Love, Legacy, and the Quilters of South Dakota

Last Updated by Lori Walsh on
photo by Lori Walsh

When my grandmther died, the quilt that draped over her bed found its way to my house.

I draped it over a quilt rack (safe from the family dog) and hung it where I could see it every morning when I awoke.

When I opened Mary Fitzgerald's delightful new book "South Dakota Quilts and Quiltmakers" I immediately recognized the pattern on one of the featured quilts ... Whig Rose. My grandmother's quilt, crafted by my great grandmother, blossoms with a strikingly similiar, if not quite identical, design.

I come from a long line of fiber artists: Quilters and needlepoint artists and rug hookers. It's a legacy I hope someday to live up to, though lately I work far more with my mind than with my hands. It's unfortunate, really, because stitching has always done wonders for clarity of thought.

Mary and I talked about the role of women in South Dakota history. We talked about thrift and wealth and how quilters often signed their work in surprising ways.

Hers is a a book that looks at the past while carrying us to the future, holding its own place as a part of South Dakota history. The best part of this journey for me, however, was the moment I knew I just had to call my aunt to talk with her about the quilt.

I'm taking care of it, I promised.

Are you refolding it three times a year, she wanted to know. You need to do that too.

I hadn't thought of that, I confessed.

Where would we be without the women who came before us? How would we manage without them?

The following is an edited version of this conversation. If you would like to listen to it in its entirety, click here.

Lori Walsh:

Welcome back to In the Moment, I'm Lori Walsh. It's time to get the sweaters out of summer storage and lay the quilts back onto your bed as we celebrate fall with a new book from Mary Reecy Fitzgerald. It looks at South Dakota Quilts and Quiltmakers. She joins us now from inside the Black Hills Surgical Hospital Studio in SDPB's Black Hills Bureau. Mary Fitzgerald, welcome to In the Moment.

Mary Fitzgerald:

Thank you.

Lori Walsh:

It is a beautiful book. It is a hardcover book, full-color, coffee table book. Tell me how this project and the book began.

Mary Fitzgerald:

Well, that's a long time ago, isn't it? I have always been interested in sewing as an art by itself, and then my mother, bless her heart, decided that I should know how to quilt, too, about the bicentennial time. And so I started quilting and it brought me to the point where I thought, "There's more to history here than we're giving credit for."

I belong to the American Quilt Study Group that studies history of textiles, particularly in the United States, but worldwide. And that inspired me to go forward and work on the quilt documentation of South Dakota.

Lori Walsh:

When do you remember making that connection, between just admiring the beauty and the artistry of the quilt to  thinking about the history, specifically the history of women and in quilt making?

Mary Fitzgerald:

I think that history has been one of my passions forever. As long as textiles have been. So I think it was kind of a natural marriage, that I could see, for instance, on samplers, you see this name. Who is this name? Who? Is this actually a person? Or is it just a name? So I needed to make the connection with the actual person.

Lori Walsh:

I was reading through the introduction and the front-matter of the book, talking about the documentation process, and how sometimes people would bring a quilt in and not realize that that name was somewhere present on the quilt and discover it through this process. Tell me what that is like and where should people look for that kind of signature on a quilt?

Mary Fitzgerald:

Well, some of them are really obvious. I remember one in particular, she was telling me how her children had used it all through grade school and through college and they loved this quilt and they didn't know much more about it. I turned it over, and there was the signature of the maker on the backside. They were enjoying the warmth and the beauty and, you know, you don't look deeply at things sometimes.

Another one is that sometimes the embroidered names or dates are buried within the context of the quilt itself, and you have to really be looking for them. There's a particular one that I found that had the names of the maker and the sister and dates in the quilting itself.

So when you use cursive and you try to quilt around it in like a half-inch size, it's really difficult to read. So you look for anomalies in the quilting, that don't fit the rest of the pattern, and then you can work out what it says. To some degree. You can't figure out all of the letters. A's and O's look a lot alike.

Lori Walsh:

My grandmother taught me when you do this kind of work, you must sign it somewhere. That was a big thing for her.

Mary Fitzgerald:

Bless her heart. She's right on.

Lori Walsh:

She quilted, she needle-pointed, she hooked rugs.

And that was one of the things she passed down. She's like, "You're going to wish that you had put your initials on there somewhere in the future." Fascinating.

Mary Fitzgerald:

And maybe the date.

Lori Walsh:

Yes, and the date.

Lori Walsh:

Looking through the book and the first, the quilt that I opened up to is the same pattern of the quilt that hangs on my wall on a quilt rack and it's called Whig Rose or Conventional Rose. How popular was that sort of pattern?

Mary Fitzgerald:

It was fairly popular among the wealthier people. Of course, it took more wealth to make a pattern like that because we're talking applique.

And it's kind of a waste of fabric to put perfectly good fabric over perfectly good fabric. So you had to have some kind of wealth to allow for that. In the East, it was fairly popular. There are a number of different patterns along that line with different names. And I am thrilled to hear that you have a Whig Rose. That is wonderful.

Lori Walsh:

This was on my grandmother's bed until the day that she died, and now I have a dog, so it's not on my bed.

Mary Fitzgerald:

Oh, good.

Lori Walsh:

Because the dog often is, alas. So it's still hanging. Can you figure out how old the quilt is by looking at it? When people brought their quilts in, is it the pattern? Is it the fabric itself? How do you date something?

