Stitches in time: Quilt exhibit displays 'pieces' of North Texas history
Chris Beattie/Staff photo - Collin County Historical Society director Vicki Day points out the intricacy of a quilt on display at the North Texas History Center's "Pieces of the Past Historic Quilt Exhibition" Thursday afternoon in downtown McKinney.
History. It's passed down in words, memories...and quilts.
At least North Texas's storied beginnings, now on display via stitches and clothe symbols in downtown McKinney.
Collin County Historical Society's "Pieces of the Past Historic Quilt Exhibition" shows the area's true colors, the fabric of its development - in, well, colors and fabric.
"You can see the progression of the quilting techniques and process," Vicki Day, CCHS executive director, said of the weekly exhibit that opened Jan. 31 at the North Texas History Center. "It really is a progression through time of colors, attitude, fabrications that were available. It's telling a tale through quilts."
That tale picks up before the turn of the 20th century, on "Poinsettia," a quilt made in 1868 by R.B. Spiva and her mother and sisters. A letter from Spiva to her cousin, Maxine Ousley, explains its inception and regrets that they didn't keep count of the spools of thread used.
The letter, dated 1913 and housed in NTHC archives, tells of the ribbons and premiums the red and green appliqué quilt won. It couples art and storytelling.
"All of these quilts except one were handmade," Day said of the exhibit. "They're the real deal, and they're a type of folk art, some of them turned back 100 years ago."
Winding through the gallery, onlookers are led by symmetrical patterns and designs, the quilts' makers and origins noted. Crazy quilts, case quilts and friendship quilts take them back in time to eras whose records may sometimes be best kept in stitchwork.
The Wilson/Heard Whig Rose quilt, made between 1860 and 1870, "tells a lot about the history of Collin County, our state and our nation," Day said, through Masonic symbols: gavels, seeing eyes of God, Jacob's ladder - each with a certain message, unveiled across the quilt. According to the gallery's browser's guide, the quilt was brought to Texas in 1875 with the Wilson family, that of Rachel Caroline Wilson Heard - the wife of John Spencer Heard, a prominent McKinney businessman and Mason.
The Indigo Carpenter's Square quilt, claimed as an 1885 product, has not been seen publicly since the Texas Sesquicentennial celebration where it was "displayed at the Capitol to show what a wonderful piece of art quilts can be," Day said.
Two other quilts, hung back to back in the gallery, at first glance look nearly identical, just different colors. Ann Cooper Gay, who lent the quilts for the exhibit, found out the women who made them were her great-great-grandmothers. "They were done at the same time in McKinney, but the women didn't know each other," Day said. "That's what I love about quilts - you change the color and dimensions a little bit and get a whole different feel."
Quilts on display root from a variety of local sources from around Collin County, including the Women's Missionary Union of Texas, First Baptist Church of McKinney and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Auxiliary. Quilt historians, brought on for the exhibit, determined their authenticity, Day said.
Area residents who wish to discover another potential story on their own hand-me-downs can do so March 2 at Quilt ID Day at the center. Others who simply wish to hear history in motion can attend an old-fashioned bed-turning March 10, when lenders will explain each quilt's creation.
Thus far, Day said, the weekend exhibit has brought increased traffic to the center: artists, quilters and admirers of both genders. "We've had men come through who loved it because they appreciate it as a work of art and history," Day said.
Some quilts prove the county's cotton-growing background; others tell of long-ago tragedies, volunteerism and political elections. And they all do so through tedious handiwork, evidence of candle-lit labor strung across a century.
They show a still very living art, through a platform that could one day die. Until that day, along with words and memories the quilts will hold onto the region's history.
"It's interesting to see all the storylines that go through these," Day said. "It's important for people to have access to them because they preserve our past."
The North Texas History Center is at 300 E. Virginia St. in downtown McKinney. For more information, visit collincountyhistoricalsociety.org.
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