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Meet Quilt Historian Merikay Waldvogel

Merikay Waldvogel is an internationally known quilt historian author, and lecturer. She is widely considered an expert on mid-20th century quilts. Her expertise and tireless research into quilting and the quilters who made them led to her induction into the Quilters Hall of Fame in 2009.

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Merikay and the quilt that started it all. (Picture courtesy of Oxmoor House).

We are so honored and excited to have Merikay as a featured speaker at the 2017 Quilter’s Take Manhattan event.  She loves quilts and quilt stories, so her lecture “Making Do: Southern Style” is sure to be both entertaining and educational. We hope you will join us for a fun-filled day of lectures by Merikay and other quilting superstars  on September 16.

Here’s your chance to get to know Merikay a little better. We recently asked Merikay to answer five questions we ask quiltmakers as part of our Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories( QSOS) oral history project. Here are her answers – enjoy!

What is your first quilt memory?

I call it “my quilt epiphany.” I was out shopping one Saturday morning in Evanston, Illinois looking for something to decorate a wall in my new Chicago apartment. One quirky quilt on display in a shop window caught my eye. I was immediately drawn to it. I felt a palpable physical reaction. My heart was racing. I was hooked. I bought it without even considering the age, pattern, or price.  

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Detail of the Carolina Lily quilt.

That quilt changed my life. Today nearly 45 years later, when you ask me “what is your first quilt memory” I can honestly say that was it.  

As a little girl growing up in suburban St. Louis, I did not encounter quilts anywhere. I have spent my adult life in the South where it seems like everyone’s grandmother made quilts. Quilting groups at churches are still active. People still lay out their family quilts at concerts in the park. Trunks of quilts still show up in attics. And, I will probably be studying and stroking quilts until my dying day.  

 

Have you ever used quilts to get through a difficult time?

That’s an interesting question. I have to say the most difficult time for me was when my mother died in 1973. She was only 46 and it was breast cancer. Unbeknownst to me, she was making a cross-stitch quilt during the last year or so. Her friend, Mary, had it quilted by a church group and wanted to give it to one of us four kids.

It’s hard for me to fathom this now but no one expressed an interest in the quilt, so Mary offered to make a quilt of our choice for each of us. I asked for a traditional star quilt made from dress fabrics my mother had sewed. I received the quilt in about 1978 and used it on our bed in Tennessee.

Both of my sisters also got quilts, but it was decided that my brother’s quilt would be Mother’s cross-stitch quilt. Being the oldest sister, I decided I would hold on to it until he got “settled.”  I still have it. Unlike 40 some years ago, when I didn’t consider cross-stitch quilts “real” quilts, today I know making a kit quilt is not the easiest thing in the world, and of course, it is special because she made it at a very difficult time of her life and I wonder what she was thinking at the time.

What makes a quilt appropriate for a museum or special collection (including yours)?

Quilts for museums ought to be in excellent condition, have a solid provenance, and most importantly, be worthy of future research and exhibition. These include: quilts with inscribed dates, names, and locations; pictorial and commemorative quilts; quilts with unusual fabrics; quilts made within one family; and quilts made by noted quilt designers and prize winning quiltmakers.   

For my own collection, I chose that first quilt because its quirkiness intrigued me. I still don’t know why the unknown maker finished it the way she did.  Maybe she was going through a difficult time herself. 

I soon became enthralled by the printed fabrics in quilts. I loved Log Cabin quilts, for example.  At first, I only collected 19th century quilts, but as I learned more about quiltmakers of the 1930s, I began collecting patterned quilts and even kit quilts. I used them in books, lectures, and exhibits. Every quilt I personally acquired had to spark my curiosity.

The Bird’s Eye View of the Chicago World’s Fair quilt by Richard Rowley opened up a new level of collecting and in-depth research for me, as did the Chintz Center Medallion quilt (date inscribed 1833) from North Carolina. Both quilts are exceptional quilts with many aspects to explore. I have written about them and displayed them often. I am sure they will both find homes in museums eventually, but for now I enjoy owning a piece of American quilt history.   

What do you think makes a great quilt?

You ask difficult questions!  

That reminds me of the project Karey Bresenhan proposed at the end of the 20th century. She asked representatives from various quilt organizations to choose their top 100 quilts of the 20th century. I was on the panel. We had a short time to make our choices. I remember thinking how the goal seemed impossible.

All kinds of thoughts ran through my head . . . are we talking about old quilts and newly made quilts? Would a Jean Ray Laury or Yvonne Porcella quilt win out over a Bertha Stenge or Grace Snyder quilt? Would an Amish quilt hold its own against a utility quilt? Would kits be excluded? And how would the judges make a comprehensive search?

That question turned out to be the key to choices. Most of us had extensive libraries. Being a part of the state quilt documentation projects, I knew I could find photographs of excellent quilts in the state quilt books. The organizers collected our suggestions and then sent us a final set of photographs to vote for the top 100 quilts. I didn’t agree with all the final choices, but I would say for the most part, the winning quilts were “great” quilts. To me, a great quilt is above all else well-made, has a sensitive design, and makes a strong overall impact. Like a fine piece of art, it draws you in, ignites something within you, and leaves an impression.  

What do you think about the importance of quilts in American life?

Whether we call them blankets, covers, or quilts, quilts have always been there in American life. Providing warmth, comfort and joy, quilts also carry with them memories and mysteries. They are there at life’s special moments.They are gifts of friendship and love. Their making can be soothing and healing. A lot of laughter and story-telling goes on around a quilting frame and among friends sharing old quilts. Quilts bring people together who may never have known each other.  

For my own American life, I can say that quilts were my entrée to the South. Through quilts (by listening to quilters’ stories and researching the times the quilts were made), I came to love this place, Knoxville in East Tennessee, I call home.

Pictures from Merikay’s Album

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Friends met through quilting and quilt documentation days. This Sampler includes our favorite Tennessee quilt patterns found during Quilt survey in 1984-85.

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At my house with quilt friends from left: Joyce Gross, Linda Claussen, Cuesta Benberry, Eva Earle Kent, Me, and Bets Ramsey in 1993.

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Merikay and Bets Ramsey examine a quilt for the Tennessee state survey.

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Quilts on a stand in my office–a variety of new and old! I love them all.

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Here I talk about a heavy wool quilt made of a cloth called “Linsey.”

 

COMMENTS (8)
Reply

Thank you, I really enjoyed reading this article

    Reply

    Thank you! We are so glad you enjoyed reading about Merikay!

Reply

I can’t wait to hear her lecture. See you September 16th.

    Reply

    You’re in for a treat! See you, soon!

Reply

I think the names are out of order in the photo of your quilt friends. Please tell about the quilt on the wall in that photo.

    Reply

    Hi Audrey, we’ll pass on your comment to Merikay!

Reply

Mary Kipp brought me over to the Reed Library so we could see your new website. It was worth the walk. We both loved your work. Im not sure we have seen it all. We loved your quilts and we love you!!

    Reply

    Hi Jackie, we’ll pass on your kind note to Merikay!

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