How can something so simple mean so much to so many?
Quilts have four basic parts — backing, batting, pieced top and stitchery. Yet, sewn together, these random swatches of cloth define family, fine art, comfort and warmth.
Whether they were hand-sewn by an ancestor or bought retail, quilts are cocoons representing the loveliness of life and the sacredness of relationships.
Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum, 315 W. Ave. B, pushes the limits of quilt design with a new traveling exhibit, “Material Pulses,” presenting 17 works by seven fiber artists from the United States, Canada and United Kingdom.
“Material Pulses” is “the culmination of my mission to bring back the majesty, strength, and energy of textile works, particularly large quilts,” said exhibit curator Nancy Crow, artist and teacher.
The exhibition features quilts, mixed media and installation work. The scale of the works is king-sized — up to 101 inches high, dramatic in their scale. The display is chockablock with color, pattern, and size through traditional and experimental quilt-making applications.
Traditional quilt designs are as diverse as those who made them. Although women were considered to have the deftest hands for fine needles and threads, men also enjoyed participating in quilting gatherings — called “bees.”
A 1932 issue of the Belton Journal reported on the “aesthetic success” of a quilt show to benefit Belton’s First Methodist Church. One room was devoted entirely to home-spun entries featuring traditional designs — diamond, star, flower garden, drunkard’s path, basket, Dresden plate, double wedding ring and diamond. Other quilts grossed generous sums of $30 or more for the church.
The current museum exhibit, however, pushes those themes into new realms. “The works feature abstract expressions, large, forceful presence and the freedom to use color joyously. Making a quilt is a physical activity, involving piecing parts on working spaces that can span entire walls,” said museum curator Angela McCleaf.
Quilters today inherit ancient needlecraft skills passed down from their foremothers. Proof of quilting can be can be traced back to ancient Egypt, said Kimberley Lynn Levacy in her scholarly study, “Sew Complete: Texas Women Quilting through the Hard Times” (Texas Tech University, 1997). Evidence of quilted fabrics — layers of cloth sewn together in decorative patterns — can be found on all continents throughout the past two millennia.
In 20th century Bell County, especially among low-income and rural families, quilting allowed families the chance to recycle old clothing and textiles. As households became more prosperous, downtown Temple and Belton dry goods stores sold special quilting fabrics along with sewing notions, as indicated by advertisements in the local newspapers. The demand for new fabrics and designs remained high and ultimately gave quilters more freedom to experience with form and color while expanding limits of quilts’ function.
Quilts also gave women opportunities to raise money — either for themselves as a cottage industry or for others. In mid-1917, just a few months after the United States entered World War I, Bell County residents immediately busied themselves with raising funds for the war effort.
That’s when Jesse Knight Hughes (1864-1942) of Troy while visiting Carthage, Mo., was inspired by a fund-raising scheme. A women’s group there had donated a quilt, which was auctioned by the Red Cross. The winner paid his price, then donated the quilt back for a second auction. The Red Cross auctioned it a third time, this time raising more money. That winner, too, donated funds and donated back to the Red Cross. And on and on the auction went for 12 more times until the home-spun quilt reaped $200.
Hughes wondered why Bell County couldn’t do the same.
Finally, after a dozen auctions, Hughes stood up amid the Carthage bidders. “Gentlemen, I am a stranger among you, but I want to buy that quilt. I am not going to give it back to you. I am going to take it back with me and sell it in my home county. I promise you that it shall being more than you pay for it here today, no matter what you pay,” he said.
Hughes won the quilt and brought it back to Troy.
He first enlisted enthusiastic support from Harrett Evaline “Eva” Hughes Winfrey (1871-1950), Ethel Bowers Ellis (1881-1953) and Cathereene Agnes McGrail (1882-1957), who helped schedule auctions.
Hughes first took the quilt to a Belfalls auction, where it reaped $116 for the Red Cross. The high bidder donated it back. Hughes then presented it to a Red Cross auction in Troy, where it sold for $259. The next night, Pendleton residents generously opened their pocketbooks for another $200 and donated the quilt back to Hughes for another auction.
The quilt auction initiated a friendly competition among the county’s towns, all to support the Red Cross and the soldiers overseas. By the time the quilt made its way to Temple, the quilt had been sold more than 75 different times in Bell County, grossing more than $1,000 for the Red Cross by January 1918, reported the Temple Daily Telegram.
Not to be outdone, Killeen schoolchildren in January 1918 devoted their recess and play time to sew a quilt which they donated to their Red Cross chapter for another benefit auction.
Quilting, like all other art forms, has evolved over the century, as the Railroad and Heritage Museum’s current exhibit proves.
“(Women) no longer were quilting because they needed to, however. Now, they quilted simply because they enjoyed it as an art form and a social activity,” said Levacy. “Clearly, they took pride in their creations. In the end, they had not only created something of value, they had also created for themselves a sense of value. These quilts were not a mere bedcover, or just a work of art. They were an acknowledgement of a woman’s talent and skill.”
And, as Central Texans would attest, supporting soldiers “over there.”