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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Posts Tagged quilts

Woman with pink outfit and dark hair sits with a quilt over her, part of which is in a needlework frame on her lap
Jeanetta Holder with Her Indianapolis 500 Quilt Made for Bobby Unser, 1975-1980 / THF78732

On May 30, 1932, the day that Jeanetta Pearson Holder was born in Kentucky, race cars sped around the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about 250 miles to the north. The timing of Jeanetta’s birth was certainly a hint of things to come: she would grow up with a passion for auto racing, and, as an adult, become that sport’s “Quilt Lady.”

For four decades, Jeanetta combined her love of auto racing and her sewing talents to create unique quilts for winners of the Indianapolis 500 and other auto races.

Man wrapped in quilt wearing baseball cap stands among other people with a large trophy and grandstands in the background
Dale Earnhardt is wrapped in pride and his quilt after the 1995 Brickyard 400 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. / THF78819

A Love for Racing, A Talent for Sewing


As a little girl growing up on a Kentucky farm, Jeanetta made her own small race cars out of tobacco sticks and lard cans which she “raced everywhere [she] went.” Jeanetta’s childhood creative streak soon extended to sewing. She began to make clothes for her doll—and her pet cat. By the time she was 12, Jeanetta began sewing quilts, filling them with cotton batting from cotton she grew herself.

Jeanetta was clearly “driven.” When she didn’t have a car in which to take her driver’s license test, the teenager borrowed a taxicab. About this same time, Jeanetta started going to the race track. Soon 20-year-old Jeanetta was speeding around an oval dirt track at the wheel of a 1950 Hudson at Beech Bend Park in Warren County, Kentucky. In the early 1950s, women drivers were uncommon—and so was safety equipment. Jeanetta was dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans for these regional races.

 

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Indy 500, women's history, cars, by Jeanine Head Miller, race car drivers, racing, making, quilts

Brown quilt with quilted text "NUDE IS NOT A COLOR" and image of brown-skinned woman in pale dress covered with smaller images of shirts in many shades Nude is Not a Color quilt, made by Hillary Goodwin, Rachael Dorr, and contributors from around the world, 2017. / THF185986

We often associate quilts with warmth and creativity. They can also make statements —serving as banners advocating a cause.

For nearly 200 years, American women have used needle and thread—once the only medium available to them—to express opinions, raise awareness, and advocate for social change. Women gathered in homes and in their communities to create quilts supporting causes like abolition, voting rights for women, and war relief.

This striking quilt, Nude is Not a Color, was created in 2017 by a worldwide community of women who gathered virtually to take a stand against racial bias. Learn more about the quilt below, and see it for yourself on exhibit as part of What We Wore in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, from March 11 through April 18, 2021.

The Quilt’s Story


In 2014, a clothing brand that sewist and blogger Bianca Springer of Pearland, Texas, had publicly supported introduced a new line of pale beige garments called Nude—a name long used by the fashion and cosmetic industries for products like hosiery and lipstick. Bianca took action. She contacted the company, thinking that the name was perhaps an oversight —reminding them that “nude” is a state of undress, not a color. And that the shade they chose as “nude” reflected only people of lighter skin tone—thus marginalizing people of color. Bianca’s perspective was repeatedly dismissed by company officials as overblown and irrelevant. She felt excluded and invisible.

Quiltmaker Hillary Goodwin of Auburn, California—also a fan of the company's clothing designs—wanted to stand in solidarity with her friend Bianca, and with other people of color. Together they decided to make a statement in fabric. Through Instagram, Hillary asked quilters to create a shirt block in whatever color fabric they felt best represented their skin tone, or that of their loved ones. Twenty-four quilters responded, from around the United States and around the world, including Canada, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. Hillary then combined these shirt blocks with an image of Bianca wearing one of the “Nude” brand garments—creating this motif of a woman of color clothed in many shades of “nude.” Rachael Dorr of Bronxville, New York, then free-motion machine-quilted the completed quilt top.


More people became aware of the company’s bias and lent their voices to the issue, demanding change—and the brand eventually altered the name of the garment collection. A global community of women, willing to use their talent and voices to take a stand against racism, made a difference.

