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

Ruth Finley: Old Patchwork Quilts

Last week I wrote about the 50th Anniversary of the Whitney Museum Abstract Art quilt exhibit. Little did I know that I would find (or create in my own mind) a link between the quilts in that exhibit and today’s honoree, Ruth E. Finley.

You may-and if you’re a quilt historian, you should- know Ruth Finley as the author of the second comprehensive book on US quilt history.  (The first, of course, being Marie Webster’s Quilts: Their Story and How to Make Them.)  You can read some basic bio information about Ruth at the link below.

In 1929, Finley published Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them. She traced the development of quilting from Colonial times, often in a romanticized way, and included stories from her family and other quilters to demonstrate her points. Some of her history has been debunked, as noted in these quotes from the International Quilt Museum website:

Essentially, the “scrap bag” myth goes like this: colonial women needed something to keep their family warm, so they recycled scraps of fabric into bedcoverings, creating a utilitarian object from otherwise useless bits and pieces. During this time progressive-thinking Americans applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to anything and everything, including quilts. In Old Patchwork Quilts (1929), Ruth Finley speculated that quilts evolved from chaos into order, with necessity-driven scrap quilts serving as the first step. Finley did not base her theory on existing quilts; she and other early 20th-century quilt enthusiasts assumed that because examples of such colonial-era scrap quilts did not exist, they had been used up.

Research in women’s diaries and household inventories has shown that women shared textile work.  Work parties of the period included barn raisings, harvestings, and huskings in addition to quilt parties. Ruth Finley romanticized quilting bees.  The myth transitioned the focus of quilting parties from work-centric to social. The myth turned the quilting bee into a match-making party, an opportunity for young men and women to meet in acceptable social settings after having spent the day working.

OK; so there is a good bit of speculation, extrapolation and even fabrication in Finley’s book.  But, as Barbara Brackman notes in her Introduction to the third edition of Old Patchwork Quilts, at the time she was writing, Finley didn’t have access to all the academic writing we have today—she only had one book as a guide (Marie Webster’s book published in 1915).

Old Patchwork Quilts included an attempt to record patterns and names, to describe fabrics, dyes, and quilting techniques, and to put all of this in an historical context. History was important to Finley; the whole family seems to share this interest and they maintain family artifacts and letters dating to the late 1700s.  The house Finley grew up in is still in the distaff side, passed to a descendant of her sister, Mary.

Bissel family house prior to renovations in 2012. https://www.facebook.comphoto?fbid=130133720527069&set=ms.c.eJw9zckNADEIA8COVjjm7L~_xVULIc4RtQAEZS2yFeH3YVkag6CFjZ7qQ~_XzyYuNqr2tFe~%3BolZw8x3ncvm3tWe~%3BrF~%3BW8lnruvY2u~%3BvLdfPs~_ectz7evMm0j55Ak6mrtsnULlt4T8hzDk5.bps.a.130133677193740

You can read more about Finley’s Colonial Connecticut connections and how she incorporated family legends into Old Patchwork Quilts at the link below to an article by Ricky Clark.

Finley concluded her tome with the sad observation that while women had advanced socially and economically since Colonial days, they did so at the expense of the handiwork into which they had poured their hearts, and that quiltmaking was a dying art.

Boy! Was she wrong on that last count!  And she may have recognized, by the time she finished the 16 years of research and writing that went into the book, that the tide was turning back.  Here’s what she said in her foreward:

My purpose in writing this book has been twofold: First, to make a record, with the hope that it might prove definitive, of one of the most picturesque of all American folk arts; secondly, to interpret that art in relation to the life of the times during which it most widely flourished. This purpose was itself prompted by the lately renewed interest in patchwork, both old and new–an interest enthusiastically active at the moment and rapidly growing.

Maybe Old Patchwork Quilts even contributed to the revival of quilting in the 1930s and 40s.

So you ask, what’s the connection to the Whitney exhibit? Graphics; quilts as art.  Finley herself collected quilts, and many of the plates in her book are from her own collection.  In this sample of photos taken from Old Patchwork Quilt you can see the powerful lines of abstract art.

And Finley herself almost predicted the theme of the Whitney exhibit.  She wrote,

“Incidentally, this pattern (Hosanna) particularly emphasizes the fact that most quilts are, as one would say today, futuristic—in both color and form.  More than one old quilt, like the “Indian Hatchet’, ’Tree Everlasting’, and …. are prophetic of the latest trend in domestic design as to be quite startling. Or would it be heresy to suggest that modernistic art is reminiscent of folk-crafts the creations of which have gone so completely out of memory as to seem now strikingly novel?”

Finley’s collection also included appliqué and non-geometric quilts.  One of the most famous to pass through her hands was this one:

Elizabeth Keckley quilt said to be made with scraps of Mary Todd Lincoln’s dresses.  Kent State Univ. Museum.

