Averil Colby: Old-Fashioned Manners and a Thoroughly Modern Technique

This week’s Honoree, Averil Colby, would fit right in with the contemporary taste for English Paper Piecing. Yes, she herself was English, and little hexagons were her preferred method of creating, as we’ll see in a moment. But first, a short introduction; for a fuller bio, see the link below.

Colby was Chairman of the Handicraft Committee of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and was instrumental in organizing courses, classes, and exhibitions to promote and preserve the quilting crafts. Her first book came out in the late 1950s when quilting in Britain was as dormant as it was in the States. According to the Hall of Fame record, “Batsford, a London publishing firm, asked her to write a book on patchwork, as up to then nothing had been published in such depth on the subject in England.” As an aside, this statement makes me wonder how the connections came about, but that’s a research project for someone else.  At any rate, Colby produced four quilt-related books and one book on pincushions, all of which are still available.

The quilt books earned Colby a reputation as a quilt historian, and she is still cited today as an authority on Welsh and North Country quilts.  Her documentation of British quilts is well-respected and is a source of patterning for quilters looking for a reproduction project.  Here’s one of the quilts she found, a 1790 “Marriage Coverlet” along with a modern version called “Love Entwined” (A pattern for the full quilt or a simplified –they say;  it would still be too much for me—instructions for the center only are available at the link below):

Of course, when dealing with quilt history, there are many blanks to fill in.  Colby, like her US counterparts, often speculated, and (not to detract from her reputation but to put her in a mortal/human light) there is a noted instance when her imagination took a wrong turn.  Here’s the quilt in question and a detail of the section that caused Colby to go astray:

Colby looked at this quilt and imagined it had been made by a farmer’s wife because of the presence of so many domesticated animals. She also noted the picket fence enclosure. This theory didn’t explain the anchors or the exotic animals, and completely left the two largest figures on the quilt unaccounted for, but her view was accepted until recently. That’s when a researcher at the Victoria and Albert made the connection to a statue which was well-known around the time the quilt had been made. (There’s some good non-quilt background information about the statue, so I’ve included two interesting links below.)

The Greek Slave. 1843/1846. Hiram Powers

The original statue was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and it became popular in ballads, satires, journalism, prints and engravings. Miniature copies were also popular for the rest of the century, and Powers applied for a patent to prevent wholesale copying and profiteering. But his statue is probably the true inspiration for the main figures on the coverlet, despite Colby’s focus on the agricultural connections. Maybe I shouldn’t have said she was wrong;  a farmer’s wife (or the wife of a local landed squire) could have made the quilt, but Colby sure missed the big point.

Well, now let’s talk about Colby’s own needlework. Take a look at these sweet examples from the Collection of the Guild Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles. (All of the descriptive text below the photos is from the Guild Museum.)

Averil Colby Samples. Various Averil Colby samples of hexagons and clusters from printed and plain cotton fabrics. The image also shows some of the samples with examples from the (museum’s) Averil Colby Fabric Collection, which dates from the end of the 18th Century to the 20th Century.

And here’s another shot from the Quilters’ Guild Museum to give you some sense of scale. If that purple pincushion has such small sides—I presume the gauge is metric, but even in inches the measure is impressive– imagine how tiny the little red pieces are! (Right foreground of the above photo)

Hexagon Rosette Pin Cushions. Two hexagon rosette pin cushions made by Averil Colby. One has striped fabric with a central blue rose and a mauve central hexagon, and the other with plain mauve hexagons and a central purple hexagon, decorated with a circle of sequins and beads.

Colby was a prodigious maker of pincushions.  It’s reported that she worked while she had callers and often sent a completed pincushion home with them when the visit was over. Not all of Colby’s work was Lilliputian.  Here are two more items from the Quilters’ Guild Museum that are larger than the little pincushions.

Averil Colby Samples (mounted)
Banner. Made from 81 hexagons of silk and satin stars joined together by brown velvet lozenges, mounted on a pole with a silk cord for hanging. The hexagons are hand-pieced and the papers are still intact. The banner is finished on the back with a coarse netting. The maker and date of the hexagons is unknown but thought to date to the late 19th/early 20th century. The loose hexagons were assembled together by Miss Averil Colby in 1960

Colby amassed a collection of fabrics spanning the late 1700s to the middle of the 20th century. And she used what she collected.

Averil Colby Fabric. Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles
Unfinished pieces by Averil Colby. Collection of LittleWelshQuiltsandothertraditions.com
G. Spiller’s Quilt, 1839. Repaired by Averil Colby using fabrics from her collection. Museum of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles.

Although she obviously could handle a needle and thread, Colby didn’t do much actual quilt-making; she didn’t think she was “good enough.”  But she pieced what the Brits call mosaics. This last piece brings us to the modern connection: hexies. 

