Quintessential America

To Bee, or Not to Bee

Lynn Rice’s quilt shop of 30 years, A Touch of Amish, is the quilter’s ultimate gathering place in downtown Barrington

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By Barbara L. Benson

 

 

Lynn Rice stood in the Jewel Tea parking lot and looked over at the architecturally disparate row of houses along Applebee Street that in 1986 was still called Garfield Street. She noted a “For Sale” sign on Number 114, a charming cottage style building, and decided that it was ideal for her purpose.

Earlier that year, she had joined forces with a good friend, Susan Harris, to launch a venture in quilts and quilting. Susan had worked among the Amish people in Indiana and Wisconsin and had traveled to weekend shows at county fairgrounds to sell Amish quilts, toys, rugs, and even food products. Often she took her four children with her. Together with Lynn, she shared the idea of giving a wider market to the Amish for the remarkable products of their insular environment.

Rice, living in Barrington, also with young children, couldn’t envision Harris’ peripatetic lifestyle. But the two women wanted to work together. Rice, who had grown up in a needlework household where her mother was a fine seamstress had done some quilting, and saw herself more in a teaching role. She would create a gathering place for those who wanted to recreate the limitless elements of design and color to be found in quilts through the ages, but specially reflecting inspiration from the Amish.

With Number 114 purchased, planning for “A Touch of Amish” began. As opening day approached, Harris’ husband was transferred out of state, and Rice found herself the sole proprietor of a new business in the heart of downtown Barrington. She chose to go forward alone with her vision to have a center for quilting creativity in an age far removed from stitching by lamplight after the day’s chores were done.

Opening the Shop Doors

First, there were the supplies to be ordered—all the elements of quilting: the calicoes, the center filling or batting, the fabrics to back the quilts, the special threads and needles, the templates, and the pattern books identifying the designs by their whimsical folk art names, evolving from their origins in the pioneer days of America.

In this modern age there was a new element to Rice’s concept for her gathering place: sewing machines. Already some extraordinary quilts and quilted accessories, such as pillows and placemats, were being stitched on sewing machines by talented quilters, making a transition from the traditional hand-quilting by using a large frame, or held in a quilting hoop. That was quilting for less frenetic times—before a license plate might read “Mom’s Taxi”.

It did not take long for quilters to find A Touch of Amish. A few antique shops featured quilts for sale, and some classes were offered in needlework stores, but centers totally devoted to every aspect of quilting were rare. With an ever-increasing selection of the traditional calicoes, quilting bees, and a Quilt Block of the Month program (featuring a free “how-to” class for stitching that pattern), dozens of needle-workers came back to share the satisfaction of a stitched work of art with fellow quilters. While hand-quilting was the starting point, machine quilting techniques were reaching an intricacy that could rival the ancient traditions of hand-stitchery.

Long Before American Quilting

It has been established through archaeology that quilting was used for garments in ancient China and Egypt. And a few carefully preserved early textiles offer remarkable examples of the quilter’s art. In 1924, an expedition from the Leningrad Institute of Archaeology collected a quilted carpet from a tomb at Rostov on the Don comprised of two pieces of heavy linen completely covered with quilting in the backstitch form. With elaborate scenes of animals, plants, and trees worked into the “carpet” and the surrounding quilting designs of scrolls, spirals, feather-like twirls, and diamonds crossing through the border, there is a direct lineage to the stitchery designs in quilts through the ages.

Probably the oldest known quilts in existence are Sicilian in origin and were made for a marriage in 1395. Depicting the Legend of Tristram, the three quilts are very large, also quilted in backstitch through two layers of linen with the important scenes outlined in brown thread and raised with wadding, or trapuntoed. The quilt in the best condition is in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the second in the Bargello Museum in Florence, and the third in a private collection in Florence.

Only surviving household inventories offer evidence of quilted bedcoverings and garments during the Middle Ages. But the Renaissance saw a flowering of glorious needlework, including quilting. Elaborate applique, and embroidery using silks, satins velvets, and threadwork of gold and silver proliferated, with some of the richest work being done for the church, and well-preserved. Quilting as we would recognize it today came into its full glory in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries in England. Bedcoverings were only a part of this wonderful outpouring of the quilter’s art. Clothing was elegant with rich fabrics, exquisitely embroidered and quilted. Satin vests and waistcoats, petticoats, overskirts, bodices, and bonnets were ornamented with tiny rows of stitches less than a quarter of an inch apart.

It is recorded that Queen Elizabeth the First had almost a thousand dresses in her wardrobe when she died, many of them embroidered with precious stones on top of quilting with threads that were actually gold and silver wires. Mary, Queen of Scots, quilted as she waited for Elizabeth to decide her fate. Some of this work survives.

Quilting in Early America

In the middle of these three great centuries of the quilter’s art, the American story begins. While some quilts may have been brought along by the Pilgrims, it was predominantly in the quilted clothes, especially the linsey-woolsey petticoats worn by the women that a domestic art, destined to become quintessentially American, was first brought to these shores. In those early days of few conveniences and limited supplies, it could be said that recycling had its origins. As clothes wore out, the better parts of them were cut out by resourceful women and stitched into the original crazy patch quilts of New England. The patterns used for the quilting were the traditional ones from the old country, but the names for the patchwork patterns were entirely new and form an authentic and vivid part of Americana.