She also designed a quilt, “The Roosevelt Rose”.  Finley, although considered a feminist and supporter of women’s labor and education reform, is said to have been a life-long Republican although her parents were Democrats and hosted McKinley in their home, where Ruth presented him with a small bouquet and a little speech. Who knows? Concerning the quilt, she told reporters that it was the first quilt pattern named for a President since Lincoln. (What about Garfield’s Monument? A piece of Ohio history she should have been familiar with.) She also mused that the 19th century fashion of naming blocks for historical events hadn’t produced a 20th century block named “Fourteen Points for Peace”.  Here’s “The Roosevelt Rose”.

1934 syndicated wire photo
“The Roosevelt Rose—A New Historical
Quilt Pattern” as published in Good
Housekeeping, January, 1934

When Old Patchwork Quilts came out, it was publicized all over the country. Finley’s husband, Emmett, who headed the Associated Press wire service, was probably responsible for such wide-spread coverage.  The promos were especially popular when they could be treated with “poetic license” to fit an editor’s needs, as seen in these two opportunistic articles. Finley herself never associated “Pine Tree” with Christmas, and she described the second quilt as a bride’s quilt named “Lotus Flower.”  But the holiday connections sold newspapers.

Ah! Newspapers! As important as we think Old Patchwork Quilts may be, that wasn’t what got Ruth Finley into Who’s Who in America; her career in journalism did that. She started at the Akron Beacon Journal where, notably, she scored an interview with the former Akronite wife of Thomas Edison and earned her first by-line by interviewing Mrs. Henry Ford. Her career took off when she moved to the Cleveland Press and did a series of articles on the condition of working women. These articles were syndicated and published throughout the US.

Following in the tradition of the undercover work of Nellie Bly (who stayed 10 days in an asylum for an exposé), and the muckraking tactics of Ida Tarbell, Finley assumed the persona of a working girl, Ann Addams. She worked in a restaurant (a week), laundry, mill, sewing shop, factory; was “insulted in a mansion”. Once again, the editors took liberties and made it seem that “Ann” was on assignment to them; here’s a headline from Wilkes-Barre, PA; similar headlines appeared in Oklahoma, Washington, and Indiana.

And here are the accompanying syndicated photos for “Ann’s” jobs:

In the shop girl story, “Addams” exposes the issue of piece work, favoritism, and unwanted advances.

In this article, pretty little Emily, sick from food poisoning through a meal that was part of her wages, is “holding her fort like a wounded soldier” until she collapses and is taken out back and left while the other waitresses had to continue to push through the lunch rush.

Here, “Addams” tells about metal cuts on the working girls’ hands and the cost of “prosperity” at the expense of the working girls who are forced to put in extra hours.

“There was a peculiar interest attached to being literally cast into the streets of a strange city, sick, friendless, and with only $2.36 in my pocket by a woman who posed before her clubs as a humanitarian and philanthropist with special concerns of in the welfare of working girls.” In this story, the mistress won’t let “Ann” wear a coat to do front porch work and terminates her when she shows signs of pneumonia (but says she will welcome back such a good worker if she isn’t sick.)

And this is where the “insult” comes in. “Ann” describes in the article how she pleaded with the mistress that she had no place to go. After suggesting she go to the YWCA but refusing to tell “Ann” where it was, the following colloquy ensues:

If it’s true that “Ann” only had one male visitor during her tenure, there may be a little backstory here, as related on Karen Alexander’s blog

“It was while working as a housemaid on an undercover story about working conditions for lower-income women that she met her future husband, also a journalist. Ruth feared her “missus” was getting suspicious because all her previous maids had had a “young man” calling on them and Ruth wanted to distract her from any questioning, so she asked the boss to send someone over. The boss chose Robert Finley, though not without some protest on Finley’s part. Within a few months the serendipitous meeting ended in a marriage with her boss taking credit in print in the newspaper for bringing them together!”

Finley’s journalistic career wasn’t all so sensational. She was woman’s page editor of the Cleveland Press, fiction editor of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, managing editor for the old Washington Herald, woman’s editor of the Enterprise Newspaper Association, assistant editor of McClure’s magazine and editor of Guide Magazine and the Woman’s National Political Review. She also wrote about Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of “Godey’s Ladies Book” (who must have been something of a hero for Finley in her crusading aspect and a role model in her professional one—Finley thought someone should have designed a quilt block named for Hale).  And no discussion of Ruth Finley is complete without telling that she and her husband were occultists and wrote under the pen name “Darby and Joan” about their spiritualistic encounters with a World War I soldier. What a varied career!

 I hope you enjoyed reading a little about Ruth Finley.

Your quilting friend,


Bio info. https://quiltershalloffame.net/ruth-finley/

Ricky Clark, “Ruth Finley and the Colonial Revival Era”. https://quiltindex.org/view/?type=page&kid=35-90-191 

Jocelyn Smith

These quilts were all made by Marie Webster Quilt Guild member Jocelyn Smith.

Jocelyn Smith- Finished!! Beautifully quilted by Linda Cearbaugh. Scallops in binding- what a pain!

Jocelyn Smith- Kaye England pattern, using 1 1/2″ strips. Quilted by Vicki Goltz

Jocelyn Smith- Top is at the quilter’s now.