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Spring 2003

A textile artist takes his show on the road

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Reading Quilts

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Reading Quilts

Story and photographs by Maryann Franklin

West Virginia Quilters, Inc. is a statewide organization that promotes and encourages learning, understanding and appreciation of the “art of quilting.” The art of quilting? Most of us think of quilts as beautiful, but we don’t necessarily think of them as “art.”

Two of the definitions of art in Webster’s Dictionary are: “1. skill; craftsmanship. 2. making or doing things that display form, beauty and unusual perception.” It’s easy to see that according to these definitions, quilts certainly qualify. Anybody who’s spent even a few moments examining the beauty and intricacy of a quilt can attest to that.

Fawn Valentine, of Alderson is an expert on the subject of quilts — particularly West Virginia quilts. Valentine, who received her B.A. in Studio Art from Concord College and M.A. in Liberal Studies from Hollins University, is currently an adjunct professor at Mountain State University teaching courses in quilt history, art history and art appreciation.

Art critics may debate whether or not quilts are art and even whether they should be classified as fine or decorative art, according to Valentine, but many museums find that more people come to see exhibits of quilts than exhibits of paintings. “My own interest lies with old quilts,” said Valentine. “They embody an element of mystery. The quiltmaker has passed away and left her needlework to tell her story.”

In 1991, Valentine joined the West Virginia Heritage Quilt Search team (WVHQS). The group set a goal of seeking out and documenting West Virginia quilts produced prior to 1940 and currently located within the state (many as family heirlooms). Having written her Masters thesis on Scotch-Irish quilts in West Virginia, and, as she puts it, having found her “calling,” Valentine was chosen to direct the oral history project for WVHQS. These oral history interviews were undertaken in part to preserve the pattern names, terminology and practices of the past. Valentine also served as principal author and editor of West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Echoes from the Hills, the book that resulted, which describes and details more than 100 of the 4000 quilts documented by the search.

Fawn Valentine
Fawn Valentine examines a quilt

Valentine currently serves on the board of the American Quilt Study Group. In 1995 she participated in a research forum on American quilts at the Smithsonian Institution. She has given numerous talks on the subject of quilts for the West Virginia Library Commission and the West Virginia Humanities Council.

She gave just such a talk in Lindside, WV at the last quarterly meeting of West Virginia Quilters. That organization seeks to continue recording the tradition, culture and history of quiltmaking in West Virginia that began with the WVHQS, and to encourage the care and preservation of old and new quilts.

pieced stars
Pieced stars, the most popular quilt pattern in West Virginia and the US.
quilt made from old fabrics
The fabrics in this quilt date from 1900-1950 and came from a shirt factory in Mullens. WV

Valentine, however, did something more unusual and interesting than just speak about the history and artistry of quiltmaking. She also provided what she calls “quilt readings.” Valentine believes she is the only one in the state who does this. “The quilt readings provide the audience with the opportunity to display heirloom quilts and to learn about their quilt’s relationship to American quilt history,” she said.

Older quilts reveal messages from the past,” said Valentine. “History is recorded in the stitches. They tell us about domestic history — family stories which may be ignored in conventional history books.” As such, they are an important part of family history and American history.

“Every quilt tells a story,” she continued. “I view quilts as textile texts.” In addition to being valuable and significant family possessions, they are also records of social and economic currents in American History. Trends in quilt style were often cultural (folk and popular) and regional, influenced by economic and social factors. Learning to read these stories involves analyzing known facts about patchwork style and construction, fabrics and quilting patterns.

“I guess I began quilt reading at a seminar at WVU. Fellow students brought in old quilts to be examined. As I studied each quilt, I fell silent, absorbing the quiltmaker’s visual language. Then I began speaking about the era of fabric manufacture, evidence of cultural aesthetics and relationship to regional and national style trends. Some of my fellow students thought I was going into a trance, like a fortune teller reading tea leaves, although my pronouncements had more to do with fact than fantasy.”

Valentine explains what she can learn from a quilt best in her book: “Quilt study has both artistic and technological aspects to consider. The visual appeal of quilts elicits sensual response, and is essentially nonverbal communication — drawing attention with visual device, color and repetition. Within the visual language of quilt design, images from popular culture, trends in interior decoration, and traditions based in ethnic heritage all find expression. The technological aspect brings information about sources for materials (fabrics, threads and fibers) used in the quilt. These details contribute to understanding local economy, the quiltmaker’s access to goods, and her communication with current trends in quilt fashions.”

But even more than this, there is a human aspect, a more personal story in each quilt — the story of the woman who conceived and crafted it. It provides hints about her economic and social status, skill level, ethnicity, personality and preferences.

fence rail setting
The "fence rail" setting in this quilt is distinctive to southern West Virginia

To read a quilt, Valentine begins by touching, stroking and turning the quilt in her hands. She carefully examines the fabric (its origins, whether it’s hand woven, the fibers and even the dyes), the construction method, the arrangement of components (how the blocks are placed, whether there’s sashing or a border), the choice of colors, the pattern and even the size and number of stitches. All these help unravel the mystery.

The tools of her trade are a magnifying glass, measuring equipment and several books, including Clues in the Calico and the Encyclopedia of Piece Quilt Patterns, both by Barbara Brachman.

“I find these books to be really inspiring,” commented Valentine. “Sometimes I even use a microscope to analyze fiber samples. My most exciting discovery was working with fibers from a very rare quilt made in Ireland about 1805. Family history related that the quilt was made with linen. I discovered that all the woven fabrics were cotton, but the sewing thread was linen.”

Quilt reading, to be sure, is far from an exact science. Sometimes the age of a quilt can be pinpointed to within a ten-year time span. With others, the span might be 50 or more years. “You can also be fooled about the time period when you’re examining a quilt,” said Valentine. Sometimes you learn later that certain colors and styles were first used at an earlier time than realized. Certain techniques and traditions survived longer in rural states, making it more difficult to pinpoint the correct time period exactly. Also, it took time for the latest trends to filter into West Virginia, and once they did, they tended to hold on longer.

Valentine also offers tips to quilt owners in her lectures. For example, quilts should be folded in thirds instead of in half, to prevent a permanent crease in the center, which can stress and damage the fabric. “I also offer tips about how to care for and preserve antique quilts,” said Valentine. It is much needed information, and far from obvious. Special care must always be taken when washing older fabric, and sometimes the best advice is not to wash it at all.

If you have a family quilt, Valentine suggests that you write down who made it, where she made it and when. Include the quiltmaker’s birth and death dates as well as any other history you may have about the quilt. This information should be attached to the quilt. In this way, you will be providing clues about your quilt for your family and for the future.

West Virginia Quilters is online at

Contact Fawn Valentine by e-mail at Maryann Franklin is a freelance writer and longtime resident of Monroe County. She lives on Peters Mountain. Contact her by e-mail at