The women named them after their colonies, their husbands’ occupations, their dreams, their frustrations, their God, and stories from the Bible. Gradually, as the colonies established themselves, local spinning, weaving, and dyeing grew, and trade developed. The rag bag could be embellished with new fabrics for quilts. The story became not a Trail of Tears, but a trail of quilt patterns: If you follow the Lone Star down the Rocky Road to California, you may wind up on a Drunkard’s Path doing a Virginia Reel. But you will sleep very well that night in a Log Cabin surrounded by a Grandmother’s Flower Garden. The names are an echo of American history, evolving as the settlers pieced their scraps together and struggled to make their homes as comfortable as possible in the most primitive of circumstances.

One aspect of the American story remains unique, the quilting bee. This neighborly and social custom of communal solidarity spread throughout the country. In small towns and villages, entire days were devoted by women and girls of all ages to these celebrations, because they stitched happily with a generous purpose. A quilt for the minister’s wife, for a daughter’s marriage, to commemorate a wedding anniversary, a quilt for a christening; the reasons were numerous, and the quilt tops were ready for a day around the quilt frame. A sideboard laden with good food provided the ultimate enjoyment of the gathering.

Quilts stitched at home or in the conviviality of the quilting bee became a part of everyday American life, and the multitude of patterns proliferated as the country opened Westward, with designs often reflecting local history and customs among earlier peoples. This abundance of quilts and quilting continued well into the 20th century. Automation entered the field and by the 1930s, elegant quilt kits, such as those produced by Stearns and Foster, were sold in fine needlework departments of stores like Marshall, Field & Company.

With the onset of the Second World War, a lot of stitchery was put aside as women went to work. Quilts disappeared into attics and trunks, or were simply used and washed until they fell apart—except among one group of people, the Amish. Only years later would the true extent of their achievement in making quilts of geometric designs in plain, brilliantly colored fabrics emerge on the world stage to become coveted works of art.

In 1972, a young couple, Gail and Jonathan Holstein, offered their collection of American pieced quilts, many of them Amish, for a successful exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York. Likened to the work of painters such as Mondrian, the exhibit traveled to London and Paris, offering a window into the domestic arts of the New World. Suddenly, quilts finished and unfinished came out of mothballs, and dealers were scouring the countryside for sellable examples to include in their Americana collections. Quilts and quilting were “in”.

Locally, in the Chicago area, a major shopping center, Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills (now Westfield) celebrated the bicentennial year with a major quilt exhibit drawing thousands of viewers over a three-day weekend. Other malls in the Chicago area followed, with quilt shows becoming annual events.

Happy Quilters

The success of A Touch of Amish in its first two years saw the cottage at 114 Garfield overflowing with bolts of fabrics, all the accessories of quilting, and happy quilters. Fortuitously, in 1988, the Village of Barrington decided to redevelop the entire Jewel Tea, Applebee/Garfield Street areas. Number 126 on the corner became available, and there was the possibility of salvaging a house next door from demolition. With a clear vision, Rice went ahead.

The two buildings were brought together across from the Ice House Mall, and joined at the center with soaring gallery-like spaces to display quilts. The rooms with specially-built shelving rapidly housed a selection of over 6,000 bolts of fabric arrayed in color ranges, the largest selection anywhere. The lower level became a classroom; walls held special display units for an ever-increasing range of the tools of quilting.

Rice has never ceased, for over 30 years, to teach, inspire, and expand the possibilities for todays’ quilters, bearing in mind how far their lives are removed from those of their ancestors in quilting. Such groups as the Thimbleberries Quilt Club and Jo Morton’s Little Women Club rekindle the social aspect of quilting of yesteryear. Rice is presently introducing a new “tool of her trade”. After scissors and rotary cutters, an Accuquilt machine has arrived, allowing for the cutting of multiple quilt pieces at one time through the insertion of square, triangle, strip, and diamond shaped dyes available in kits. Enthusiasm for ways of creating new quilts is always high at A Touch of Amish.

Both Rice, her knowledgeable and loyal staff, and her quilters, have donated hundreds of quilts to different organizations, and Rice has kept her Amish connections, occasionally bringing quilters from Indiana to spend a day hand-quilting a top that is already prepared for them on a frame.

What a Quilt Knows

Marguerite Ickis, a well-known collector of quilts, received a moving reminiscence from her great-grandmother who lived in Ohio:

“It took me more than 20 years, nearly 25, I reckon, in the evening after supper when the children were all put to bed. My whole life is in that quilt. It scares me sometimes when I look at it. All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces. When I was proud of the boys and when I was downright provoked and angry at them. When the girls annoyed me, or when they gave me a warm feeling around my heart. And John too, he was stitched into that quilt and all the 30 years we were married. Sometimes I loved him and sometimes I sat there hating him as I pieced the patches together. So they are all in that quilt—my hopes, and fears, my joys and sorrows, my loves and hates. I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me.”

Such deep emotions might not prevail among the quilters who frequent A Touch of Amish, but certain it is that from Lynn Rice they absorb an ability to find quiet spaces within themselves; their quilting becomes a respite as the patches are pieced together, the layers are quilted with those feathered and spiral designs, and they have followed in the cherished tradition of creating their own quintessentially American quilt.

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During the 1970s, Barbara L. Benson and her sister-in-law, Barbara Leech, owned the Walrus Quilt Shop in Deerfield where they sold quilts, conducted classes, and also presented the Quilt Shows that were held at Hawthorn Center, Fox Valley Center, and Orland Square Mall. On a visit to London in 1976, Barbara Benson was taken to the attic store rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum and viewed its 1396 Legend of Tristram Quilt. Scenes from the Legend of Tristram are quilted on linen with brown thread. They were Sicilian quilts depicting Tristram, a Knight of the Round Table (like the one above) that pictured episodes placed randomly.

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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They’ll all be about Americans doing what we do best—sharing, helping, living.