Black Frost Cushion. 1953. Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by the Needlework Development Scheme

Hexies took off in the mid-to-late 2000s, and I made a quilt using the EPP (English Paper Piecing) method. It was easy, accurate and relaxing to do in front of the wood fire one winter, so I understand the attraction for Colby. For me, it was a “one and done”, and I wondered if the trend is still alive.

Answer: Oh YES! Hexagons of all sizes (the larger they are, the more modern the quilt, but many updated Grandmother’s Flower Gardens can also be seen on Pinterest). And the technique is now applied to shapes beyond the hexagon, so there are Caesar’s Crowns and Castle Wall quilts too. Tula Pink has this fun pillow which is so different from Colby’s.

Tula Nova pattern. www.fatquartershop.com

I’ve included some links below if you are interested in a tutorial on EPP.

That covers the modern, but you may remember my initial reference to old-fashioned manners. I always feel fortunate when my reading about an Honoree turns up something that shows a human-interest side of her or him. The quilt-related facts show the public persona, but sometimes I find something a little more private (well, not exactly private because it’s on the internet; maybe lesser-known or tangential is a better description). And that’s when I know I would have liked to be friends with the person I’m writing about. Here’s what I found about Averil Colby.

This is a sample of her editing of the galleys for her first book.  How many authors would use the phrase “be kind enough to…”? She could have used a simple proofreader’s mark (a squashed-down “C” super-imposed on a double slash).  Or she could have just written a directive.  But instead she asked, as if the printer would be doing her a favor. She elevated and equalized the transaction.  That’s old-fashioned manners, and I very much would have enjoyed knowing a person who could bring such grace to a business transaction.

Your quilting friend,


Bio info. https://quiltershalloffame.net/averil-colby/

Love Entwined. https://www.estheraliu.com/love-entwined-pattern-shop You might also be interested in the designer’s comments on her making of the pattern.


The Greek Slave statue. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/scandalous-story-behind-provocative-sculpture-greek-slave-19th-century-audiences-180956029/ Also:   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Greek_Slave

Tula Pink pattern. https://www.fatquartershop.com/tula-nova-quilt-pattern-and-complete-piece-pack

Missouri Star tutorial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN7dZJ-R4E8

More on paper piecing, http://www.aqsblog.com/english-paper-piecing-isnt-just-for-hexagons

Michael James: Rhythm and Color

One good thing about writing this blog is that I learn a lot of new things about some pretty extraordinary people. An even better thing is that I learn when I’ve been wrong about one of them.  Case in point: Michael James. There’s bio information about him in the link below, but if you’re like I was, you may be saying, “I know Michael James; he’s the guy that does those striped art quilts.” Yes, but read on.

With his formal art background, Michael James began quilting for art’s sake. He came into quilting in the era of the Whitney Abstract Design show, and his early work is replete with form and color.  Here’s an example with complementary hues, value changes and more y-seams than I would care to make.

Elaborated Tangram. 1976. International Quilt Museum.

Shortly after that quilt, the stripes took over. James made his own yardage from strips of cotton and silk sewn together in gradations of color or value, and he experimented with this medium for nearly fifteen years. You’re going to recognize the signature Michael James style in the next three quilts.

Rhythm/Color: Spanish Dance. 1985. Newark Museum.

This is one of a series named after dance styles, and there’s plenty of movement in the quilt; other quilts in the series include Morris Men and Bacchanal. You can appreciate the color work here, and still recognize the Drunkard’s Path block. That changes in the next quilt.

Quilt #150: Rehoboth Meander. 1993. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of the James Renwick Alliance.

The stripes are still there, but what happened to the block? The comfortable curve of the Drunkard’s Path has gotten jagged. Also, the grid is completely overridden, and I wouldn’t want to guess how this piece was put together. I can identify vertical panels, but no horizontal blocks. James consciously tried to move away from the traditional quilt block construction method; he felt that it was becoming “too predictable.”

The last of my stripe examples shows James as a painter. He’s trying to capture a scene and use his art to evoke an experience.

Aletsch. 1990. National Quilt Museum.

James explains his inspiration:

Aletsch is part of a series of quilts that represent my efforts to synthesize sensory responses to a particular space: the vast mountainous basin in the Swiss Alps that encloses the Aletsch Glacier, the largest in Europe. In the summer of 1988 I spent several days hiking along its perimeter, which extends many kilometers down from the Jungfrau firn. What impressed me most was the very audible sound of millions of gallons of water rushing unseen beneath the perfectly still expanse of glacier. It seemed incongruous: the unrelenting movement of so much water and the stone rigidity of so much ice. Combined with the brilliance of the light and the clarity of the air, that incongruity made for a very memorable scenario.

