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Ravalli County Museum exhibits 'The Art & History of Quilts'

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Ravalli County Museum opened the new exhibit "The Art & History of Quilts" with a traditional bed turning last week.

Executive Director Michelle Nowling said the new exhibit is beautiful, has been on the docket since 2020 and will remain in place through Apple Day, Oct. 1.

“It was completely curated by the Heritage Quilters which is a mini group of the Bitterroot Quilters Guild,” she said. “They study antique quilts, accept blocks, create new things out of old blocks and do all kinds of really fun work.”

The Bitterroot Quilters Guild gathered 50 quilts for the exhibit from guild members, friends and from the museum’s collection.

“They collected all the stories about each quilt,” Nowling said. “They do all the leg work and we get to host it. We helped hang quilts, created all the labels and filled in some pieces from our collections. They did a beautiful job, it turned out so lovely.”

The Bitterroot Quilters Guild also offered instructions on how to care for an antique quilt and how to keep it looking nice. They developed a pamphlet in the exhibit for visitors to take about caring for antique quilts. For orphan quilt squares where there is not enough for a quilt, they can be turned into a table runner or a wall hanging.

Nearly 60 community members attended the exhibit launch that began with a bed turning. A bed turning is a traditional way for a woman to show off her quilts to her friends and family.

“She would gather her friends and family, provide refreshments,” Nowling said. “It is called a bed turning because you layer all the quilts you want to show off. You lay them flat on a bed one on top of another.”

The quilt on top is shown and its story is told then it is folded to the end of the bed or folded up and moved aside for the next quilt and its story. Everyone can gather around the bed and see the details.

“That’s what the ladies did,” Nowling said. “We put the bed up on the stage so they could talk about them, then fold them away. It was really fun and we had a good crowd with great questions. It was fun to watch the people enjoy the quilts.”

Although the museum asks people not to touch the quilts on display, there are a few hands-on elements — quilt terms with samples, personal quilt stories and designing a quilt.

The glossary of quilt terms is for people who aren’t familiar with quilting. Opposite each page or term, there is an example for touching to bring a better understanding of the different kinds of quilting and the different materials used.  

The station to write your quilt story is for pondering, writing and sharing.

“What is your past with quilts? How did quilts affect your life?” Nowling asked. “They can take it with them or hang it on our board for other visitors to see their story.”

A designing station provides interaction for community members of all ages to color, create a quilt and show their artistic side.

“Quilts are very artistic and very personal,” Nowling said.

She is a quilter who grew up quilting with her mother and grandmother. She has a few favorites in the exhibit.

“I love the iris quilt on the north wall,” she said. “I am very partial to the Dresden plate pattern and there are several Dresden plate quilts in there. There are so many fun quilts. I love traditional quilts, Civil War quilts, patterns and reproduction fabric. I’m very traditional.”

The Ravalli County Museum offers a tool exhibit in the room next door, for people who are uninterested in quilting.

“For those who feel they don’t like quilts I would ask them if they have ever slept under a quilt,” Nowling said. “Have you ever used one to keep warm? If so, quilts are part of your life even if you don’t recognize them as a passion. I think most people know what a quilt is, even if they don’t sew. If not, then they should come learn.”

She said quilts have existed for millennia and that quilting is an iconic American art form that began in Europe.  

“That is where those skills came from,” Nowling said. “American quilt making is unique, they took it and ran with it. It was a way for women to express themselves and express their artistic nature. Quilts have been used to tell stories. I think about the underground railroad where quilts were often a symbol of safe houses, often a map for folks that couldn’t read.”

The social aspects of quilting are historical too as they brought women together for “quilting bees.”

“They would share fabric, share patterns, get together to work,” Nowling said.

She said quilts were used to preserve family memories especially as people moved west.

“Friends and family would get together and make a quilt for people to take with them,” Nowling said. “It was a remembrance, they could say, ‘this was from grandma’s dress’ or ‘this was grandpa’s shirt.’ It was a way to keep stories alive before there were photo albums.”

In the Bitterroot Valley, the history of quilting is strong. There are currently over 40 members in the Bitterroot Quilters Guild which has mini-groups that gather for making special quilts. The Quilts for Kids group makes quilts for children and donate them to SAFE and the police department. The Comforter’s group makes quilts for the hospital and hospice. There is an Art Quilter’s group that makes more artistic and modern quilts and wall hangings.

“There are the Heritage Quilters and a couple of other mini-groups,” Nowling said. “It is a way for you to find your people, so to speak, and to learn new skills. I joined a year ago and I’ve already learned new skills. They are wonderful people.”

The Bitterroot Quilters Guild meets at 6:30 p.m. at the Daly Leach Chapel on the fourth Wednesday of each month, except July. They have a booth at the Ravalli County Fair to raise money for a scholarships.

Enjoy "The Art & History of Quilts" at the Ravalli County Museum, 205 Bedford St. in Hamilton. For more information visit https://ravallimuseum.org/.

“We want people to come to see the quilts, come back and bring their visitors,” Nowling said.

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