Quilt Contributors

 

*Designed and constructed by Hillary Goodwin, Auburn California

*Design assistance by Robin King, Auburn, California

*Paper-pieced shirt pattern designed by Carolyn Friedlander, Lake Wales, Florida

*Shirt blocks contributed by:

  • Carmen Alonso, Oviedo, Spain
  • Agnes Ang, Thousand Oaks, California
  • Berene Campbell, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  • Kirsty Cleverly, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia
  • Silvana Pereira Coutinho, Brazil
  • Anne Eriksson, Egmond aan den Hoef, The Netherlands
  • Hillary Goodwin, Auburn, California
  • Rebecca Green, United Kingdom
  • Lynn Carson Harris, Chelsea, Michigan
  • Phoebe Adair Harris, Chelsea, Michigan
  • Krista Hennebury, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  • Sandra Johnson, Orange, California
  • Chawne Kimber, Easton, Pennsylvania
  • Tamara King, Portland, Oregon
  • Alexandra Ledgerwood, Kansas City, Missouri
  • Maite Macias, Oviedo, Spain
  • Nicole Neblett, Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • Krishma Patel, Carteret, New Jersey
  • Amy Vaughn Ready, Billings, Montana
  • Sonia Sanchez, Oviedo, Spain
  • Rachel Singh, Seattle, Washington
  • Michele Spirko, Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Bianca Springer, Pearland, Texas
  • Jess Ziegler, Adel, Iowa

*Free-motion machine quilted by Rachael Dorr, Bronxville, New York

 

Maker Stories

 

The makers each had a unique story to tell—below are some of their insights.

Light-skinned blonde woman in medical coat with stethoscope around neck stands in front of sign reading "EMERGENCY"
“Hearing of this encounter was an eye opener for me as a white woman. How would I feel if I had to explain to my daughter that her skin tone was not the “standard”? How many other ways does my white privilege benefit me without me acknowledging it? How could I help stand in solidarity with my friend?”  —Hillary Goodwin, Auburn, California

Dark-skinned woman with natural hair, glasses, and wearing a blue print shirt holds a fist to her chin and smiles
“The … collection featured a non-diverse group of models wearing beige fabrics classified as "nude.” My "nude" skin is not beige and the use of the term made it clear they did not have me in mind… the color … only fits the white majority, signals white supremacy and marginalizes people of color… With the conceptualization of the quilt, the issue went from commiseration and emotional processing of systemic and overt racism, to a broader statement of activism.”  —Bianca Springer, Pearland, Texas

Light-skinned woman with brown hair
“Although I considered myself a non-racist white person, I am not, of course, and I had never really given any thought to what it felt like to live life in a skin color that was not white. I credit my participation in the making of this quilt as the beginning of my slow and never-ending quest to be an anti-racist ally and to use the unearned privilege afforded me solely by my skin color to help bring some long overdue justice to this country.” —Tamara King, Portland, Oregon

Three hands of varying skin tones
"We are a group of three friends, we met through sewing… We live in Asturias, a small region in the north of Spain, that has traditionally been a land of emigrants … concepts such as "white privilege,” "black lives matter" … "segregation" ...  sound very foreign to us… Choosing the fabrics for our "shirts" was … a surprise. How different we all are! And then seeing all the "shirts" … Mind blowing!” —Sonia Sanchez (along with friends Carment Alonso and Maite Macias), Oviedo, Spain

Light-skinned woman with dark blonde hair wearing a blue shirt
“I hope that the message of the quilt reaches a lot of people and, at least, has them thinking.” —Kirsty Cleverly, Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

Medium-dark-skinned woman wearing print top next to a trellis with large-leafed ivy
“I grew up in the South at a time when bare legs were scandalous and pantyhose were expected on any good young lady. The color options were black, suntan, and nude. It never quite made sense why nude was so white and why my own predominant skin tone was equated to someone's suntan. Why would white skin be the default in such a creative industry as fashion? Unfortunately the industry still adheres to these color naming schemes, which only serve to make sure I know that I am Other in this society.” —Chawne Kimber, Easton, Pennsylvania

Light-skinned woman with blonde hair and glasses, wearing blue top, in front of a colorful backdrop
Young woman with blonde hair and gray sleeveless top stands among flowers with grass and trees behind her
“My daughter, Phoebe, who was 10 at the time, often spent time in my sewing room with me and loved to help choose fabrics for my projects. I had Phoebe help choose a fabric that matched my skin tone. She noticed that HER skin matched a different color and wanted to contribute a block too. I loved that teachable moment we had in the sewing room… This moment contributed to her journey of looking at how people are the same, how people are different, representation, and fighting for social justice as she is now doing in her teens.” —Lynn Carson Harris, Chelsea, Michigan

