Quilts have been part of Phyllis Haders's world since her earliest childhood in rural Indiana. Her aunts, her mother, and her grandmother all made quilts. They instilled in her a love and appreciation for this intricate needle skill that has developed into a lifelong interest and has made her one of the country's leading experts on American quilts.
She has acquired a personal collection of fine examples and sells, by appointment, to buyers who come from as far afield as Germany, Switzerland, and Japan. She also gives illustrated lectures on the art of quiltmaking and has written two books on the subject of quilt-collecting.
Mrs. Haders's Manhattan apartment and her weekend home in Connecticut are both decorated with stunning quilts. Over the years she has been able to convert her husband, businessman Richard Haders, into a quilt-lover, too. They have been able to pursue their common interest together, searching out top-quality quilts at auctions, country flea markets, and house and estate sales. Their quest never ends.
When she was a little girl, Mrs. Haders remembers, her mother put a different quilt on her bed with every change of season. This meant she had an endless variety of patterns and designs to look at, delight in, and touch. Each quilt had a distinct character of its own, and each, in its own way, became a loved object.
It was at her grandmother's home in Elwood, Ind., that she first became acquainted with the quiet ritual of quilting. There she discovered the wondrous scrap bag of leftover fabrics and learned to choose solid and printed pieces that could be worked into interesting pieced squares.
As a young girl riding by an Indiana Amish homestead, she once saw a quilt on the clothesline that vividly impressed her with its breathtaking beauty and rare colors. She has never forgotten it: "It combined violet, red, turquoise, and blue on a background of black and its pattern was stark -- simple slashes of color flowing over that somber background. I decided then that I would like to know these people who were capable of creating such strange beauty. In the years since, I haven't ceased in my search for an understanding of the Amish people and their unique quilts.
Some of this quest was recorded in her book "Sunshine and Shadow: The Amish and Their Quilts" which was published by the Main Street Press of Clinton, N.J., in 1976 and is now available in a Universe Books paperback. Her newest book, "The Warner Collector's Guide to American Quilts," will be the next month published by Warner Books.
Asked how she had become such an expert she answers, "Study. I've developed my own library and gone to many libraries to study books on textiles. I've gone into the private storage areas of great museums in order to inspect quilts and textiles more closely. I've learned about dyes and fibers and how patterns were printed on fabrics a century or so ago. And I've traced the whole history of quilting back to ancient China, through Europe, and via the colonists, to America."
She notes how pioneer Americna women transformed the proud and venerable art of quilting with their inventiveness and decorative individuality. Their use of bold colors and abstract patterns brought a vivid new life to the old craft, which they infused with humor, fancifulness, and freedom. It is these qualities in quilts which have only recently been fully recognized, she says, and which qualify them as an important American art form.
The great decline in quiltmaking came after the Industrial Revolution, which made machine-made covers so cheaply available. The making of handmade quilts has always lingered in rural areas, she points out, and the skills and secrets of their construction and artistry have been preserved.
Mrs. Haders has watched the revival of interest in quilts and quilting over the past decade and the growing profusion of classes, courses, exhibitions, fairs, and literature on the subject. She is herself sometimes asked to judge quiltmaking contests which attract as many as 10,000 entries. This kind of response says a great deal, she feels, about the modern-day renaissance in quiltmaking.
She hastens to add that not all quilts made were great ones. "I've looked at thousands of quilts and seen hundreds and hundreds of bad ones. Not every woman knew how to combine colors to make that incredible, powerful explosion of design that makes you exclaim out loud when you unfold one of her quilts."
Mrs. Haders deals only in American antique quilts, which means Amish quilts made up to 1930, and other quilts made before 1890. Asked what makes a quilt a "collectible" as a work of art, the expert replies simple, "color, design and condition." She then elaborates:
"A truly collectible quilt has to be either the powerful interpretation, or the beautiful solf interpretation, of a creative person. The colors used, and their juxtaposition, is so important, as is the placing of the fabrics within the border, and what is done with the border itself. The execution that pulls it all together is vital, as is the general condition of the quilt. In certain quilts the quality of the quilting is very important, but in others, it means nothing. One must develop an eye and a feel for distinguishing qualities. This takes time."
The Haders's Manhattan apartment is a gallery of quilts. Many are framed to hang on off-white walls. They make such strong graphic statements, Mrs. Haders explains, that she believes no prints or paintings should be hung to compete with them. She finds that her other collections -- of blue Canton china, spongeware, and old baskets -- are good decorative complements. The hardwood floors in the apartment have been newly bleached and waxed. Upholstery is modern, and wood pieces are antique and warmly country or provincial in feeling.
Like many of us, Mrs. Haders recalls with sorrow the family quilts that she washed to pieces and used up. "When I married, my mother made as a wedding gift a beautiful appliqued rose quilt. She stuffed each flower and swagged the border so we could use it as a bedspread. I foolishly didn't realize what I had , and I didn't put it away when our two children came along. We just used it up , wore it out, and threw it away. The same happened with the only quilt I ever made completely myself. I made it for my son Stephen when he was very small, and he loved it and literally wore it out. Now I'm sorry I didn't save them."
She says, "The only comfort I take now is in the pleasure the quilts gave us as we were using them. I do still have one magnificent quilt that a great-grandmother made. It's all in turkey reds and white and is the flying geese pattern. It's in tatters, but I will never throw it out because her piecework and design is still so apparent, and so glorious."
For Phyllis Haders, who once had her own small couture shop in Cincinnati and who has always loved color and fabrics, quilts have been a calling, a hobby, a vocation, an avocation, and a lifelong love. "I'll always collect quilts and I'll always live with them, because they satisfy me so deeply," she says. "I'm glad other people have discovered them, too."
Mrs. Haders suggests the following books for beginning collectors:
"The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt," by Carrie A. Hall and Rose G. Kretzinger. New York: Crown Publishers.
"The Quilters," by Patricia Cooper and Norma Bradley Buferd. New York: Doubleday.
"The Pieced Quilt," by Jonathan Holstein. New York: New york Graphic Society.
"America's Quilts and Coverlets," by Carleton L. Safford and Robert Bishop. New York: E. P. Dutton.
"Quilts in America," by Patsy and Myron Orlofsky. New York: McGraw-Hill.