But let’s go back to a simple version of the stripes because it will set the stage for telling you how I was wrong about Michael James:

Interweave. 1982. International Quilt Museum.

Interweave looks like something you or I could make. Maybe not with all those colors (some of his quilts have as many as 150 different colors), and probably not with such mastery of value and luminosity.  But I could construct this quilt, and so could a beginner. And that’s just the thing: Michael James began as a beginner. And he did the hard work of learning to quilt well because to him, “good craftsmanship is the foundation on which the art of the quilt rests…. as much depends on craft as on vision.”

So now we come to the part I was wrong about.  I think of Michael James as only an art quilter, but there’s a backstory. In addition to formal art training, he has a history with traditional quilting. And I’m not just talking about his family background in the textile industry. (His great-grandparents emigrated from rural Quebec and from Preston, Lancashire to work in the textile mills of south-eastern Massachusetts, where he grew up in the shadow of the local textile mill himself.)

 He wrote (in addition to other things) two how-to books. I own both, but had never really looked at them because I’ve given up on the idea that I will ever be an art quilter. I made the mistake of thinking these books were just about making art quilts. When I pulled my copies off the shelf to start writing, I got a big surprise.  They aren’t about art quilts; they’re about quilting. 

These are-IMHO- the best basic instructional books available.  In the first handbook, the descriptions of basic techniques are scrupulously written and the photos show it all broken into each individual step.  I haven’t come across a better explanation of the quilting stitch. The second handbook brings that same full explanation to the more artistic components including design and use of color. If I still wanted to make a graphic-style art quilt, I could follow these steps.  These books can be found on the used book sites and for under $3.00 on Amazon—well worth the price.

Well, the books were just the beginning of my finding that I didn’t know Michael James like I thought I did.  But I’ve learned.

I now know that for the last twenty or so years, he’s been making digital quilts (quilts constructed with fabric on which he has printed and tinkered with images—his art major was painting and printmaking). I’ll give you just a small taste of those, and you can find more on the links below (his website, International Quilt Museum  collections search and IQM exhibit), and Pinterest is full of images of his digital work.

What interests me about these quilts, in addition to their beauty or creativity, is James’ “take” on the process. He places digital printing squarely in line with the historical evolution of other quilt-related processes (think of the development of roller printing) and is surprised that the general quilt world doesn’t see the connection. He doesn’t mind cutting up a lovely, printed image (which he may have spent hours manipulating) any more than I would hesitate to cut a commercial fabric. And his foundation in traditional piecing techniques allows the most difficult inserts.

While poking around for material, I came across a comment from someone who had purchased one of James’ books.  She mused (queried/complained) that a man who makes quilts can be called an artist but a woman is just a quilter. Never mind that the comment is limited and petty; I now know that Michael James is an artist who has worked all of his adult life with his chosen medium, and is still a quilter at heart. And that’s why he’s in The Quilters Hall of Fame.

Your quilting friend,


Bio info. https://quiltershalloffame.net/2546-2/

James website. https://michaeljamesstudioquilts.com/

International Quilt Museum collections search. (Type in “James, Michael” in the quiltmaker box). https://www.internationalquiltmuseum.org/collections/search

IQM Ambiguity-Enigma exhibition https://www.internationalquiltmuseum.org/exhibition/ambiguity-enigma-recent-quilts-michael-james

Yvonne Porcella: Color and Inspiration

We could probably all use a little whimsy right now, and there’s no Honoree more whimsical than Yvonne Porcella.  You may already know her as the founder of SAQA (Studio Art Quilts Associates) or you may be familiar with some of her colorful work; or she may be totally new to you, and someone you should get to know.  I’ll try to give you a good perspective on her and maybe even be able to poke around and find something you didn’t know. 

In an interview for SAQA (see link below), Yvonne modestly admits she was honored by the Quilters Hall of Fame because of her pioneering of wearable art.  But she shouldn’t have been so self-deprecating because there’s a lot more to her textile career than that. As a self-taught creator she has had at least three distinctive fiber styles, starting with weaving and wearables, moving to bold colors with stripes and checkerboards, and finding calm with silky nature-inspired pieces. You can read her story at the bio link below, and I’ll fill in with some photos and other information.

I think Yvonne would have described herself as first and foremost an artist or creator, but she was also an author and teacher.  A glance at the book titles that are available on Amazon and elsewhere gives you a good idea of how varied her work was.

Her first two books show the influence of her California hippie connection. That’s my era too, and I remember peasant wear and what would now be called boho style. The kimonos she designed as clothing would evolve into large-scale art for the wall. You can see some nice example of her early clothing at the San Francisco Fine Arts link below.

