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Quilts are more than scraps of fabric, but historic timelines that tell stories in thread

Historian Pamela Knight Stevenson gives her American Humanities lecture “Written in Thread: Arizona Women’s History Preserved in Their Quilts” Thursday evening at the Prescott Public Library.
Photo by Matt Hinshaw.

Historian Pamela Knight Stevenson gives her American Humanities lecture “Written in Thread: Arizona Women’s History Preserved in Their Quilts” Thursday evening at the Prescott Public Library.

PRESCOTT – Historian, author and retired television journalist Pamela Knight Stevenson of Tempe won a quilt raffle several years ago during a state quilter conference at the Sharlot Hall Museum.

A quilter, Stevenson said she loves the hand-pieced, hand-quilted and hand-embroidered lap quilt made by the Heritage Quilts Study Group of the Sharlot Hall Museum with its patchwork border and red embroidered center square of the historic Bashford House, a Victorian Queen Anne-style home that was once the governor’s mansion. That quilt has been a beloved guest of honor in Stevenson’s home.

On her visit to the Prescott Public Library this week to deliver her lecture, “Written in Thread: Arizona Women’s History Preserved in Their Quilts,” Stevenson brought the quilt to display. At the end of her presentation, she announced a decision. She is returning the quilt to its rightful home – the museum.

“I love it, but I feel it ought to be here,” said Stevenson, also a quilter.

Stevenson’s affection, and sense of historic connection, has developed over the last 30 years as she delved into the documentation of quilts made by Arizona’s frontier women, including Mexicans who married Anglo men and Native Americans, to give them an artistic outlet and tell their life stories. Stevenson wrote a book in 1992 called “Grand Endeavors: Vintage Arizona Quilts and Their Makers” that features many of the pre-1940 quilts documented through the Arizona Quilt Project.

At the lecture, Stevenson introduced some of the women who used their imagination combined with thread to paint portraits of their surroundings, to celebrate milestones and accomplishments, and to bring comfort and color into their homes.

One of the funnier stories was about a group of women in Tombstone who were witnesses to a murder outside the Bird Cage Saloon. At the time, the local sheriff’s wife was expecting a baby, and while the women were put in jail awaiting interrogation, they tore up their clothes made of silk and wool and designed those pieces into a Log-Cabin style baby quilt.

Prescott was home to a number of expert quilters, including Emma Andres who made an elaborate wall-sized quilt with the state’s 1912 logo and seal in the center. Still another is all applique blocks of Arizona’s desert and mountain scenery. She displayed a number of her quilts in Prescott at what she called “The Happiness Museum,” Stevenson said.

The spirit of the Southwest’s early female settlers is also evident in some of the quilt projects, Stevenson said.

One family apparently brought some quilts from Arkansas to Tempe only to have a house fire that destroyed almost everything in the home, she said. But when a wardrobe was opened it was discovered that the centers of several of the quilts were preserved. So they were stitched together into new quilts; one was a red, white and tan Drunkard’s Path style and another was a tulip pattern.

Those scraps of fabric were these women’s testament to “making do with what you have.”

Another Prescott quilter was Mary Smith Lawler, a Harvey Girl, who would drive a wagon from the Hillside mine to town to pick up mail, and often she was sent fabric pieces that she crafted into elaborate quilts. One was a technique described as a “Pine Tree Quilt,” each square designed like a pine tree.

“Her quilts were just amazing,” Stevenson said.

Unlike some quilts that have been lost to time, or neglected beyond repair, Stevenson said Lawler’s descendants “treasured” her threaded legacy. She advised the quilters in the room to be sure that they label, or somehow identify, their quilts for posterity.

With March recognized as Women’s History Month, Stevenson said it is a good time to consider what these Arizona ancestors contributed to the state’s history through simple scraps of fabric and thread. She showed quilts made out of wool samples and one clever version made from the early Pabst Blue Ribbon beer brand’s red, white and blue ribbons.

One Prescott quilter is said to have suggested that women who did not sew “just weren’t good women,” she said.

Document your quilt

Anyone wishing to document their quilts can do so by contacting azquiltdoc@yahoo.com For more information about the Arizona project, visit the Arizona Quilters Hall of Fame website: www.arizonaquiltershalloffame.org/

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