Woman with medium-light skin and dark hair in a blue shirt
“I am familiar with the disappointment when undergarments, hosiery, foundation creams made in cream/pink aka “nude" never quite match my more yellow/olive skin tone. Working with quilting cotton solids in skin tones that ranged from rich chocolate to yellow undertones was liberating as it helped me be more comfortable challenging the current paragon for skin tone.” —Agnes Ang, Thousand Oaks, California

Light-skinned woman with blonde hair and glasses, wearing black sweater with small red hearts, in front of a red door
“I was born into a white, middle-class family in South Africa during the sixties. When you live in a life where everyone looks and lives like you do, you come to believe that this is normal life, however of course, this is far from the truth. Despite my family being liberal, I was blind as to the impact that my privilege had had on the black communities around us… I have become more aware of this burden of my privilege on others… The simple awareness of how our world is designed for some but not all, should inspire us to make equitable changes to provide dignity for all. Inclusivity and raising each other up makes us a strong human race.”  —Berene Campbell, North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Medium-skinned woman with dark hair in front of white curtain with dark trim
“As an Asian Indian couple, a job move for my husband brought us to USA in 2001. Within a short time the unfortunate events of 9/11 occurred. Watching the morning news live, I saw the first tower being struck and a few minutes later the second! All telephone systems were down and I was not able to contact my husband… Fearing the worst possible harm to my husband, I panicked! I knocked on my neighbor’s door. We had shared the elevator a few times. All I wanted to know from her was, how far or near my husband’s workplace would be to the Twin Towers. She opened the door, took one look at me and yelled into my face, ‘Go back to wherever you came from, you [n-word]!’” —Krishma Patel, Carteret, New Jersey

Medium-skinned woman in black top
“As a new grad and a South Asian female when I first went to work in investment banking I needed stockings to go with my business attire. I would always find loads of "Nude" colored stockings but they never kind of matched my skin color. A few stores would only carry that color and I had to go find specific stores that sold the ones matched my complexion.” —Rachel Singh, Seattle, Washington

Medium-dark-skinned woman wearing pink top with bobbed curly black hair in front of a colorful backdrop
“People like me with brown skin are thus ignored and rendered invisible. And yet, we exist and we matter. I contributed to this quilt to join with others who also believe that nude is not a color. I contributed two shirts: one shirt is the color of honey and the other cocoa brown. These shirts represent each of my brown-skinned daughters. May they never feel invisible. May they always know that their color of nude is just as worthy and beautiful.” —Nicole Neblett, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Medium-light-skinned woman with brown hair in blue shirt and black blazer
“…people of color face a world frequently viewed only through the white lens, while white people have blinders on to that experience… I’m proud to be part of this project and hope it inspires white viewers to open their hearts and minds to the anti-racism work we must continue to do for the sake of all humanity.” —Michele Spirko, Amherst, Massachusetts


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. All quilt contributor images from the collections of The Henry Ford.

fashion, African American history, art, by Jeanine Head Miller, women's history, making, quilts, What We Wore, Henry Ford Museum

Brightly colored quilts hanging on a black backboard

A display of quilts made by members of the Lincoln, Nebraska Modern Quilt Guild at American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.

The 400 quilts in The Henry Ford’s collection, dating from the 1700s to the 2000s, represent quilting traditions of nearly 300 years--all reflecting the resourcefulness and creativity of their makers. Quilts were among the objects of everyday life that Henry Ford collected as he gathered objects for his museum. Since Ford’s time, The Henry Ford’s curators have continued to add to the collection, gathering quilts that represent diverse quilting traditions.

Quilts serve a practical purpose as warm bedcovers. Yet they are also inherently about design--from a simple traditional pattern to a unique motif crafted through the expert manipulation of pattern and color. While many quiltmakers have no formal training in design, they instinctively create attractive quilts that display their innate talents.

Quiltmaking has continued to evolve, reflecting new aesthetics and influences. An exciting, robust trend of the past 20 years has been the Modern Quilt Movement—a style of quiltmaking we are eager to add to our collection.

