Through Oct. 19, the Adirondack Museum takes a look at the region via quilts — both historic and modern — in “Common Threads: 150 Years of Adirondack Quilts & Comforters.”
The exhibit is a feast for the eyes, with its color combinations, diverse artistic techniques, old and new patterns and intricate embroidery. For the soul, there are the stories behind each quilt — some sad and touching and others entertaining, even whimsical.
The quilts are a mix of art and utility, yet the individual history of each quilt gives visitors clues about the people who inhabit the Adirondacks and what their lives are like.
The museum contrasts the old and the new in order to tell the rich history of quilting in the Adirondacks. Some of the old quilts come from the museum’s collection, while others are on loan. The museum also put out a call to local quilters. It received 50, of which judges chose 16.
The labels are innovative: made of layered, soft fabric and sewn by the quilting group Northern Needles of Long Lake. The three layers of the labels: top, batting and back — indicate how the quilts are made.
‘Common Threads: 150 Years of Adirondack Quilts & Comforters’
WHERE: The Adirondack Museum, Routes 28N and 30, Blue Mountain Lake
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through Oct. 19
HOW MUCH: $16; $8 children 6-12; under 5 free
MORE INFO: 352-7311 or www.adkmuseum.org
While visitors can’t touch the quilts, they are invited to touch these labels and lift their three layers to learn more. The top of each label gives basic information about the quilt, the batting tells the “inside story,” while the back discusses techniques, styles and fabrics.
Curator Hallie Bond’s intensive yearlong study of the topic led her to organize the exhibit into four themes.
“Tools, Techniques and Materials” explores the technical aspects of quilting, including the associated industries and the tools, such as an 1880s sewing machine, and shows how they have changed significantly over the past century and a half.
The exhibition features a quilt with a tumbler pattern that a woman pieced in 1900, but the quilt was not assembled until 1950 by her daughter. Family lore says it has pieces of calico made in the Warren County town of Johnsburg, which was named for John Thurman, one of its first settlers. Thurman built a calico mill in 1797, bringing technicians from Great Britain to set up this state-of-the-art factory, which produced patterned prints by passing woven cotton fabric over a copper cylinder engraved with the pattern.
By counting the warps and weft of a few scraps of Johnsburg calico in the museum’s collection, an expert determined that the fabric was woven on home looms, probably by local women, and then taken to the mill to be printed. Bond said that this is “a great example of how objects get you to explore other information about Adirondack history.”
The quilts show that women used whatever fabric they could find. It was common to use shirt fabric, scraps of which were plentiful in the region because of shirt factories in Corinth, Warrensburg, Chestertown and North Creek. In addition, one can see pieces of printed feed sacks in some of the quilts.
Some tools have led to new techniques. For example, the rotary cutter, which makes extreme accuracy very easy, has led to new quilt construction in which pieces of fabric are cut, sewn together, and then cut again before being sewn into a quilt top. The background of the quilt “Adirondack Fall” (2003) by Sherry Matthews of Piseco, Hamilton County, is an example of this type of construction.
Another section, “What is Adirondack about Adirondack Quilts and Comforters?,” explores the region’s relationship to quilting. Bond said that there is no particular “Adirondack” style of quilting, because even though the area was relatively isolated, the women had access to pattern books and magazines that had quilting patterns — the same ones that women all over the country were making.
The Adirondacks, however, have had an effect on the people who quilt there. A historic example of this is one of Bond’s favorites in the collection, a whitework spread that was entirely hand-quilted by a 15-year-old girl in the 1880s. “We don’t have a lot of high-style fancy quilts that you find in a more prosperous area,” Bond said. However, the intricate workmanship warrants admiration. The quilter died when she was just 21, which led Bond to speculate that she might have been ill and used quilting to occupy her time when she was forced to stay inside.
The Adirondacks have also provided artistic inspiration. “After the Micro-Burst” (1995) is a wall hanging sewn by Edith Mitchell of Blue Mountain Lake that recalls the severe thunderstorms that blew through the Adirondacks with 150 mile-per-hour winds on July 15 that year.
“Community Ties” looks at quilts that reflect people’s relationships. Another of Bond’s favorites is one made by the co-workers of Joseph R. Bruno, a cook at the North River Hotel, to celebrate his retirement in 1894. Each of the 47 blocks on this appliqued spread expresses a memory of Bruno. Studying each one helps viewers put together a portrait of the man.
Hanging on the wall next to Bruno’s quilt is a modern version of this type of quilt that was made for Terry and Dianne Perkins by 56 of their friends when the couple moved into their retirement home on an island in Stillwater Reservoir, in northern Herkimer County. When the original house-warming gift was destroyed during a fire at the couple’s home, friends rallied to make a replacement quilt, and that’s the one we see in the museum.
The last section, “Quilt Fashions,” shows different styles through the decades, from crazy quilts to applique quilts from pattern books to the art and memory ones that are popular today.
This section features a crazy quilt made by Mary Church Holland of North River in 1887-1888 after her doctor advised her to keep busy following the death of her infant child. Another quilt, “Ode to Lance: The Wind Embracing the Tree” (2008), is a memorial tribute by Kris Gregson Moss of Queensbury to her brother, who died tragically in a fall.
In addition to the quilts in the gallery, visitors can follow a “quilt trail” through the museum’s buildings.