Quilting: more than just thread and fabric
Verna Riddle embroidered faces of U.S. presidents on each square, as well as the Presidential seal on a presidents quilt she made in 1987. Riddle spent $50 to make the quilt and it is estimated to be worth more than $1,000. All Riddle's quilts were hand-stitched, according to her son Jon, who carries on the legacy of her quilt collection. Photo by: Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Verna Riddle's quilt collection stood at about 110 quilts when she died in 1999. Since then her son Jon, of Wales, has given 15 to 20 away to family members, but shares the legacy of the still vast collection with interested quilters, sharing his mother's love for the artistic expression of a hand-sewn quilt.
"When I give a presentation, I feel like she is in the room. We are caretakers of this collection; we are not experts," said Jon. "We are taking care of that which she so carefully assembled."
Most of the quilts were inherited, Jon said, sewn by others and given to Verna, an art librarian, who cataloged every quilt, tagging each with information about the quilt with a handwritten note.
"Her home was like a museum; it was phenomenal," said Jon. "In typical fashion, you would pick up an item and she would have a tag on it."
As Verna's reputation as a private collector expanded, she was asked to give lectures, loading up to 30 to 40 quilts in her Volvo to give a lecture, even in her retirement. Verna's lectures tied quilting into the whole history of frontier women when quilts were not only functional but transitioned into works of art.
While much of the collection was given to Verna, she made about 15 percent of the quilts herself, including two or three presidential quilts with the face of each president hand-sewn on the quilt. Another quilt displays the states with the capitals indicated by a star. She would periodically rip off her husband's silk ties for quilts, and every quilt was hand-sewn.
"She would roll over in her grave if I ever brought a machined quilt," Jon said.
The quilting of cloth came into being when the people who invented weaving reasoned that two or three thicknesses of cloth would be warmer then one thickness. The Chinese used quilted cloth for more than 3,000 years. The Crusaders discovered quilted shirts worn beneath chain mail prevented irritation more effectively than shirts of a single layer of cloth. When the English Puritans boarded the Mayflower in 1620, a generous number of quilts were tucked along for the journey to the New World, Verna would explain.
She told of the importance of symbols to quilters. Pineapples denoted hospitality, the dove, femininity and happy marriage. For thousands of years, the swastika was a symbol of good fortune and fertility to many, until it took on a more sinister meaning during World War II. Flowers on a quilt had the same meaning as in a bouquet.
More than materials
Verna would say how much piecing a quilt is like living a life. A quilt could explain predestination and free will better than any preacher. Neighbors give a piece of material here and there; whatever is left over or comes along goes into the quilt. When it comes to cutting out the quilt, the pattern is the quilter's choice. The same fabric given to different people will result in different quilts.
"That's the way of living. The Lord sends us the pieces, we can cut 'em out and put 'em together pretty much to suit ourselves," Verna would say.
"There is that human element. They're tactile, they're functional. They have a byproduct of warmth, of human warmth," Jon explained.
Verna would close her lectures with an explanation for the revival of quilting.
"The simple fact is that quilts were handmade by people for people. Every phase of their production was permeated by giving and sharing: from the trading of scraps and patterns to the actual production in 'bees,' to the giving away of the final finished work. Quilting was an essentially human activity. There is something about a quilt that says people friendship, community, family, home and love," Jon said.
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