Reproduced quilt with unknown origin 30 years in the making, donated in ’74

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Textiles specialist Jessica Madsen helps hold the reproduced quilt. Work on the quilt began nearly 30 years ago and finished this year near the end of November.

By Hannah Kiefer
Social Media Specialist

After nearly 30 years, employees and volunteers in the Textile Shop have finally completed the reproduction of a quilt with mysterious origins.

The quilt was donated to Conner Prairie in 1974 in poor condition, although the task of reproducing it didn’t begin until 1987. A description states the quilt was used as an internal stuffing on a bench at Sugar Grove Friends Church in Plainfield. Because of its repurposing, the quilt has many rips and tears and stuffing is coming out in places. The quilt itself is a patchwork of more than a dozen different colors, patterns and textures of fabric.

“It’s really designed to use every little last piece of fabric,” said Jessica Madsen, one of the textile specialists who worked on the quilt. “This is not the sort of quilt that usually gets put in the books.”

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Textile shop volunteer Jane Pidgeon (right) and volunteer and intern administrator Pam Westermann look at the reproduced quilt. In the foreground is the original quilt donated to Conner Prairie in 1974, which served as a template for the reconstructed quilt.

That’s because the quilt is fairly utilitarian in purpose, Jessica said. It’s not designed to be particularly beautiful — it was designed simply to keep people warm. She said this type of quilt is called a linsey quilt in the South. Others call them “make do” quilts. “That’s very much what these are about — making use of what’s available,” she said.

Work on the quilt has seen many starts and stops, as work demands overwhelmed textile specialists throughout the years and the quilt took a backseat to other projects.

Jane Pidgeon, one of the volunteers in the Textile Shop, mapped all 197 blocks of the quilt to plan the reproduction. A dinner plate was used as a tracer on the original quilt for the circular stitching pattern.

Two teams worked on the quilt; one wove and either dyed or found the fabrics while the other stitched the blocks together. One plaid, 5.25- by 2-inch piece of cloth was among those that had to be recreated, despite the tiny size.

Jessica estimates that over time, more than a dozen people helped complete the quilt. Jane said that some of the fabrics were especially difficult to create because of the fineness of the threads. Additionally, the quilters had to work to re-create many blocks with several tiny pieces of fabric stitched together.

“We don’t have a perfect reproduction but we do have a study of art, craftsmanship, economic necessity, recycling and creativity,” Jessica said.

Jane said she and others who’ve worked with the quilt have found its origins intriguing because no one really knows where the quilt came from before it came to be at the Plainfield church. “The mystery is enchanting,” she said.  “We don’t know where these fabrics came from. As you look at it longer, you begin to think, ‘How could it be that someone had access to all these different fabrics? What did they have, where did they come from?’ We don’t know any of that.”

The closest the textile specialists have come to answers is that the quilt is likely a linsey quilt and it’s likely from after the Civil War, when there was limited manufacturing and families tended to use everything. Although there are similar quilts in the South, the origins of the quilt have not yet been verified and the man who donated the quilt has since passed away.

Jane hopes the reproduction will be used for educational purposes out in Conner Prairie and not just simply put on display.

“If you look at what Conner Prairie does in terms of science, art and history, the quilt could be used for all those different areas,” Jane said. “There’s math, science, economics and there’s history, of course. All kinds of questions (from visitors) could be answered.”