Quilts, mostly shades of black, white, and gray, hanging on a black backboard
A display of quilts made by members of the Lincoln, Nebraska Modern Quilt Guild at American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.

A wonderful opportunity arose. While giving a paper at the American Quilt Study Group’s October 2019 Seminar, I met Kristin Barrus, who was presenting a poster session on “Why Women Under 45 Quilt.” (Silent Generation and Baby Boomers created the quilt revival of the post-Bicentennial era. They were followed by GenX and Millennial quilters, many of whom have shaped and embraced the Modern quilt aesthetic.)

Board titled "Why Women Under 45 Quilt," containing text and images, sitting on quilt
Kristin Barrus’s poster, presented at the American Quilt Study Group Seminar in 2019. Photo by Jeanine Head Miller.

Kristin, a graduate student studying Material Culture and Textile History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is not only knowledgeable about the Modern Quilt Movement, she’s a modern quiltmaker herself. We were delighted to have Kristin join us this Spring for a remote practicum experience at The Henry Ford, conducting research on the Modern Quilt Movement to help us more fully understand its vibrant landscape. Her research will inform strategic additions to our collections: examples of modern quilts, printed materials reflecting the movement, and books on the topic. Part of Kristin’s research involves a survey of modern quilters.

Here’s Kristin to tell you more about the Modern Quilt Movement, and her research survey.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.



Image of woman with long blonde hair in a long-sleeved red shirt.
Kristin Barrus. Photo by Alisha Tunks.

Hi, I’m glad to have this opportunity to tell you about my quilt research project! I started quiltmaking around 2003 in my twenties and got swept up with this new aesthetic called Modern quilting. I co-founded the Utah County Modern Quilt Group, which ran monthly for seven years in Lehi, Utah. While I taught at meetings, quilt shows and retreats, I realized I was more interested in watching the quiltmakers make connections with each other than with what came out of the other side of my sewing machine. (Although I do still love to make quilts!) The topic of my thesis for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is the first study of QuiltCon, an annual convention for Modern quiltmakers.

Quilt, primarily white with green border.
Modern Trends, Kristin Barrus, 2017. A sampler quilt turned Modern by joining several popular quilt blocks together in a new layout. Photo by Kristin Barrus.

There is much to celebrate and investigate in 21st century quiltmaking. The Modern Quilt Movement is a sub-category within quiltmaking, bracketed at years 2000–2020 for the purposes of my research. Modern is a very broad and sometimes contested term, not just a new aesthetic. It’s also a new kind of experience in the contemporary quilt world. People come to Modern quilting not only to make quilts, as traditional quiltmaking guilds do, but to be a part of the energetic vibe that happens at Modern meetings, both online and in person. Often people who do not consider themselves Modern quiltmakers join because they love the inclusive comradery, mini quilt swaps and inspiration of the Modern Quilt Movement. Thus this popular phenomenon is identified not only by what Modern quilts look like, but also the type of person and the community involved.

The main design philosophy of Modern is exploration through bending or breaking unspoken—and sometimes spoken—traditional quilt rules. It relies on the use of technology such as blogs, Instagram and digital publications to connect across distances, initially building a vibrant community online. Because of the variety and dispersed nature of these makers, Modern quilting is complicated. The look of Modern quilts can include brighter color palettes in solids or prints, or quiet neutrals to create quilts with a strong graphic feel. Or it could just be a new twist on a traditional pattern. Other common aspects include, but are not limited to, large use of negative space, asymmetrical design and straight-line, rather than curvilinear, quilting.

Multi-colored quilt with complex design
Group Improv, Kristin Barrus & Sew Night Friends, 2018. An example of collaborative quilt design by seven women, using popular colors and fabrics. Photo by Kristin Barrus.

For my practicum at The Henry Ford, I will present a paper on “The Landscape of the Modern Quilt Movement, 2000-2020” next Spring. I will also recommend specific quilts from the movement to consider acquiring for The Henry Ford’s collection, as well as books on the topic. In the meantime, I will be conducting recorded interviews with key individuals from the movement to be included in The Henry Ford’s archives, as well as future research.