In the next books, you get the flavor of Yvonne’s love of color, and see that she has moved from clothing to quilted expressions. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Yvonne Porcella where she isn’t wearing something in bold combinations of color, often set off by black and white. Here’s a great photo of her, followed by the “color” books. I can’t say which is brighter.

Photo: https://alchetron.com/Yvonne-Porcella

And last comes her beautiful hand dyed and painted fabrics. The Quilters Hall of Fame is fortunate to have one of her silk scarves, and it is so ethereal that the photo can’t capture its beauty. Here’s the book and the scarf.

Let me go back a minute to color and show you a quilt that Porcella once owned and is now in the Quilters Hall of Fame collection.  This is called “Halloween Quilt”, obviously for the orange and black border and framing squares.  But it’s otherwise a riot of color—it’s not necessarily Porcella’s saturated colors, because it’s a 1930s quilt, but nevertheless, it has so many hues thrown together and in that sense it’s very simpatico with Porcella.  There’s an interesting story in the link below explaining what this quilt meant to Porcella and how it got to quilt historian and Honoree Merikay Waldvogel who later donated it to TQHF. If you have access to Arts and Inspiration, (the book above with the checkered-bordered quilt) page 127 has a picture of the quilt on the bed in Yvonne’s guest room.

I’ll give you a few examples of how Porcella took inspiration from this quilt and used color in her own works…

Chili Ice, Some Like it Hot. 2013
Primary Water. 2014
Lily Loves Her Callas. 2009

Those three photos were taken from Yvonne’s blog, which is still up despite her passing.  There’s a link to it below if you want to see more from her.  There’s also a link to the Alliance for American Quilts website which has a gallery of Yvonne’s quilts and other information about her. Or you can just look at the Pinterest link and be overwhelmed.

Now let’s look at some of Porcella’s other work. I’ll have some examples, but Yvonne herself will show you one of her last series in the link below; it’s labelled “olive stuffing”, and if you follow the link, you’ll not only see some marvelous pieces, but also learn about the olive connection.

Like several other Quilters Hall of Fame Honorees, Yvonne Porcella has a quilt in America’s 100 Best Quilts of the 20th Century, “Keep Both Feet on the Floor”. This is a quilt about falling and recovering from injuring her knee; I have a friend who is in therapy following knee replacement surgery, and I can guarantee she isn’t experiencing as much fun as this quilt shows—but Yvonne was nothing if not fun.  Here’s the quilt:

Photo: The Alliance for American Quilts

And here’s Yvonne’s first “art” quilt, made in 1980.  It’s called “Takoage.”

Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Where did her ideas come from? At first, she says that at first it was just color, and you can see that in “Takoage” .  She also, like many quilters, was inspired to make quilts for each of her grandchildren, and every one of those quilts is made of bold colors. But one of the things that sets Porcella apart from the many is that for her, inspiration was everywhere: a pet cemetery, an art museum, a personal experience, a visit by the Pope to a nearby town, a road trip, fast food, etc. For me, a goal would be able to say, “The sky’s the limit” in choosing the subject of a quilting project (I’ll never be that spontaneous, but it could be a goal); for Porcella, there was no limit.

Porcella did a lot of work-in-series, and many of her pieces have images that appear over and over in her work.  One of my favorites is a flying dog; sometimes he’s checkered, sometimes he’s purple, once he had green hair, but he’s often chasing a bone and he always looks like he’s having the time of his life.

Another of Porcella’s series was her kimonos, inspired by a display of Asian clothing at an art museum.  At first she made wearable works, but she changed her scale and went on to large wall pieces. The first one below is over ten feet long and almost seven feet wide.

Snow on Mount Fuji. 1985. Museum of Arts and Design, New York; gift of Martha and Pat Connell, 1991.
Quilted Haori Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee Coat, 1992. Texas Tech University-H2016-084

This kimono quilt was inspired not by snow, but by another weather-related event. Once, while teaching at the International Quilt Festival in Houston, Porcella was confined to her hotel room for three days due to a hurricane. Festival producer and TQHF Honoree Karey Bresenhan gave her a quilt book as a memory of the experience and it included a circus-themed quilt showing Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Those two figures, made with squares and half square triangles, were incorporated into the quilted Haori coat. What a contrast between these two kimonos!

I feel like we need a break from brightness, and fortunately, Porcella can provide that too. She worked extensively with silks which she dyed herself.  You saw the scarf example above; now for your moment of Zen, here are two of her nature-inspired works:

Wisteria le Deuxieme. 1995 Masters: Art Quilts. Lark Publications Photo by Sharon Risedorph
On Dwight Way. 1995. Masters: Art Quilts. Lark Publications. Photo by Sharon Risedorph.

Don’t you feel more relaxed now?

