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Quilts: History in a Textile
An Interview with Bryce Reveley

 Expert Collecting at Biddington's

Editor's note: Biddington's interviewed Bryce Reveley owner of Gentle Arts, a textile conservation service in New Orleans, at a lull in a practice for a Mardi Gras Ball in 1998. Mrs.Reveley's two daughters had reigned as Mardi Gras queens for the prior two seasons. Mrs. Reveley thinks of textiles both analytically and historically.

RB: Do you have a personal definition of quilts?
REVELEY: Quilts are like hanging history. I see more in quilts than most people do. To me, an old quilt is like an old book. And I can read the quilt the way most people read books.

RB: How do you mean?
REVELEY: A quilt can tell a person a lot about his ancestors. They reveal a lot about the social and economic climate of the times. If, for example, quilts were made of flour sacks or old clothing, it would tell us the family was probably economically strapped. Quilts made with finer material, such as linen, was evidence of affluence, usually.

RB: But were quilts made to show affluence?
REVELEY: Actually, most quilts were made for utilitarian purposes. Only a tiny percentage was made for competition. About 85 percent were made to keep people warm.

RB: And the remaining percentage of quilts?
REVELEY: Since you are totaling the percentages, I would say the remaining were made for decoration and pleasure.

RB: Can you tell by looking at a quilt who used it?
REVELEY: I can usually look at a worn quilt and tell if a man or a woman slept under it. Most men in years past had beards and a beard grizzled the fabric of a quilt giving it a brazed look.

RB: We always hear about quilting bees. Were all quilts made like this?
REVELEY: A lot of quilts are made by more than one person. Quilting bees were very popular social events for women in past years. But making quilts can also be a solitary art. I can tell by the stitching if one person made a quilt or if many hands contributed to it.

RB: I notice you are moving between the present and past tense. Are quilting bees still popular today?
REVELEY: Very much so. Although, I don't know that people think of them as quilting bees.

RB: What do you like best about quilt restoration?
REVELEY: The fun of my work is to take a little bit of information and to try build on that information.

For example, this particular quilt I am working on today is white on white called trapunto. It is a quilting technique that uses padding; it's very intricate work. Trapunto was in vogue during the 18th century and first part of the 19th century; it fell out of favor around 1830.

In this trapunto quilt, the center of each quilt has a floral medallion, a kind of rose compass from which a field of flowers spread. The person making the quilt was a master quilt maker who quilted about 13 stitches per inch--that is very fine, demanding work. It took time patience and a great deal of preparation.

All kinds of wondering go on within me when I'm working on any piece of material. For this particular piece I want to know, for example, if the quiltmaker was a happy person or sad and if she preferred one quilt more than others. I would like to know what it was like to work under the conditions that existed back then. Did she stitch by lamplight or did she spend all those sewing hours beside a fireplace? I try to guess all the answers. If only this quilt could talk.

RB: Do you always carry a quilt with you?
REVELEY: No, I don't usually carry something this large, but I'm almost always restoring something.

RB: This piece seems quite light weight for its size.
REVELEY: Yes, it's a summer quilt. Quilt weights vary depending on the part of the country where they were made. A summer quilt in Vermont is about the same weight as a winter quilt in Mississippi. A very light quilt--such as this one-- would have been a deliberate attempt to make a summer quilt.

RB: Besides trapunto what are other quilt types?
REVELEY: The basic quilt types are:
applique in which one piece of fabric is stitched on top of another;
pieced quilts in which patches of fabric are stitched directly to one another;
strip quilts in which rectangluar pieces of fabric are stitched together.

There are people who like to quilt, and people who like to piece. Few like to do both.

RB: Do you have a favorite quilt story?
REVELEY: Several years ago a church in a small Louisiana town wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their church. For this event they chose to restore an antique quilt that had been placed in a storeroom and forgotten for decades. The quilt, made nearly a century ago as a fundraiser for the church, was in a tragic state.

My staff and I scoured the countryside for the 144 pieces of antique fabric needed to patch the quilt. We mended the worn fragments of embroidery and repaired the much-faded appliques. The entire job took nearly a year to complete. The quilt was a document of how a community lived. Each patch had a personality all its own. It was a piece of living history--and the townspeople understood its importance.

RB: What advice do you have for the quilt owner?
REVELEY: Use it, appreciate it, but most of all, enjoy it.

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