My project also includes a survey for Modern quilters. I am hoping to hear from anyone who has participated in Modern quiltmaking in any way, via an anonymous survey. I hope to capture what Modern means to the people who play a part in it: What do they feel Modern is? What are the trends and people that have influenced them? This data will help academia study what the Modern Quilt Movement is, as well as its impact on the lives of many people all over the world. The survey is anonymous, contains 15 questions and takes about 5–8 minutes to complete.

Multicolored quilt with pink flower in the center of concentric design
Tula Pink Millefiori, Kristin Barrus, 2017. A hand applique medallion quilt using motifs from popular fabric designer Tula Pink. Photo by Kristin Barrus.

Let Your Modern Voice Be Heard

If you have participated in Modern quiltmaking in any way, please consider taking the survey, or sending it to someone you know who makes Modern quilts. The lines between Modern and Modern-traditional quiltmaking are blurred and intersect often. As you answer each question, please reflect on what Modern means to you specifically, regardless of how anyone else defines Modern quiltmaking. You can access the survey here, or using the QR code below.

Black and white QR code

Kristin Barrus is a graduate practicum student at The Henry Ford.

design, by Kristin Barrus, by Jeanine Head Miller, research, making, quilts

Have you ever wondered how we photograph quilts at The Henry Ford? While the answer is probably no, you might be surprised to find out that it is quite a process. Most quilts are quite large, ranging from 7ft x 4ft to even 9ft x 5ft. With that being said, our photo studio in the museum only has a ceiling that is 10ft tall, but to get an accurate picture of the quilt we would need the camera to be pointing at the quilt at a 90-degree angle. How do we accomplish that in a room that’s only 10 ft tall? We find higher ground!

quiltphoto1
Since our studio is on the back wall of the museum, we need to be somewhere elevated, but relatively nearby so we aren’t hauling our equipment all over the place. So, the Highland Park Engine is our answer. We mount the camera on the top railing of the stairs closest to the entrance to Conservation.


quiltphoto2

quiltphoto3

Then, with the help of 2-3 people, we lay the quilts on a large 10 x 10 wooden board that has a layer of muslin cloth on it (to protect the quilts and stop them from sliding down the board), We hoist the quilt board up onto stands to hold it in place at about a 60-degree angle which allows us to angle the camera to shoot straight at the quilt, giving us the correct perspective as if it were lying flat.

quiltphoto4

Here are a few examples of the finished images that go online on our Digital Collections website.

quiltphoto5

quiltphoto6

Looking at them, you wouldn’t think that they were photographed any other way than lying down, right? That’s the magic of photography - with a little bit of resourcefulness and ingenuity added in.

You can view all the quilts from our collection that we’ve photographed on our Digital Collections here.

Jillian Ferraiuolo is Digital Imaging Specialist at The Henry Ford.

collections care, photography, quilts, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, digitization, by Jillian Ferraiuolo

THF168579
This alphabet quilt, likely made in Berks County, Pennsylvania, dates from about 1910.   THF168579  (Purchased through the Eleanor B. Safford Memorial Textile Fund.)

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G—   H, I, J, K, L-M-N-O-P—.… Now I know my ABCs”

The alphabet song gave us a fun way to learn our ABCs—and the order of the letters.  (I don’t know about you, but I sometimes still find myself singing it as I alphabetize something.)  Even before kids head off to school, we not only sing the alphabet song to them, but surround them with images of alphabet letters—on building blocks, children’s dishes, and even, wallpaper—to help them learn their ABCs. 

Alphabet letters also appear on quilts. Quilt block patterns published in the 20th century made it easier to plan and create these quilts. In 1906, Ladies Art Company, a mail order business that published hundreds of quilt patterns, offered a series of alphabet block designs. The Henry Ford’s alphabet quilt was likely made using these patterns.

The letters on this alphabet quilt may look like they are curved—but they are actually made up of triangles, squares, rectangles and trapezoids.  The letter blocks were designed to avoid curved seams, which are more difficult to execute than these other geometric shapes. Yet, even using these Ladies Art Company patterns offered challenges.  Some letters, like the G and Q, required more intricate piecing.  Some quiltmakers simply deviated a bit in piecing the blocks for these, and other letters.  Our quiltmaker managed the Q, but made a few small changes in creating the G.

THF168583

Though working from the same pattern, each individual quiltmaker created her own unique quilt through her choice of fabric, the exact arrangement of the letter blocks, the design of the sashing and borders, and the quilt patterns used in the decorative corner blocks that complete the quilt. Some quiltmakers arranged the letter blocks in rows of three and five. Others placed them in four rows of five letter blocks—and then figured out what to do with the leftover Z! Our quilt maker tucked the Z into one corner, creating a delightfully whimsical effect.

