Radio_Double_SatW17.png

Blanket Statements: SDPB’s New Documentary Tells South Dakota’s Quilting Heritage

Last Updated by Katy Beem on

In the introduction to her book South Dakota Quilts and Quiltmakers (South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum, 2017), Dell Rapids quilt documentarian Mary Reecy Fitzgerald reminds readers that, unlike the numerous public works bearing masculine names in the Mt. Rushmore State, few statues, streets, or counties are named after women. Reecy Fitzgerald’s own corrective to the nomenclature gap is her deftly researched compendium of South Dakota quilts and their creators. For Reecy Fitzgerald, household items and the women who craft them for domestic use or decoration are too often overlooked and deserve commemoration. “I think that the average woman – the woman who helps keep it going, who raises a family, who takes care of the home, who probably manages the economics of the home – that’s the average person,” says Reecy Fitzgerald. “I don’t think she’s gotten very much acclaim. This was my way of saying women’s work is important and the family can record this by keeping memories of the treasures that they made. It isn’t just quilts, but that’s the one I chose.”

35222313683_2ea0c94d4a_k.jpg

Reecy Fitzgerald’s book is itself a skillful patchwork, containing photographs and histories of nearly 100 quilts as well as the biographies of their makers. Reecy Fitzgerald has lent her expertise to SDPB’s new documentary Points of Pride: South Dakota's Quilting Heritage, working closely with SDPB producer Stephanie Rissler to bring forth stories from the state’s quilting communities.

More than a blanket, a quilt and the narrative of its genesis and journey expands our understanding of the personal life and times of its creator. “The stories of these women are just fantastic,” says Reecy Fitzgerald. She cites a quilter who walked hundreds of miles through Nebraska and Dakota Territory to settle near Burke and a widow from the East Coast who, after moving herself and eight children to Dakota Territory, used her quilts to cover her cow and stuff cracks in her house to survive a blizzard. “That’s a brilliant woman,” says Reecy Fitzgerald. “She’s going to make this work.”

For Reecy Fitzgerald, historic quilts offer economic indicators of settler-era life. “The early opening of East River to homesteading and the later opening of West River, because of the Homestead Act, railroads and their aggressive advertising campaigns, make two distinct periods,” says Reecy Fitzgerald. “You can see it in the quilts, too. East River people came in with treasures from their families or they made quick quilts – like ‘crazies’ that are embellished heavily. By 1890 or 1900, they were making their own quilts, which means they had enough leisure time and their economic circumstances had improved enough that they could afford fabric. West River in 1890 or 1900, quilts were treasures from home and by 1930, they began to make their own quilts. It’s really interesting.”

Crazy, Sampler, Noonday, Japanese Fan. Wild Geese, Log Cabin, Wedding Ring, Six-Pointed Star. The names of quilt patterns are as evocative as the quilts themselves. Reecy Fitzgerald says while much of the country saw a downturn in quilt-making in the 1940s, South Dakota quilters were still going strong thanks to quilting circles and guilds. “Women would pick up their belongings and go to the neighbor’s house and quilt, talk, gossip, complain about their husbands, their kids, or the weather, tell the funny things that happened with their kids, their husbands, the weather,” says Reecy Fitzgerald. “So, it was a social thing for them.”

35861610782_bdbff08418_z.jpg

Quilter Vi Colombe of Mission belongs to the Centennial Quilting Club in Winner, which meets monthly. Although Colombe has received a Bush Artist Fellowship and filmmaker Ken Burns added four of her vibrant star quilts to his collection after seeing them at Rapid City’s Journey Museum, Colombe made her first quilt just 19 years ago, after the birth of her grandson. Since then, she’s traveled the country teaching classes on the Lone Star Quilt. Colombe, who is from the Modoc-Klamath tribes and trained in sewing and fashion design, moved to South Dakota from the West Coast. Her expertise in Star Quilts was partially born of expectations. “When I got invited anywhere, I was stereotyped,” says Colombe. “They wanted me to make Lone Stars; all of a sudden, I had to make Lone Stars. My tribe makes baskets. I don’t know how to make a basket.” She’s customized her Star Quilts. She designs her own patterns and learned to paper-paste behind the star and to split a diamond. Colombe says Star Quilts have a high degree of technical difficulty. “You’re working with a 45-degree angle. A lot of quilts have a 90-degree, and two 90’s square together great, but 45’s are difficult to put together.” Nonetheless, Colombe felt compelled to intensify the complexity. “I found I had to go to extremes to keep up. Women from all over the world make fantastic, elaborate, beautiful quilts. The quilting world is demanding and I kind of put the demand on myself.” Of the 100 quilts in her collection, 90 are round. “I guess it kind of came from my tribe. Baskets are round. In the Native world, everything they see is round. Our Earth is round, life is round, the birds have nests that are round. Along the line, I thought, ‘I can make a round quilt.’”

