The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
Quilts Across America:
The Making of the Great American Quilt Banner
What’s nice about having a huge library of books on your favorite topic is that at a certain point, you forget what you have, which means you can then re-discover what already gave you a thrill—and the second discovery is free.
Looking for a book about pioneer quilts in Colorado the other day, I found a book I had completely forgotten about: Quilts Across America: The Making of the Great American Quilt Banner. I don’t think you could call this a “rare book”—it’s not like a first-edition Dickens or some kind of palimpsest from Medieval England—but I never see it in the quilt/craft/sewing sections of used bookstores and believe me, I know those sections well. I came across it on eBay about a year ago and it’s the only time it’s come across the transom.
FRONT: Out of print, but findable in used bookstores and online.
BACK: The long, long, long road of the Great American Quilt Banner, as featured on the back of the book.
The book, authored by Leslie Linsley with The National Needlework Association, was published in 1988. It tells the story (more or less) of a 1,000-foot-long banner that was made as part of the festivities commemorating the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Some of you will recall this Great American Quilt Festival because of the big, national quilt contest that was offered as its main event. The contest was sponsored by the 3M Corporation and was produced by the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) and there is plenty more to say about that, but that’s another column for another day.
The book describes how the Great American Quilt Banner was conceived by someone at the Folk Art Museum in New York and then sort of—though Linsley doesn’t say this of course—hurled into the laps of the folks at the The National Needlework Association (TNNA; today known as The National Needlearts Association). I doubt very much Linsley was trying to do it, but in her copy you can just feel the undercurrent of the “You want us to do WHAT?!” of the whole situation.
After briefly describing the Festival itself, we learn that a phone call came to TNNA from the Folk Art Museum’s executive director that detailed the idea:
The proposed project was so overwhelming in scope that it took a while to sink in as a real possibility for the small TNNA staff. What they were asked to do was coordinate the execution of a thousand-foot-long quilted banner that would represent every state in the Union from Maine to Hawaii.
If you’re a quilter, you know how those sorry souls at TNNA must have felt; quilters are often asked to do the impossible by people who wouldn’t know a bobbin if it pinged them on the nose. But we needleworkers are an industrious and valiant lot, so the TNNA took on the challenge, of course.
To read what follows in the pages after they said “yes”—and could they say “no” to such a big, fancy, New York City museum?—is to feel their pain, trying to get this thing together. I’m not saying everyone was miserable; I’m just saying passages like the one below do not lead me to think this was a joyous project for our friends at TNNA:
How does one small group of women organize such a gigantic job? They began by writing dozens of letters, making hundreds of phone calls, and quilting clubs all over the country in an effort to find people willing to donate a three-foot-square section for this banner.
After the letters came the drafting of many forms. A registration form. A design approval form. A personal information form, since each panel of the blessed thing needed to go back to the person who made it after the banner was presented. Someone decided that a newsletter would be a good idea, to help people know what was going on with the project, and I can’t help but think this was to try and avoid the phone ringing off the hook with people from coast to coast asking the same questions 24 hours a day.
But the phone didn’t ring at first, Linsley tells us. After all the preliminaries were set:
For weeks the office was quiet. Mary Rauch said, “I sure hope this is a sign that everyone’s quilting out there.”
They…kind of were. A few panels trickled in here and there, but it took many months for there to be any kind of critical mass of state panels. Some states were more into it than others: New Hampshire was over-achieving, for example, but Floridians needed to step up the game, big time. (A panel for Guam was among the first three to come in.)
It’s also clear that the quality of workmanship varied greatly from panel to panel, which was to be expected, though it doesn’t sound like the Folk Art Museum considered that not everyone who likes to sew can sew, exactly. Are you surprised that no one from the institution had ever been in a guild swap bee or a round robin?
RIGHT: A panel for Kansas, made by Sally Bremmer and Eleanor Malone. But where to put them all?
But those early days were good days for the TNNA. Once the panels really did start coming in, they had to put them somewhere. And keep track of the info. And then they had to find someone to stitch it all together. And how would it hang? And who was getting paid?
Answers to at least some of these questions await you in the fascinating, if too-earnest Quilts Across America: The Making of the Great American Quilt Banner. Yes, I could tell you how it all turned out. But I think you’d have a better time flipping through the images of 70 of the quilt panels and reading between the lines of this fascinating (and likely extremely stressful for many) moment in American quilt history.
RIGHT: The St. Vraine Valley Quilters got this panel together for their home state. Slackers.
*If anyone out there reading this participated in the Great American Quilt Banner project, please email me through the web form here at Quilts.com. I’d love to talk to you.