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Quilts; biographies written stitch by stitch

They stand in line, hundreds of them, sometimes in the rain, waiting patiently like groupies at the rock star's stage door. Most are women. They fish egg salad sandwiches from needlepoint purses and pass the time talking of Flower Gardens, Log Cabins, Double Irish Chains, and Lone Stars and boasting of how their grandmothers did it.

They are all waiting outside the Oakland Museum to see an exhibition of the art form which, according to an 1883 issue of "Arthur's Home Magazine," once covered three-quarters of he beds in this country: quilts.

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Much to the astonishment of museum officials here, the show "American Quilts, A Handmade Legacy" which recently closed, has broken all previous attendance records.In the 12 years since the Oakland Museum (one of the great but lesser-known museums in this country) opened its doors, no exhibition -- not even major shows of such folk heroes as photographer Ansel Adams, sculptor Alexander Calder, and West Coast painters Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud -- has attracted the throngs who have come to see these soft, humble documents of often anonymous women's lives.

During the final days of the exhibition, the Oakland Museum looked like Macy's bargain-basement sale. I found Inez Brooks-Myers, the museum curator who helped organize the show, directing the crowds at the front door. "It's popular because it's human," she said. "It's an exhibit of nice, soft, cozy, comfortable artifacts that have a deep connection to the lives of the people who made them. Women today have become more aware of the importance of family history. In the 19th century most women didn't keep diaries and journals and weren't really instructed how to read or write. They were taught to be efficient housewives. And how would you like to stand around all day stirring clothes with a stick?"

On that note, she gestured to a quilt across the room, whispered "I've learned to be a great blocker," and lowered a shoulder into the elbow-to-elbow crowd. I followed in her wake and spent much of that day wandering among the 100 quilts, hieroglyphs of lives past, tactile autobiographies stitched on modest calico and elegant taffeta, satin, and velvet.

Touring a quilt show gives one a warm and intimate feeling of being told the secrets of women who artfully stitched their wisdom and sorrow into everday bedcovers, never knowing they would be remembered for their tedious housework. But, points out James Deetz, a historical archaeologist with the University of California: "In the seemingly little an insignificant things that accumulate to create a lifetime, the essence of our existence is captured."

For many 19th-century women, their quilts became their diaries, and quilting, a metaphor for living. "You're given just so much to work with in a life," says west Texas quilter Mary White, "and you have to do the best you can with what you got, That's what [quilt] piecing is. The material is passed on to you or is all you can afford to buy . . . that's just what's given to you. Your fate. But the way you put them together is your business. You can put them in any order you like."

During this century the electric blanket relegated handstitched quilts to the bottoms of cedar chests and baby cribs. Only in the last decade, with the convergence of such cultural vectors as the women's movement, the bicentennial historic preservation phenomenon, the family history "Roots" craze, and the resurgence of interest in American folk art and textiles, has "quiltmania" swept this country. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held the first major exhibition of quilts in 1971, and now, according to Inez Brooks-Myers, "any community you can name has a quilting group."

Quilt collecting has become fashionable, even faddish, and yet without seeing a large collection of 19th-century quilts such as those at the Oakland Museum, it is improbable that any of us from this era of double-knit polyester can appreciate the importance quilts played a century ago. They wove together a lifetime from birth through marriage, into community and religion.

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In the 19th century, the age when men were known for the well-made play and women for the well-made bed, sewing was a female survival skill, particularly prior to the 1846 invention of the sewing machine. In addition to cooking, washing, and child-rearing, women were responsible for making and mending clothes, towels, tablecloths, and, of course, bedcovers. Quilted bedcovers were somewhat of a relief from the drudgery of standard thimble and needle work because they were not only utilitarian but artistic.

Quilts were made for the family in town moving away. Mothers provided their sons and daughters with a set of quilts when they left home to start their own households. Quilts were important symbols of affection during courtship; traditionally, the bridal quilt was the quiltmaker's finest. Quilts were the silver and gold of a pioneer woman's dowry and were always listed in women's wills, frequently at the top.

Quilting drew women together at quilting bees, county fair competitions, church fund-raisers. It provided a network for women to exchange political and religious news and gossip. Quilts were handmade legacies passed down through generations. It was a rare baby who wasn't swaddled in one of grandmother's delicate quilts.

"Children grow up with the legends of quiltmakers," says contemporary quilter Nancy Betts, "the long-gone ladies who so cherished them as to wrap them in such carefully made warmth and color. It's a unique kind of love. You know it is good for children to know that someone who did not know them, and who they do not know, wanted them to have a quilt just for being born, not for being good, just for being."

