From a 19th-century block pattern quilt made from a woman’s wedding dress, to a commemorative quilt celebrating the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, the New York Quilt Project contains an invaluable record of the state’s folk art history. Started by the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) in the 1980s, the archive includes information and photographs of over 6,000 quilts, mostly made before 1940. Now AFAM is digitizing these materials to make them more accessible to researchers.
“When they’re digitized, they can be compared to digitized records from other states and other museums,” Mimi Lester, an AFAM archivist and project manager for the digitization, told Hyperallergic. “It’s just about access and getting the quilts out there.”
The vast majority of these quilts are not at the New York City museum, but are heirlooms in private collections, whether an attic in the Catskills or a quilt trunk in Brooklyn. AFAM received a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) in January of 2017 to digitize the New York Quilt Project and add its records to the Quilt Index, a joint project of the Alliance for American Quilts, Michigan State University, and the Michigan State University Museum. The Quilt Index has quilts from across the United States, from Hawaii to Kansas, allowing users to compare various quilts between distant collections. AFAM has so far put about 1,500 quilts online, and expects to finish the digitization in 2019. AFAM also has related oral history recordings that they’re working to digitize.
“Quilt projects statewide were really popular in the ’80s, and people started collecting their histories,” Lester explained. The Kentucky Quilt Project, founded in 1981, was the first of these, inspiring a resurgence of interest in the United States. Frequently these grassroots initiatives revolved around “quilt days,” at which people could have their family quilts documented. AFAM was a leader in museum appreciation for quilting, with the 1972 exhibition The Fabric of the State, and organized about 45 quilt days over two years in the 1980s. “People would bring their quilts to YMCAs or churches or museums, and we would have registrars there who would help the individuals fill out the forms and take photographs,” Lester said. These were followed by the 1994 New York Beauties: Quilts From the Empire State exhibition that featured highlights at AFAM.
Details were recorded like family background, religion, where a quiltmaker learned the craft, why they made the quilt, and where they obtained textiles, and a small tab was sewn into the back of each quilt for identification. These stories often chronicle immigration to New York, as some quilts were brought over from Germany or Italy, and visually show through their patterns and designs the influence of different populations from around the world in the state.
The quilts range from a midcentury flower garden quilt that was completed after its creator’s death by the Amish in Cattaraugus County, to an early 1900s strip silk quilt crafted from dressmaking scraps. Lester described a quilt in the AFAM collections made by a tailor for his daughter on her wedding day, stitched from scraps of fabric he collected at his job. “Even though the quilt is beautiful, the story is so important,” she said. “The context just gives it so much more value.”