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Johnson County Museum's Quilt Exhibition Stitches Together Women's Stories, Past And Present

Johnson County Museum Archives
Women quilting together in 1956 at Shawnee Methodist Church.

The Johnson County Museum's Common Threads exhibition is a way into the area's history, but also connects women across time and space.

Quilting is a pastime of paradoxes. It’s at once considered an art form and an old-fashioned way of creating a very practical item. Techniques and patterns can be very complex, though the general concept is very simple.

A new exhibition at the Johnson County Museum, Common Threads, neatly stiches together all those loose pieces while simultaneously telling stories of the communities that created the quilts in the 1850s through the 1960s.

The art and activity of quilting continues to grow in popularity, and during the pandemic another paradox is especially striking because one crucial element is missing: Quilting is both a solitary activity and one that can be very sociable.

Mary McMurray, director of the Johnson County Museum, walks through the exhibition of 24 quilts and her eye lands on one from roughly 1870, made in Spring Hill, Kansas. It’s white and pink, stained and worn.

It’s a friendship quilt.

Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
This friendship quilt was made in the late 1800s in Spring Hill, Kansas, by 20 young women.

“What we wouldn’t give to be close to somebody working on a shared project,” McMurray says. She adds that she’s afraid she’s about to make herself cry, then pauses to explain that it happens to be her birthday.

Friendship quilts came out of a mid-1800s fad for collecting autographs. People carried around books and asked friends and acquaintances to sign them and pen messages—early social media. And that activity extended to quilting.

After McMurray collects herself, she says: “As we’re separate from our friends, and we don’t get to be all together, that idea of, like, how stitched into our hearts all of our friends are, and every bit of labor it took to put this together… I would take every minute of it, you know, to get to be stitching my friends’ names together.”

Quilt expert and author Barbara Brackman lives in Lawrence and gave a virtual talk at the start of the exhibition. She explains that friendship quilts in some parts of the country could be very elaborate, and she’s often able to identify where they were made by their styles.

For instance, a friendship quilt in Baltimore may have included many layers of appliqued flowers, while one in Philadelphia might have achieved a similar look by using cut-outs of flowers from pieces of fabric.

The Johnson County quilt includes the names of 20 young women who lived in the remote Ocheltree area of Spring Hill. It’s not elaborate and the women included no flowers.

Brackman says, “I think those girls weren’t very good sewers,” and laughs. She explains that in more urban areas the skill would have been sharpened by competition with their peers.

However, this and other quilts in the collection tell a largely rural story about what is now Kansas' wealthiest and most developed county.

In fact, curator Andrew Gustafson says, these quilts are a way into a past that many who currently live in the area may have no idea about.

“That really is the point of this section, to talk about these moments in Johnson County history, these moments for these families, their lives, and pull out other objects and photographs to tell their stories along with the quilts," he says. "The quilts are the entry point."

The pieces are part of the museum’s collection of about 45 quilts, all donated by the community over more than 50 years. But not all the quilts came with stories, particularly in the early days when volunteers ran the museum.

Eleven of the quilts, arranged in the center of the exhibition in a “flying geese” pattern, had ample data attached to them, and the curators and historians could piece together a story with not too much research.

Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
This quilt is made up of squares of the North Carolina Lily pattern. Julia Douglas stitched it in Shawnee in the late 1800s.

For instance, descendants of the Douglas family donated a quilt in a North Carolina Lily pattern. The Douglases moved to Shawnee in the 1860s. The museum used what they knew of the family to piece together a tale of a wealthy family’s life just after Kansas became a state.

Scottish immigrant Thomas Douglas was a “gentleman farmer”—in other words, very successful—and bred shorthorn cattle. His wife Julia stitched the quilt.

Julia’s diary casually mentions on one page that she made two quilts in one week—something a mother of six would not have had time for in a less affluent household. Her diary is on display, as is a ledger that includes purchases of steak and salmon, also indicators of wealth.

On the opposite end is a quilt that Marian Means created out of old neckties during the Depression. The Means family lived near Mission Hills and Wilson Means was a successful men’s necktie wholesaler.

Because few men needed neckties after the stock market crashed, Marian used the unwanted ties to create bags and quilts and sold them around the county to keep the family afloat.

“Every family, especially in the late 1800s when you couldn’t just run to a shopping center and buy a bedspread, would have been making their own quilts,” Gustafson says.

He says some of the stories are very specific to Kansas, but many connect to a larger national narrative.

Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
Women of the Starlight Quilters Guild created 36 mini quilts with the stars and fabric of a replica suffrage banner for an event at Shawnee Town over the summer. The squares are on display at the Johnson County Museum through January 23.

The exhibition also makes another connection across time. On the wall of the museum’s lobby are 36 mini-quilts sewn from a replica of suffragette Alice Paul’s banner that she created in 1920 to celebrate the ratification of the 19th amendment.

Shawnee Town Museum volunteer Diane Prather created the replica for a summer suffrage event in Shawnee. Eighteen gold and 18 purple stars plus their surrounding fabric became the material 36 members of the Starlight Quilters Guild used to create the tiny quilts on display.

Jean Turvey, the guild’s president, says, “They were all made in isolation, but when they’re put together, they’re a pretty impressive little group of quilts. None of them are even similar to each other.”

Turvey says for many in her guild of 100 members—and this guild is one of 15 in the metro—the isolation has been welcome in a way.

“We’re overjoyed when we can hunker down and stay at home and make beautiful, useful things,” Turvey says.

But that’s just one part of the art. Brackman says that unlike with the friendship quilts, a lot of the social aspect of quilting is practical.

Women cut up fabric and sew them back together alone, however, “it really is efficient to have people as a group doing the quilt, all three layers, because it’s a big unwieldy object and it takes forever,” Brackman says, then adds: “Plus there’s just hanging out.”

Until quilters can reunite over their art in person, they seem to take comfort in the idea that the quilts in the exhibition and those which millions of women continue to quilt today are a type of document.

“If you want to look at women’s lives in the past, you have very little to go by, but people save their quilts,” Brackman says. “They don’t save their crocheting, but they do save their quilts; it’s a link to women’s history.”

Common Threads at the Johnson County Museum runs through January 23, 2021 at 8788 Metcalf Avenue, Overland Park, KS 66212. Museum hours are Monday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission is: $6 adults; $5 seniors (ages 60 plus), veterans, and students (18 plus with Student ID); $4 children, ages 1 through 17; Under 1 free; Family Maximum Daily Fee $23.00

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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