We don’t really know who made this quilt, or who they made it for.  But it is easy to imagine a child cuddling with this charming alphabet quilt—and learning his or her letters at the same time.

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making, design, by Jeanine Head Miller, quilts

mccords

Susan McCord (at far right) with family at the McCord farm, about 1904.  (with Susan, from left to right:  Susan’s daughter Millie McCord Canaday, husband Green McCord, granddaughter Ruth Canaday). Right: Susan and Green McCord, about 1885. EI.1929.2222

On her family’s farm near McCordsville, Indiana, Susan Noakes McCord (1829-1909) made meals for her husband and children, cleaned the house, sewed and mended the family’s clothing, knitted accessories, cared for the chickens, milked cows, tended the vegetable and flower gardens, read her Bible through each year, and participated in community gatherings.

In her “spare” time, she also made exquisite quilts. Exceptional quilts.

This ordinary Indiana farmwife had an extraordinary genius for designing and making quilts. Her “palette?”  Like other resourceful housewives of her time, Susan used materials that she had on hand: scraps of cotton prints or dress velvets left over from making her family’s clothing. She also cut usable fabric from the family’s worn-out clothing. Susan made some of her quilts in patterns then popular. And she likely used the flowers in her garden as further inspiration. 

But what Susan created with these everyday materials, the inspiration she found around her, and her rich imagination was stunning. Susan could manipulate fabric, color, and design to turn a traditional quilt pattern into something extraordinary. Her workmanship was equally superb. She joined her quilt top, the layer of filling, and the backing with thousands of tiny, even stitches—averaging 10 to the inch.

THF95129Floral Urn by Susan McCord, about 1860. THF 95129

Susan’s Floral Urn quilt is reminiscent of album quilts made of large appliqué floral or wreath blocks that were popular during the mid-19th century. But Susan's version is exceptionally imaginative. Susan's love of gardening likely inspired the fuchsia, tulips, and daisies which spill whimsically from the urns.

THF95131
Ocean Waves Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1880. THF 95131

This Ocean Waves quilt pattern was well-known in the late 19th century. But in Susan's hands the design is breathtakingly executed, formed of hundreds of tiny half-inch triangles cut from printed cotton fabrics. Susan finished the borders of this quilt with her unique meandering vines with colorful pieced leaves.

THF95136
Fan Variation Quilt by Susan McCord, about 1900. THF 95136

In the late 19th century, decorative "crazy" quilts -- made from silk, velvet, and wool scraps stitched together "crazily" and embellished with embroidery -- were all the rage. This quilt is a variation of a crazy quilt design called fans. Most quilters placed a fan in just one corner of a block. Susan sewed fans of varying sizes in each corner. Then she joined the blocks together to form "wheels" that dazzle with a sense of motion and energy.

THF95128
Vine Quilt by Susan McCord, 1880-1890. THF 95128

This stunningly beautiful quilt is Susan's masterpiece. This trailing vine design is a Mc original. Susan pieced together printed and solid cotton fabric scraps to create the over 300 leaves on each of the 13 vine panels. Susan used variations of this vine in the borders of several quilts. But Susan's vine design is rendered to perfection in this work of genius.

Do I sound like a member of the Susan McCord Fan Club? I am—along with hundreds of her other admirers. 

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making, by Jeanine Head Miller, women's history, quilts, design

THF73662
Pig Pen Variation and Mosaic Medallion Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73662

African-American quiltmaker Susana Allen Hunter turned the "fabric" of everyday life into eye-catching quilts with an abstract, asymmetrical, and often, modern feel. Created from the 1930s to the 1970s, Susana Hunter's quilts reflect her life in rural Wilcox County, Alabama—one of the poorest counties in the United States.

THF73619
Strip Quilt by Susana Allen Hunter, 1950-1955. THF73619


Susana Hunter made handsome, unique quilts, fashioned literally from the fabric of everyday life.

Susana's quilts are pieced in a design-as-you-go improvisational style found among both blacks and whites in poorer, more isolated pockets of the rural South. People living in these more remote areas had less access to quilt pattern ideas published in newspapers or printed in books. For fabrics, rural women depended on mail order catalogs or whatever was available in the local store.  These "constraints" left quiltmakers like Susana Hunter free to use their imaginations.  