If I haven’t yet told you something you didn’t know about Yvonne Porcella, I have two last things. First, she collaborated with Julia Child in the 2000 Oakland Museum exhibit Women of Taste: A Collaboration Celebrating Quilt Artists and Chefs. Their subject was Nicoise salad, and I would love to find out what Porcella came up with for that.  If anyone has information, please let me know.

Second, her son, Don is also an artist. He’s best known for pipe cleaner sculptures and installations using popular craft materials. His works often make fun of absurd consumerism and the human condition. And what this says about Yvonne Porcella is that she has encouraged creativity: through display of her own work, through teaching, through SAQA, and even through the way she brought up her children. What an inspiration!

Your quilting friend,


PS.  Here are my two “Porcella” quilts; one with bright colors and checkerboard and the other with a nature inspiration. Both have my hand dyed fabrics. If you have any to show, post photos when the blog comes out on The Quilters Hall of Fame Facebook page.

Suggested Reading:

SAQA interview. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_T8ayK9Um-k

Bio information. https://quiltershalloffame.net/yvonne-porcella/

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco clothing. https://art.famsf.org/search?search_api_views_fulltext=Porcella

Halloween Quilt. https://quiltershalloffame.pastperfectonline.com/webobject/BC0F976D-9D99-45E7-A15B-915008567929

Yvonne’s blog. http://yvonneporcella.blogspot.com/

Alliance for American Quilts. https://web.archive.org/web/20100804004036/http://www.allianceforamericanquilts.org/treasures/main.php?id=10

Pinterest images. https://www.pinterest.com/robinson6702/yvonne-porcella/

Olive Stuffing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGwsRz842TE

Los Angeles County Museum of Art. https://collections.lacma.org/search/site/Porcella?f[0]=bm_field_has_image%3Atrue

Antique Quilt Block Challenge

What do these quilts have in common?

Romping Rabbits by Shannon Shirley

Women at the Well by Teddy Pruett

Ode to Elly by Kay L Butler

They all started life as a block like this:

Antique Quilt Block Challenge opens at The Quilters Hall of Fame on February 23, 2021. Please stop in and see the variety of designs that can come from one block!

The Quilters Hall of Fame, 926 S Washington Street, Marion, IN.

Open Tuesday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm.

Deb Geyer

These quilts were all made by Marie Webster Quilt Guild member Deb Geyer.

Deb Geyer- This is an original pattern finished in 2005, 48″ x 48″

Deb Geyer, this pattern came from a magazine, finished in 2005. 36″ x 36″

Deb Geyer- Original pattern, finished in 2006, 60″ x 60″

Deb Geyer- Pattern, Winter Memories, from Thimbleberries New Collection of Classic Quilts by Lynette Jensen. Snowmen embroideries from Anita Goodesign, “Snow Fun.” Finished 2010, 64″ x 72″

Deb Geyer- Pattern from Stars Across America by Quilt in a Day. 2011, lap size.

Deb Geyer- Made from a Kit by Fons & Porter, Christmas Joy. Finished in 2018, it’s huge! 🙂

Deb Geyer- Original pattern inspired by Ruby Short McKim, 2019, 8″ x 10″

Deb Geyer- Original pattern, 2021, 15″ x 15″

Tina Geyer

These quilts were all made by Marie Webster Quilt Guild member Tina Geyer.

Tina finished her first quilt in 2010 and it was displayed at the New Braunfels Area Quilt Guild Show that year.

Tina Geyer- Raw edge appliqué, 2016

Tina also enjoys making clothes for her dolls.

Tina made this quilt from a kit. 2018

Tina Geyer- Quilt and Pillow cases made from Star Wars fabrics! 2019

Joyce Hostetler’s Quilts

These quilts were all made by Marie Webster Quilt Guild member Joyce Hostetler. And thank you, Joyce, for organizing all of these MWQG member quilt pages!!

Joyce Hostetler  This is a Quilt of Honor made from a center panel by the owner and machine quilted by Ruth Gentry. 

Joyce Hostetler   I did the blue work embroidery in this bird quilt over a two-year period then pieced with sashing and a beautiful toille fabric.  I am very fond of toille and use it whenever I can.   My dear friend, Kathy Slater did the lovely machine quilting. 

Joyce Hostetler—The blocks in this Christmas quilt were made by members of the Marie Webster Quilt Guild as a National Quilting Day challenge a few years ago.  I was fortunate to win a packet of blocks and my friend, Carolyn Schwartz, then gifted me with the packet she won.  Ruth Gentry did the lovely  all-over meander and this is the happy result. 

Joyce Hostetler—This  sampler quilt is  from an on-line  Block –of-the-Month group I belong to.  I love the fabrics and colors which came from my stash.  Zephyr likes the quilt too. 