And frequently the giving of a quilt was a gift to the giver. Wrote Lydia Maria Child, author of "The American Frugal Housewife," in 1882: "I made and quilted in my lap the prettiest little crib quilt you ever saw. it was really a relief to my mind to be doing something for an innocent little baby in these dreadful times."

Quilting was a principal means of socializing little girls, teaching them not only a sense of color and design but also qualities of perserverence, thrift, discipline, and maternity. On display in Oakland was an Hourglass quilt of 15, 000 tiny bits of cloth pieced together by 15-year-old Sarah Streather. Nearby is another quilt constructed from 33,000 pieces of store-bought silks which one Sarah Haynes, living outside Detroit, Spent "17 years and one day" sewing together. Near the entrance of the exhibit was another Sistine Chapel of quilts called the Vine of Life, a masterful work which Susan McCord of Indiana made from scraps of her children's and grandchildren's clothing. They were not without a sense of humor either. Marion Goddard of Healdsburg, Calif., quilted a pillow sham from yellow silk cigar bands.

A number of the 19th-century quilters were apparently aware their quilts would outsurvive them, and frequently stitched messages into their fabric for posterity's sake. One anonymous quilter admonishes her son: "Walter, Remember Mother." Another woman who came from Norton, England to America, Commemorated her own birth, with the inscription in a Medallion Quilt: "Frances Asman/Born July 19, 1982/Norton." According to the family history of Hattie Wanner, a quilter from Pennsylvania Dutch country, her message to the future was more somber. Throughout her youth she pieced together bright colorful quilts, but became extremely depressed in later years, and dyed all of her quilts black.

As a contrast to the work of 19th-century women, the exhibit also featured the crafts of seven contemporary American quilters carrying on the tradition. "Nowadays we buy yard goods, cut them into little pieces and then sew them back together," says Susanna Calderon, a woman with salt-and-pepper hair and a determined look, who quilts in the upstairs of an old barn in northern California. "It's ridiculous, on one level. i mean, why do that? Except there is the urge to make pattern and repetitive patterns function a little bit like mantras and the mandalas do in Eastern Religion -- speak to something very deep."

Nora Lee Condra, a robust woman who comes from a long line of Mississippi quilters, finds the old sense of community and religion in the craft. "Black and white all quilted together. When you're quilting and piecing quilting together you get to know each other and you're more connected about each other because you have a feeling for that person. . . . When you quilt, a lot of time you say 'Lord' as you quilt, just the needle going through, 'Lord.' Well, it looks like the needle is saying that. And as you do it, the more you do it, the more you want to do it and it's just prayer. By the help of God I can do it. And you can."

Quilt shows, like the in Oakland, can turn into modern-day quilting bees. Standing in line or wandering through the exhibit, quilters rub shoulders, exchange patterns and stitches, and share news about their local quilting clubs. Dorothy Zumwalt is a third-generation quilter who belongs to the Sonoma County Quilters Workshop north of San Francisco. "My mother quilted during the Depression when we lived in Kansas City," she says. "People would send quilts from Canada and California and she could do three quilts a day. We missed many a meal while my mother was talking quilt. Not all of us can paint a picture so this is what we do.

"I have two cedar chests full f quilts: two Flower Gardens, a Texas Star, two Dogwood, a Dresden Plate, an Ice Cream, and a quilt made entirely from the scraps of silk bathing suits. I'm here today with my daughter Rosemary, who's never quilted before. She teaches anthropology and has to give a lecture on quilting in her folklore class. She's here to learn all about it. That's my Rosemary!"

As would be expected, quilt shows are frequented by proud mothers and daughters like the Zumwalts, and only occasionally will you see dad or little brother in tow. As it turns out, however, not all of the quilts in the Oakland show were made by women. There is one quilt dated 1893 which defies the stereotype that (1) quilting is a woman's activitiy, and (2) that quilts are passed "down" in the family. The 1893 Crazy Album Quilt was made by the More children -- four boys and their sister -- as a Christmas present for their grandmother in Oakland, Calif. Strewn with missed stitches and wandering scissor marks that are so endearing to grandparents, the quilt is 16 black and maroon velvet squares embroidered with pictures of the family's pet dogs "Uno," "Bruno, " and "Count," who are illustrated heroically saving the livestock from roving wolves.

Throughout the four-month exhibition in Oakland, the museum held "quilt sharing" sessions to which community members brought in their own quilts and quilting stories.One woman told of her father, a master quilter, who worked meticulously at home on his quilts, but would immediately run to his armchair and take up the newspaper whenever his dog barked. The bark meant a visitor was coming up the path, and apparently father was too proud to confess his fondless for "women's work."

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