THF94355
Bedsheet Pieced Together from Commercial Sugar Sacks by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1970. THF94355

Making an improvisational quilt top required a continual stream of creativity during the entire process, as the quiltmaker made hundreds of design decisions on the fly, fashioning an attractive whole out of whatever materials were at hand.  Overall visual impact mattered most—not minor details such as whether a patch in a row had a square or rectangular shape.  Size and shape was determined by the scraps available at the time.

Creative recycling such as this was not only a means of survival. For many rural quilters, it was also a matter of pride to be able to "make something pretty out of nothing." Represented in the fabrics that make up Susana Hunter's quilts are work clothes worn from the family's toil in the fields, sacks from the cotton seed they planted each spring, scraps from the clothes Susana sewed for her family, and bulk sugar sacks from the food staples the Hunters bought in bulk at the local general store. 

THF93486
Sewing Thimble Used by Susana Allen Hunter, 1930-1969. THF93486

THF44759
Handmade Fan Used by Susana Allen Hunter. THF44759


For Susana and her husband Julius, life often meant hard work and few resources.  The Hunters were tenant farmers who grew cotton and corn, tended a vegetable garden, and raised hogs, chicken and cattle. They lived in a simple, two-room house that had no running water, electricity or central heat. The outside world came to them through a battery-powered radio and a wind-up phonograph. Though the Hunters didn't have much in the way of material goods or the latest 20th century technology, they never went hungry, raising much of their own food. 

THF125834

Portrait of Susana Allen Hunter, June 1960. THF125834

Susana Hunter wanted all of her quilts to be different. Some of her quilt designs have a warm, homey feel. Many resemble abstract art. Other quilts pulsate with the visual energy created by many small, irregular pieces of vividly-colored fabric sewn together. Still others incorporate cornmeal or rice sacks, often reserved for quilt backing, as part of the design of the carefully-pieced quilt top.

Susana's quilts warmed her family during chilly Alabama winters in the inadequately heated home.  They added splashes of color to the unadorned living space—a cheerful kaleidoscope of vivid pattern and design against newspaper-covered walls.  Susana very rarely bought new fabric for her quilts, she used what was at hand.  Yet the lack of materials didn't restrict this resourceful quilter's creativity.  Susana Hunter could cast her artistic eye over her pile of worn clothing, dress scraps, and left-over feed and fertilizer sacks—and envision her next quilt.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

African American history, women's history, quilts, making, design, by Jeanine Head Miller

The collections of The Henry Ford contain several hundred quilts. As an earlier blog post noted, 120 of these can be cross-searched with other quilt collections on The Quilt Index. We have also been adding our quilts to our own collections website, including this striking red and white Lady of the Lake patterned version from around the turn of the century. View our quilts on the Quilt Index or our collections website, and watch for more to be added!

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

by Ellice Engdahl, quilts, digital collections

I have always had a love for history— though, as an Anthropology major focused in Classics, my interests were initially focused on more ancient times. Interning at The Henry Ford, with its vast collections of objects relating to the American experience, has definitely broadened that love! Each day, I have the opportunity to “walk though” nearly 400 years of American history, whether represented in Greenfield Village, with all of its historic buildings, or Henry Ford Museum, with its historic objects. Here, history sits “side-by-side,” offering objects and stories from different eras. And all of the objects here have a story. As an intern working in the curatorial department, I am able to help bring these stories to the public and share my passion for history in a different way.

The Henry Ford’s collection is so vast that we can’t display all of our artifacts all at one time. Yet, with the advancements in digital technology, we can bring these objects and stories to the public through the use of the internet. Currently, we offer images and information for about 20,000 of The Henry Ford’s historic objects on our collections website. But there are additional opportunities to share our collections on the web. That’s what my work as an intern has focused on.

I have been preparing information about many of the quilts in our collection for The Quilt Index, an internationally-known online database of quilt construction and history. This database is comprised of information about hundreds of thousands of quilts owned by museums and individuals. It's the single largest source of information on quilt construction and quilt history resources on the web.