Joyce Hostetler—My friend, Kathy Boxell, and I did a Block-of-the-Month exchange a few years ago.  We both sewed two  blocks of the same design—me in yellows and Kathy in blues.  We then exchanged blocks and we both ended up with twelve yellow and twelve blue blocks.  Ruth Gentry did the lovely machine quilting. 


Joyce  Hostetler—I did the hand redwork embroidery on this quilt over several months.  It was beautifully quilted by Kathy Slater.  I really like the toille fabrics used for the  sashing and borders. 

Joyce Hostetler—This happy  quilt pattern came from a magazine.  I used  fabric from my stash for the houses and purchased fabric for the 9-patch blocks.  Ruth Gentry quilted it with a heart meander. 

Joyce Hostetler   This quilt is titled Sunburst, 36” x 36”, pieced by the owner and machine quilted by my dear friend, Kathy Slater.  It is from the book, Hill and Valley Log Cabins, published by AQS Publishing. 

Joyce Hostetler   This is my response to the 2019 Hostetler Sisters’ Challenge.  I wrote a Block-of-the-Month for us and we all used a MODA Layer Cake.  All the quilts are beautiful and all were very different even though we all used the same fabrics.  I love our challenges.   I machine quilted this small quilt. 

Joyce Hostetler    This quilt was designed by Marianne Fons and was published in a Love of Quilting Magazine.   It was such fun making these blocks from my stash fabrics.  It was machine quilted by Ruth Gentry and presented to a friend from church as a Quilt of Honor. 

Cuesta Benberry: Always There

It’s the best of times and the worst of times to write about Honoree Cuesta Benberry.  The best because February is Black History month and Cuesta was one of the first Black quilt historians; the worst because, as she reminds us, Black quilters are “always there” and so it’s artificial (or wrong, or just plain sad) to focus the discussion on a single month. And, with Cuesta Benberry, about whom so much has been written, I could easily spill over into March, or even April, but I’ll try to focus. You can get an overview of her story at the bio link below.

In case you don’t recognize the “always there” reference, the source is Cuesta’s book, Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts.  If you want a peek inside this book, go to the “gallery” link below. She also wrote A Piece of My Soul: Quilts by Black Arkansans. (See the link below for an interactive video about the quilters and quilts in this book.)

I said that a lot has been written about Cuesta Benberry, but it’s also true that she herself wrote a lot.  In addition to regular contributions to quilting magazines such as Nimble Needle Treasures, Quilters’ Newsletter and The Women of Color Quilters’ Network Newsletter, she wrote scholarly papers about her research.  In 1980, her first such paper, “Afro-American Women and Quilts,” was published in Uncoverings, the journal of the American Quilt Study Group. There she laid out what would be her two-fold focus as a quilt historian studying Afro- American quilts:

I am investigating the role of quilts, in a historical context, in the lives of black Americans.  This means quilts made by black women, and quilts not made by black women, but which have a relationship to their lives. Why did I include quilts made by white women in my “ Afro-American Women and Quilts” project? A study of these quilts portray(s), in a very vivid manner, the concepts of a large segment of white Americans about black Americans at various points in American history….

For the most part, the university scholars have concentrated their studies on a specific type of Afro-American quilt. This is a quilt with an African heritage design—an ethnic quilt…. An historical approach requires me to scrutinize all types of quilts made by black women, including the Euro-American traditional quilt.

 Here’s a list of the extensive scholarly writings which followed that first Uncoverings paper:

  • “White Perceptions of Blacks in Quilts and Related Media,” Uncoverings, 1983
  • “Quilt Cottage Industries: A Chronology,” Uncoverings, 1986
  • “The Nationalization of Pennsylvania-Dutch Quilt Patterns in the 1940s to 1960s,” Bits and Pieces: Textile Traditions. Ed. Jeannette Lasansky, Lewisburg, PA: Oral Traditions Project, 1991. p. 80-89.
  • “Afro-American Slave Quilts and the British Connection,” America in Britain, American Museum in Britain, Claverton Manor (Bath, England). Vol. XXV, Nos. 2 and 3 (1987).
  • “Marie Webster: Indiana’s Gift to Quilts,” Chapter four in Quilts of Indiana: Crossroads of Memories. Goldman, Marilyn and Marguerite Wiebusch, et al. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 1991.
  • “Quilt Cottage Industries: A Chronicle,” Quiltmaking in America: Beyond the Myths. ed. Laurel Horton. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1994. p. 142-155.
  • “African American Quilts: Paradigms of Diversity,” International Review of African American Art. Hampton University Museum. Hampton, VA. Vol 12 No. 3. Winter 1995.
  • “The Threads of African American Quilters are Woven Into History,” African American Quiltmaking in Michigan. MacDowell, Marsha, ed. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press in collaboration with the Michigan State University Museum. 1997.

