Two Hundred Years of Quilts

When I first walk up to Bill Volckening’s house in SW Portland, the FedEx man has beat me to the door.  He hands Bill a slim box and Bill looks absolutely delighted.  After the delivery man leaves, Bill and I introduce ourselves and Bill invites me in to see what arrived. He pulls a classic Vans slip on out of the box, and it’s decorated in a sort of patchwork pattern of maroons, teals, hot pinks, and green; a grid of squares, some cruxes emphasized with circles.  There’s a reason this design looks like patchwork, Bill uploaded a photograph of one of his polyester 70s quilts onto his shoe.  His intention is to wear them when he speaks at his latest exhibit, Off the Grid, which showcases his extensive polyester quilt collection.  The exhibit is ongoing at the International Quilt Study Center and Museum in Nebraska until the end of August.

Above: Bill's custom designed shoe with the initial quilt inspiration.

Bill has always been a collector, starting with Wacky Packs cards at the age of five. Collecting is a sort of a “bug” for his family. His mother a big collector as well, and both plan on attending the Antiques Roadshow this summer in Portland, Oregon.  And yes, Bill will be bringing a few quilts.   

Bill found his first quilt by tagging along with a college girlfriend to an exclusive quilt sale in New York in 1989.  His first quilt, which was a red, white, and green New York Beauty Quilt that he planned to use as a wall hanging.  This quilt soon led to another, and then another, and finally to his current 300 quilt collection.

Bill had studied art history at the Rhode Island School of Design and approached quilting much the same way.

“You could almost look at quilt history in a similar way you look at art history and be able to identify periods based on styles,” Bill said. More than once, I heard him referring to quilters as artists.

Bill is a storyteller as much as a historian, taking over an hour of his time with me to showcase a few of his quilts.  He finds them online, in thrift stores, and through dealers.  Being very specific collector, and looking for clues into authenticity seem to be the key to what he collects; he’s gotten many a deal being more educated than the seller. He uses Eileen Trestain’s books, Dating Fabrics and at times, searches the internet.

When a new quilt crosses his path, Bill examines the type of material, the color scheme, the quilting technique, types of blocks, signs of aging and text.  For example, quilts before the Civil War tend to be bound with a very thin edge binding because fabric was expensive and highly coveted.  Post Civil War, fabric was more readily available in the United States, and one can see a trend towards a much thicker binding.

And what a variety of quilts he has!  Some are one of a kind.

“I tend to veer more towards the things like this and away from those which there are a million of,”  he said. He shows me two Hawaiian quilts, one an authentic botanical, snowflake-like center motif, framed on a solid background from the 1920s; the other, a scrappy log cabin type of a quilt made from a variety of Hawaiian florals from the 1970s. He has a bicentennial I-Spy quilt, many an op-art quilt, a 1930s medallion quilt, and even an authentic Gee’s Bend Quilt by Lucy Mingo he found on Ebay for $51. Bill later was able to meet Lucy Mingo at the Sister’s Annual Quilt show, read more about it here.

At Textile Hive we house over 7,000 quilting fabrics and quilt blocks collected by Andrea Aranow, all of which are available for online research and inspiration through the Textile Hive App. For Andrea, following the reuse of old fabrics was the key to the history of taste and technical developments in industrial clothing making. Most often she took apart damaged pieces and researched the dates, often aided by the book “Clues in the Calico.” She sometimes recreated the full design of the original by piecing them back together to assemble the whole repeat. Below are two quilt blocks from Textile Hive that capture Andrea’s interest in composition, material choices and technique in quilting.

Above: “This sample highlights the Victorian use of lush fabrics with plenty of embellishment in the late 19th century.” Andrea Aranow

Below: “It was graphic composition and dynamic layout which caught my eye in this sample.” Andrea Aranow

Bill’s collection continued to grow, but for him it was just a hobby. “I didn’t even know the quilting community existed to be honest.” But that all changed when Bill retired.

“Around 2009 I retired, and had more time to play around with the quilts, and that was my decision. I decided that it would be fun to play around with the quilts, and see if anyone else would enjoy seeing them.  Or you know, maybe I could have a show, something like that, do a magazine, [I had] very modest ideas of what could happen. And as soon as I started to show the quilts to the quilting people, they were like ‘grab him’. Everything else since then has been an invitation.”

Bill has published five books, had several exhibits around the world, and even dabbled in making a few of his own quilts, although it’s a challenge.

“Since I have all this knowledge about quilt history, I don’t want to keep repeating it. I’m not the type of person who would ever follow a pattern to make a quilt.”

He then shows me a wool quilt of original design called Wild Eyed Susan with upcycled flowers reflecting his need to incorporate a narrative larger than his own.

The second quilt he shows me is a breathtaking, reversible quilt representing Bill’s initial visit to Oregon in 1998 is called Oregon in July. “Joleen Knight quilted it for him.  It’s actually got a whole landscape drawing on’s got the sun, there’s trillium lake, there’s a stump, and it’s actually reversible.  It’s like a landscape drawing...she did a wonderful job, and we talked about it a lot, and she did exactly what I was asking her to do.  This quilt is about me coming to...and falling in love with Oregon and this patchwork on the front represents my impression of Oregon in July, with the colors and how everything lights up, but things are relatively orderly... and the landscape represented the hidden beauty of Oregon -- the things you discover as you live here longer,” he said.

For me, perhaps the most inspiring idea of all was Bill’s comments on quilts and art.

““Quilts are, singularly, this great world of women’s creative expression. They represent this historically, and I think that’s really the important thing.””

“Are they works of art? Well, they may not have been intended as works of art when they were originally made. Many of the very old quilts I have may been creatively done or crafted well, but they were not intended to go on a wall.”

“They have evolved to that over time by being antique objects that represent American Heritage and Culture. As time passes, their function naturally changes.”

What can we as contemporary quilters offer the future?  What will be remembered and displayed from our own modern quilt revival? What is our style? What is our narrative? Regardless of the outcome, we can bet that Bill will be there to tell its story.

Find out more about Bill Volckening on his website and his blog.

Learn more about Andrea's textile collections and see some of her mosed prized quilts on her website.

Interested in learning more about the quilting fabrics and collection at Textile Hive? Sign up for a tour here.  Also, please join us on June 29th (2017) at 5:30 P.M., when we will be hosting a quilting and drawing workshop with Michelle Freedman: Stitches and Quilting as Design Textures.

Author: Mimi Loughney

Mimi Loughney is a Multimedia Artist and Seamstress navigating the fine line between art and craft.  Having grown up in Portland, Oregon, she draws her inspiration from the surrounding natural beauty, local museums and fabric stores.