BookCover.jpeg

With Reecy Fitzgerald, Colombe provides commentary for SDPB’s new quilting documentary. As stunning and sought-after as Colombe’s quilts are, their modernity precluded inclusion in Reecy Fitzgerald’s book, whose documentation stops at 1970, before American quilting experienced a bicentennial boost. “I use the cutoff of 1970 because it was such a huge influx,” says Reecy Fitzgerald. “Not just the quilters but of designs and fabrics specifically for quilting.” Documenting the nearly 100 quilts for the book was an enormous undertaking Reecy Fitzgerald is not keen to repeat. “There was somebody who said, ‘Now you need to do from 1970 to present,’” says Reecy Fitzgerald. “I said, ‘No, but you can!’” Nevertheless, ideas for new books have recently surfaced in Reecy Fitzgerald’s mind. “I have an extensive collection of handkerchiefs, which sounds pretty mundane, but they’re from the 19th century.”

Reecy Fitzgerald offers a caveat about her introduction. “I want to add that men have supported not only the work that the women did, but gave support for the woman who has the right to have her time and be her person. And I’m thinking of my own husband. When there’s a pile of quilts in the living room, he walks around it. Nothing is done in a vacuum. It’s still a family. It takes the whole family supporting that.” 

Points of Pride: South Dakota’s Quilting Heritage premieres Saturday, November 25, 8pm (7 MT) on SDPB1.

subscribe to sdpb email updates food blog link image learning blog link image living blog link news and information blog link science and technology blog link sports blog link image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

Paul Horsted’s Epic National Parks Project

In The Moment ... November 22, 2017 Show 226 Hour 1 Paul Horsted has been making photographs for more than 35 years....

Cheech Marin On Art, Comedy, And American Identity

In The Moment ... November 13, 2017 Show 218 Hour 1 Cheech Marin is known as an actor, director, author, and...

In The Moment ... Artists Respond To The Reformation

In The Moment ... October 31, 2017 Show 210 Hour 1 What does it mean to drastically change in order to improve...

In The Moment ... The Art Of J. Steven Manolis

In The Moment ... October 5, 2017 Show 192 Hour 2 The "Painting Vermillion Red" art exhibit features the work of USD...

Books

Craig Tschetter: "15 Minutes Ago"

In The Moment ... December 13, 2017 Show 239 Hour 1 Author and Vietnam veteran Craig Tschetter joins In the Moment host Lori Walsh for a conversation about his book, "...

Book Talk With Jacqueline Palfy

In The Moment ... December 8, 2017 Show 236 Hour 1 What does another year of reading tell you about the world and...

Penguin Hotline: No Penguins Harmed In Search For Books

In The Moment ... November 29, 2017 Show 229 Hour 2 Inspired by the Butterball Turkey Hotline, the fine penguins...

Paul Horsted’s Epic National Parks Project

In The Moment ... November 22, 2017 Show 226 Hour 1 Paul Horsted has been making photographs for more than 35 years....

Music

Moment In Sound With Tammy Yonce

In The Moment ... December 8, 2017 Show 236 Hour 1 For this week's Moment in Sound we welcome Tammy Yonce, music...

Anjelic: A Woman Sits Quietly Beneath

In The Moment ... December 5, 2017 Show 233 Hour 1 The women of Anjelic have been making music together long enough...

History Of Handel's Messiah

In The Moment November 30, 2017 Show 230 Hour 1 The South Dakota Symphony Orchestra presents the Handel's Messiah...

Rock Garden Tour With "Flowerman" And "Oil Can"

In The Moment ... November 29, 2017 Show 229 Hour 2 Ted Heeren (Flowerman) and Tom Hurlbert (Oil Can) join us to...

Theater

Images of the Past: Stage To Screen

In The Moment ... November 27, 2017 Show 227 Hour 2 A new exhibit at the Old Courthouse Museum tells the story of...

Personalities: From Huron High to Broadway

Singer, actor, and teacher Joseph Mahowald graduated from Huron High School in 1977. He went on to study music and...

In The Moment ... Alex Meyer's Scenic Design

In The Moment ... May 10, 2017 Show 090 Hour 2 Alex Meyer. He's a junior art and theater major at Augustana College...

In The Moment ... Remembering Vietnam On Horseback

In The Moment ... May 9, 2017 Show 089 Hour 2 Colt Romberger’s father served in Vietnam, and it changed his life...