Cuesta’s work was nothing, if not comprehensive. If you want to get a quick “visual” of how extensive her writings and collections are, check out the short video about unpacking the donation of her legacy to Michigan State University.  All those boxes! She also gave her collection of pattern blocks to the Quilters Hall of Fame, and you can get a little taste of them at the link below.

Cuesta herself wasn’t a quilter, but she did participate in Round Robin exchanges with other quilt pattern historians, including our Honorees, Mary Schafer and Barbara Brackman. The one quilt she did make provides a visual study of her research results; it’s a sampler of blocks made by or, or related to Afro-American quilters.  Here’s the quilt:

Benberry, Cuesta. Afro-American Women and Quilts. 1976-1999. From University of Louisville Archives and Records Center, Kentucky Quilt Project. Published in The Quilt Index, https://quiltindex.org/view/?type=fullrec&kid=8-5-431. Accessed: 02/08/21

You can hear Cuesta’s own words about the quilt at the Quilt Alliance link below, but I’ll give you my thoughts too. (The blocks are identified by rows across (ABC) and numbers down (1-2-3-4).

Block A-1 is an unnamed pieced block made around 1920 by an Arkansas woman.  It appears to be based on the Maltese Cross group, but I can’t find it in Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns; there’s nothing like it with the small square center.  I wonder if Cuesta included this one as a testament to the precision skills of some Black quilters? So often, these skills were overshadowed by the simple designs and “improvisational” patterns that are associated with what she called “ethnic” quilts.

Block B-1 will be recognized by many as a scene from the Harriet Powers Bible quilt. In the interest of providing “eye candy”, here’s the original quilt.  I love the fact that this work, with its simple motifs, was a contemporary of over-the-top crazy quilts.

Bible Quilt. C. 1890. Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_556462

Block C-3 is described by Cuesta as an unnamed applique block based on a quilt made by “slave labor” for the Abernathy family in 1850 near Gastonia, South Carolina. I went down the research rabbit hole and found a Gastonia, North Carolina with an Abernathy family (the home place is now an equestrian center, which really sidetracked me); but could it be the same family? Then I found this “Carolina Medallion”:

Lindsay, Martha (Mattie) Clark McCaslan. Carolina Medallion. 1850-1875. From McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, South Carolina Quilt History Project. Published in The Quilt Index, https://quiltindex.org/view/?type=fullrec&kid=53-155-773. Accessed: 02/09/21

It was made in Abbeville, now McCormick, South Carolina, which isn’t near Gastonia. There are four other quilts of this pattern and time period in the South Carolina documentation project.  Which one, if any, was Cuesta’s inspiration?  I’m sure if I had access to her notes, they would tell me.  But in the meantime, it raises the question of how this pattern was spread—a study for another day.

Before I read about block A-2, I thought that maybe it had been included as an example of paper or simple piecing to show that Afro-American women did more that “ethnic” quilts. Then I learned that this is a pattern called “May Apple” taken from a quilt made in the mid-1960s   by the Freedom Quilting Bee of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  Most of us now associate Gee’s Bend with a particular style of quilt, but in the beginning, there was just a group getting together to socialize. “They were doing Wedding Rings and May Apples and all sorts of designs.” [The Freedom Quilting Bee: Folk Art and the Civil Rights Movement. Nancy Callahan Univ. of Alabama Press.]

That gradually changed as the group moved to marketing, commercial success and wide-spread popularity, but the May Apple block remains a good reminder of the early days. And it bears out Cuesta’s premise that Afro-American quilters don’t just make what we now think of as Gee’s Bend quilts. Cuesta called block B-2 the most important one on the quilt.  It is taken from a small quilt made in Boston for an 1836 anti-slavery fund-raising fair. An inscription on the original carries part of a poignant poem which I’ve included below the photo of the original quilt. In a letter to a friend, Child reports the success of the fair and that her quilt raised $5.00 for the cause.

Cradle Quilt. Lydia Marie Child 1836.  Historic New England.

Mother! when around your child
You clasp your arms in love,
And when with grateful joy you raise
Your eyes to God above,

Think of the negro mother, when
Her child is torn away,
Sold for a little slave, — oh then
For the poor mother pray!

Next comes the WPA Tulip in block C-2.  Here’s the original.

Benberry, Minnie W.P.A. Tulip. c1930. From Michigan State University Museum, Michigan Quilt Project; Michigan State University Museum Collection. Published in The Quilt Index, https://quiltindex.org/view/?type=fullrec&kid=12-8-5242. Accessed: 02/08/21

This doesn’t look like the reproduction I have of a WPA pattern, and nothing in Brackman’s Encyclopedia of Applique has such a rounded center piece. Here, with a shout out to Barb Garrett and her group that spearheaded the reproduction work, is what I know as the WPA Tulip pattern.