Mary Fitzgerald:

It's a combination of those two, plus if they have some idea who made it and when they died, when they were born, it gives us a context. But the fabric print is the one thing that we can be most sure about. They didn't have stashes like we had, you know.

I bought a batik in 2000 and it's still in my stash. They pretty much used things up as they went along. So if there was anything leftover, it was very small pieces. The exception to that might be early on people, women, wore quilted petticoats and you know, they were the petticoats that the dress was open in the front. It was a sort of a chemise. So the petticoat showed.

Well, when the rest of the garment would wear out, they'd take that quilted piece and incorporate that or recycle into something else. So there are these petticoat pieces that are in quilts. So that kind of throws you off. We don't have textiles quite that old out here in South Dakota unless they were brought with them. The earliest one I saw was 1782, I think. Then the next one was like 1810. So it's unusual to find the really old ones.

Lori Walsh:

When I looked, you know, down at the book and up at my wall and I realized that's the pattern that I'm looking at, I noticed there are definitely differences in how the quilts are interpreted ...  the pattern versus the one you have in the book. Did they have, like we would today, some kind of kit? Or a this is how you make this pattern passed down? Would they look at things and interpret them themselves?

Mary Fitzgerald:

They didn't have patterns or books or instructions like we have now. I remember reading some time ago a woman was walking down the street and she saw a crochet pattern she liked on another woman's dress. So she followed her and she said she was stealing it with her eyes. And I think that that is a good way of putting how women found these patterns.

I think I have said before, you can give a woman a pattern, but you can't make her follow it. She is going to interpret it her own way. So if they saw this lovely Whig pattern, they'd get home and they will forget what the turn of the stem was or how big the flower was or the exact color. So it becomes her interpretation. And since there weren't patterns, you stole with your eyes. You interpreted in your own way.

Lori Walsh:

What are your hopes for this book? I mean, the project itself, of documenting these quilts is ongoing. The book is something that would sit on a person's shelf and be used and opened and flipped through and shared for generations itself. Did you have an awareness as you did this project that what you were doing was not only capturing all these moments in history but would last for the future and sort of move the narrative forward?

Mary Fitzgerald:

Not until you just said that. But I really, that makes me feel good.

Lori Walsh:

I'm sort of in awe as I look through it. For people who are still, you know, creating fiber arts in this day, it also elevates it to its rightful position. To say that this matters.

Mary Fitzgerald:

I agree with you entirely. I think one of the things that I noticed as I was going along there were a lot of pieces of information I recorded and I only researched five at the end of the book. And compared them, like the number of piece quilts as opposed to applique and so on.

But there's a lot of good information in there, and I am going to donate that so that it will be available to anyone who wants to research it. Look at other questions in there. Nationalities. Ethnicities. Types of patterns. Whatever they want. So it will be available for other people. And I think that's important, that we share what we have instead of holding it close to us and lose it.

Lori Walsh:

That was something else my grandmother taught. Share your recipes.

Mary Fitzgerald:

Yes. Because they can't all make them right anyway.

Lori Walsh:

That's exactly what she would say. And she would have people who would give her a recipe and then you would make it and they maybe left an ingredient out and that irritated her. She was like, "No, share the whole thing." This is sort of how we do it. Lessons from my grandmother from all these years ago.

Mary Fitzgerald:

That's wonderful.

Lori Walsh:

Mary, let's close with one more story of an interesting quilt or an interesting experience. Something in the book. And if you're just tuning in, the book is called South Dakota Quilts and Quiltmakers. One more story, Mary, and then I'll tell people about the documentary and some of the book signings.

Mary Fitzgerald:

Oh, my. There's so many stories. There's this quilt in there that was made was from muslin cigarette bags. I collected that documentation up at Mobridge. And it was so interesting, because this woman who brought it was bringing the work of her aunt.

And all of these little five inch square pieces of muslin bags that are left from loose tobacco is what she made the quilt from. She made at least three quilts like that. She had her father and her uncles, or her grandfather and her uncles smoked. She said she never saw them without a cigarette in their mouths.

So, I don't know how many bags there would have been in these three quilts. But just think about that monumental task, not only of making sure those men gave her those sacks every time. She took them apart, and put them back together. Cut them and put them back together as quilts. I just think that's amazing.

Lori Walsh:

Wow. That's remarkable. And maybe it's an unexpected benefit that you might know, but immediately as I was reading this and looking at the quilt, my grandmother's gone, I reached up and I called my aunt and we had a lovely conversation. I thought, "Well, that's another unexpected perk of this book," is those conversations that mostly women, some men, but women are going to have with the folks who came before us.

Mary Fitzgerald:

And I say to them, talk to your parents or grandparents now.

About is there a quilt in this house I should know about? And what's its story?

Lori Walsh:

Right. Mary Fitzgerald. There are special screenings of SDPB's new quilting documentary called Points of Pride: Quilts of South Dakota and author book signings. The next one's Saturday, September 23 at 2:00 PM Mountain Time at the South Dakota Festival of Books. You can meet Mary at the Martin & Mason Hotel in Deadwood, Saturday, September 30th. She'll be at the Community Center in Burke.

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I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

You have to create them. 

Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

It’s a place for just one more question.

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Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.