My internship project involves working with others on our staff to gather additional information about each of our quilts and its quilt maker, if known. Since I seem to have a flair for computer programs, my efforts were chiefly focused on learning The Quilt Index’s software system, and then adding information about The Henry Ford’s quilts to this database. Information on nearly 120 of our quilts can now be found on The Quilt Index.

Applique Quilt by Susan McCord, 1880-1890 (Object ID: 72.140.1).

While The Henry Ford’s collections webpage has allowed people who come to our website learn about our quilts, The Quilt Index broadens our reach. Through The Quilt Index, people all over the world can readily find information on many of our quilts—even if they were unaware that we have a quilt collection. Too, The Quilt Index allows researchers to examine our quilts “side by side” with quilts from other sources—even though the quilts themselves may be thousands of miles apart.

We have so many great quilts in our collection. When I first started working with the quilts, I could tell you which one was my favorite. Yet now that I have spent a great amount of time learning each quilt’s story, I have a hard time choosing just one! But there are some that do stand out more for me. These include the 1880s Vine Quilt by Susan Noakes McCord and the 1980s Indianapolis 500 Quilt by Jeanetta Holder. These two quilts are quite different in feel and are almost 100 years apart in age. Yet both of these quilts interest me. Susan’s appliqué quilt is so intricately detailed with many thousands of pieces, all sewn by hand. And I love the story surrounding Jeanetta’s 1980s quilt, made to celebrate race car driver Bobby Unser’s three Indianapolis wins.

The thought that I am able to share the information I have learned about our quilt collection with people all over the world is a very humbling experience. It really hits home for me, though, because I had to use The Quilt Index to complete a class assignment during my undergraduate studies. Now, here I am adding information to the site for others to use just like I did just over a year ago!

Take a look at our collections site to see more of our quilt-related artifacts.

Amanda Messer is a Curatorial Intern at The Henry Ford.

digital collections, technology, by Amanda Messer, quilts

Susana Allen Hunter (Object ID 2007.71.15, THF37810)

Since joining The Henry Ford in 2010, I had been hearing about the wonderful collection of quilts made by Susana Allen Hunter. I had seen photos of the exhibition that The Henry Ford mounted in 2008 and had glimpsed the quilts in storage. But, I was not quite prepared for the true beauty and historical value of the collection until I got to see the quilts displayed.

The Henry Ford recently loaned part of its collection to the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) for its exhibition, “The Improvisational Quilts of Susana Allen Hunter.” On May 9, I attended the opening with Marc Greuther, chief curator, and Jeanine Head Miller, curator of domestic life. Was I ever impressed! These quilts are a stunning representation of artistry and the daily life of an African American woman living in the difficult conditions of rural Alabama as late as the 1970s.

In collaboration with the GRAM, we loaned 22 quilts from the collection, along with personal objects that belonged to Susana. Our textile conservator, Fran Faile, worked with GRAM staff to ensure that these significant pieces were handled and installed according to museum standards.

Hunter house as it was in 2007 (John Metz)

Jeanie Miller had secured the initial collection and then painstakingly researched its rich history. She worked with GRAM curatorial and education staff and shared not only her knowledge, but her passion for this extraordinary collection. She understood its value, and the way it captures rich stories of a distinctive time and place. Such stories are elusive and very difficult to collect and preserve. In this collection, The Henry Ford holds a remarkable piece of African American and women’s history.

Grand Rapids Art Museum

Grand Rapids Art Museum

During the process of acquiring the collection, Jeanie had developed a strong relationship with Tommie Hunter, grandson of Susana, who had lived with her as a young boy and with whom Susana lived in her later years. After Jeanie’s masterful presentation at the GRAM exhibition opening on the quilts and the related materials she has collected, she conducted a question and answer session with Tommie, his wife, Susie, and the audience. What a delight.The personal nature of the memories and tales of Susana Hunter’s quilting had the audience’s rapt attention.

Grand Rapids Art Museum

Marilyn Zoidis, Jeanie Miller, Dana Friis-Hansen (Director and CEO, GRAM)

The opening was great fun - food, wine, and people to share the excitement of the evening. But the sense of pride I felt to be associated with an institution that had the foresight to acquire and preserve such a remarkable piece of American history will stay with me always.

Susana Allen Hunter (Object ID 2006.79.9, THF73591) and (Object ID 2006.79.23, THF73642)

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events, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, by Marilyn Zoidis, women's history, making, design, quilts