But Cuesta has a great story in the Quilt Alliance interview, and the original quilt was made by Minnie Benberry (presumably a relative), so I think this is a case where we’ll have to accept the oral history as adding to, rather than contradicting, what we think we know.

Block A-3 is Buzzard’s Roost copied from a “slave cabin quilt”.  Cuesta’s adaptation has as the center quilting design what some call an eagle, but which she says is an authentic African design representing a buzzard.  Cuesta did a lot of study and research into such designs, so I’ll take her word for it.

Block B-3 is an original applique design seen on a circa 1870 Kentucky quilt.  Cuesta calls it “Parasol Vine”, and it’s reminiscent of the floral clusters seen on Baltimore Album quilts.

I recognized block C-3 right away (Robbing Peter to Pay Paul; it’s the dust cover of Honoree Florence Peto’s book Historic Quilts).  What I learned from Cuesta’s inclusion of this block was that Peto found it noteworthy because the maker, Sarah Harris, was allowed to put her name and date on the quilt.  Such attribution was unusual for slave work in 1848.

The Lady’s Shoe block In A-4 comes from a 1890’s family quilt and was owned by Cuesta.  It’s the only block in which she didn’t replicate the original construction method; the original was pieced, but Cuesta appliqued the block.  Can anyone tell me why someone thought to use this particular image in a quilt? It’s tempting to read some metaphorical meaning into it—and the 1890s were certainly ripe for commentary—but maybe the quiltmaker just liked the idea of a graphic image. (It worked for Warhol and his soup cans over a half century later, so why not?) Here’s the original quilt.

Cork, Fannie. Lady’s Shoe Quilt. 1876-1900. From University of Louisville Archives and Records Center, Kentucky Quilt Project. Published in The Quilt Index, https://quiltindex.org/view/?type=fullrec&kid=8-5-410. Accessed: 02/09/21

At last, with block B-4, we come to the strippy style that is now so associated with Afro-American quilts.  The inspiration for this was a 1980s quilt.  Cuesta explains that the narrow looms used in West Africa dictated that narrow strips be sewn together. This necessity led to designs called “Housetop”, “Lazy Gal”, and “Brick Wall” among others. Here are a couple of examples made by two of the prominent Gee’s Bend quilters.

And finally, Block C-4 is a Mammy applique from a mid-20th century Illinois quilt. In her original Uncoverings paper, Cuesta wrote about how the stereotypical and often derogatory impressions of blacks by whites showed up in “Mammy” quilts.  This one, however, doesn’t reflect any of that negativity, but instead gives the figure a mainstream profile (think Sunbonnet Sue with a wrapped head).

To sum up, this quilt is Cuesta Benberry’s research philosophy in stitches.  It has historical accuracy backed by documentation (which I’d like to get my hands on some day), puts quiltmakers in historical context (whether it’s 1930s WPA designs or a pattern from the 1850s), and explores all styles of quilts.

Cuesta inspired and encouraged many quilt historians.  At her induction to the Quilters Hall of Fame, she said

Quilt researchers, we of the quilt community, believe what you are doing is vital. Due to the works of early investigators, you of the present generation of researchers, have a basis of quilt knowledge from which to work. Now go forth and build on that basis, explore undeveloped concepts and investigate old and new ideas. We, the quilt community, charge you with the task of building a body of quilt information whose veracity and scholarship will be respected by all.

She certainly set a good example for us all.  Respect to you, Cuesta Benberry!

Your quilting friend,


PS.  Many readers will have personally known Cuesta and may have even talked with her about her choices of blocks.  If you have more information about the original quilts that inspired Cuesta’s blocks, please comment. I’d appreciate your insight.

Bio information. https://quiltershalloffame.net/cuesta-benberry/

Always There gallery. https://web.archive.org/web/20100805045357/http://www.allianceforamericanquilts.org/treasures/photos.php?id=4&galleryid=6

Piece of My Soul video. https://web.archive.org/web/20071107075405/http://www.oldstatehouse.com/piece-of-my-soul/

Unpacking video.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXA9r2MzbXQ

Connie Carmack

These quilts were all made by Marie Webster Quilt Guild member Connie Carmack.

Connie Carmack- Quilt of Honor

Connie Carmack- Quilt of Honor

Connie Carmack- Quilt of Honor

Julia Blosser

These quilts were all made by Marie Webster Quilt Guild member Julia Blosser.

Julia Blosser- Animal Baby Quilt.

Julia Blosser- Bright baby quilt

Julia Blosser- Cowboy baby quilt

Julia Blosser- Truck baby quilt