a quilt is a little like writing a story. Faces, places and things are at the fore. Material creates warmth and the backing gives it structure.

More than 21 million active U.S. quilters were reported in last year’s Quilting inAmerica survey, conducted by the Creative Crafts Group. Simple in function, but profoundly important in folklore, these textiles are vital to such collections as found in the Smithsonian Institution. The International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska handily mounts six to eight exhibits annually, featuring about 15 to 25 quilts each.

Snippets of our country’s history could be read in quilts years before Betsy Ross brought needlecraft to a new level. Quilts reflect changes in the cultural and political landscape of their time, and their construction educates us about changes wrought by the invention of the sewing machine and cotton gin, or the arrival of synthetic dyes and fabrics.

Popular decorating trends through the centuries are evident in such diverse styles as the unfussy, all-white neo-classical quilt to the kaleidoscopic crazy quilts of the Victorian era.

Patriotic quilts are emblazoned with stars, eagles or Old Glory. Revival quilts from the early 20th century borrow time-honored patterns from forebears, but reinterpret them with new spins, including pastel palettes. Presentation quilts and friendship quilts are frequently assembled and signed by a community of needlecrafters for an occasion like a retirement
or wedding.

They are records, in cloth, of our ancestors’ existence and handiwork. In Cape May County, for example, surviving quilts trace their heritage to the Schellenger, Whilldin or Leaming families. The Cape May County Museum in Cape May Court House features a number of friendship quilts in its 54-piece collection, notably a Love Apple quilt devised by members of the Fishing Creek Sunday School in 1860 for superintendent Jacob S. Teal, and an 1848 quilt inscribed to “the Reverend John Jones & Ludy” from their Cape May friends.

Detail of a Victorian crazy quilt

Pioneer women, true mothers of invention, scrounged for bits of material for their bedwarmers. With paper being scarce and expensive, they cut patterns from letters, newsprint and book pages, then stitched them beneath the material for added insulation, thus giving future folklorists clues to life on the prairie. One quilt traveled along the Oregon Trail and eventually found its way as a gift to Joan Bjork, a prize-winning Cape May quilter and co-proprietor of the White Dove Cottage on Hughes Street. Its brilliant, wagon-wheel design was so striking that members of the South Shore Stitchers, a guild in Tuckahoe, decided one year to replicate it.

Pary Woehlcke, director/curator of the Cape May County Museum, notes that times gone by, women joined church, school and other social assemblies. Quilting was a byproduct because practically everyone knew how to do it. Needle arts were intrinsic to a girl’s education.

“Around 1850 or so, sampler-making fell out of favor,” she adds, speaking about the museum’s elaborate crazy quilts. “As you move into the Victorian era, you don’t find practical quilts and samplers; what you find are highly decorative quilts where the embroidery stitching has gone from the sampler onto the quilt.”

Detail of the inscription on the quilt to the Reverent John Jones & Ludy.

Experts can tell a quilt by its cover, and many other identifiers unique to a region, culture or religion, like color schemes, signatures and motifs. The settling of America is represented in pictorials and patterns: There are the large geometrics and jewel tones characteristic of the Amish; the bold, improvisational designs of African-Americans from the South; the juxtapositions of red and green by Pennsylvania’s Germans. Frequently, the flora and fauna native to a locale are preserved in whimsical designs within a quilt’s blocks or along its borders.

Considering Cape May’s seafaring heritage, we might assume that vintage quilts were embellished with maritime motifs like compasses and clipper ships, but that’s not really the case, according to Pary, who mostly encounters traditional patterns, such as Log Cabin, CourthouseSteps or LeMoyneStar. Another style, the Baltimore Quilt (also known as an album quilt), has wide appeal with its much-copied grid of appliquéd picture panels that resemble a cohesive scrapbook.

During tours of the White Dove Cottage, Joan spreads out her original Baltimore quilt, a grand prize winner at South Shore Stitchers, in one of the guest rooms. “All the Baltimore Quilts had a lot of flowers, wreaths and birds,” she says. “I put a horse inside this wreath because my daughters loved horses … [These quilts] had an eagle because of the time of the federation of the states and had a clipper ship for the harbors, the shipping industry in Baltimore, and they all had a heart, which stands for the culture in Baltimore.”

Another signature on the Reverend’s friendship quilt

Some events captured in needlecraft are momentous, notably the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The National Tribute Quilt, organized by four Pennsylvania women in remembrance of 9/11, was composed of six quilts and more than 9,100 hours of labor that fashioned a New York skyline built of squares bearing victims’ names. The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 was credited in part for a surge of interest in Japanese design and exotica associated with crazy quilts. Interestingly, the Cape May County Museum owns a quilt made of fabric purchased at the Centennial by Eliza Hand, wife of Captain Aaron Hand, but she chose a retro Log Cabin pattern. The quilt commemorates the couple’s excursion to Philadelphia via ship with their daughters, Abbie and Annabelle.

A vivacious 82-year-old Joan Bjork decided to pay tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and relive her memories of movie palaces, by quilting Nine Classic Stars, another grand prize winner at South Shore Stitchers. Impressed by Leading Ladies, a 1940 quilt from the Morris Museum collection that was once exhibited at the Noyes Museum of Art, Bjork set out to immortalize some of her favorite actresses, among them Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and Bette Davis in Dark Victory.

Several quilts are displayed at the Cape May County Historical Museum.

“When I first thought of designing this quilt, I knew that I would frame each picture with film strips,” Joan says of the bordering. “So much of our information, lives, thoughts and dreams are the result of film.”

One aspect of quilting that hasn’t changed is its deep affiliation with charitable works and providing warmth and comfort for the needy. Mary Alice Campanaro of Ocean City, a spokeswoman for South Shore Stitchers, says the group draws about 10 of its 122 members from in and around Cape May. They create small quilts for children diagnosed with cancer, soft “chemo blankets” for adults, “puzzle quilts” for the autistic, and quilts of valor for
the troops.

Joan Bjork’s “Nine Classic Stars” quilt on display at the White Dove Bed and Breakfast. Photo courtesy Joan Bjork by Aleksey Photography.

Tender care also is taken with the preservation of quilts themselves. For instance, dress silks of the 19th century were often treated with mineral salts to lend body to the fabric, putting a little rustle in the bustle, but this contributed to the decay of quilts that incorporated those materials. Joan stores her creations in cotton pillowcases. Pary says wall-hangings and bright lights toll the “death knell” for old quilts, so the museum lies them flat or folds them with acid-free tissue paper between each layer to prevent creasing.

There is no common thread that creates a passion for quilting. Like quilt pieces, the reasons are unique. Mary Alice Campanaro remembers a minor miracle. She found a family Postage Stamp quilt, intricately made of tiny squares, in pristine condition, after being stored in a paper bag in a damp basement. The quilter’s passion grabbed hold when she discovered she had inherited drawers-full of quilts crafted by her grandmothers.

She could tell by the stitching the difference in the handiwork of her maternal grandmother and her fraternal grandmother – thus allowing her to lovingly judge the quilter’s quilt by
its cover.