"I'm passionate about antique quilts," says Michele McLaughlin of Emmaus.
A quiltmaker for over 30 years, she has become an avid collector of antique and vintage quilts. She thinks she probably has over 100.
"I began collecting when people started giving me old quilts. I feel responsible for them, so I've become their caretaker."
To Michelle, there is a mystique about quilts.
"They speak to people. I don't know if it's the energy the women use when they put them together or if it's the passion we historians and collectors have for them. It just seems fortuitous."
Michele believes there is such a thing as 'quilt mojo.'
To explain what she means she tells the story about how she used to pass this fabric shop on her way home from work. One day she saw a sign in the window with one word, "Quilts" and she thought, "What's that all about?"
Finally, one day she stopped and to her delight, learned the shop owner had some 19th century quilts and was thrilled to talk to Michelle about them. One quilt stood out, a postage stamp quilt, made up of thousands of one-inch squares. The shop owner asked Michelle if she could spot the girl in it. She couldn't and the shop owner pointed her out. It was the one and only little square with a girl in the print of the material.
"That quilt stayed with me for a long time after. I often talked about it."
Years passed. One day Michelle was at a flea market mall in New Zionsville, looking at quilts in one of the booths. The mall owner asked if she could help her because the booth's owner was not there. They began talking and the mall owner showed her a quilt and said, "I bet you can't see the girl in this postage stamp quilt."
Michelle recognized it immediately and said, "I not only can find the girl but I know the lady who owned this quilt. She owned a shop on Walnut St." The mall owner said, no it wasn't, and Michelle said, "Call the owner." She did and the shop owner said, "Oh my God, that was over 25 years ago."
Michelle bought the quilt.
"That's quilt mojo."
Michelle was recently the guest speaker at the Palmerton Concourse Club and spoke about the history of quilting and brought along several of her antique quilts.
Quilt-making dates back to ancient Egypt and China. It involved three layers of material. Stitches were sewn on the fabrics to prevent the center layer from moving and clumping. Quilting was introduced to Europe when the Crusaders returned from the Holy Wars in the 13th century. It was found in the form of a quilted garment worn under armor which later developed into the doublet.
Calico became the material of choice for quilting. It originated in Kozhikode, India (also known as Calicut) during the 11th century. By the 15th century, calico from Gujarat made its appearance in Egypt. Trade with Europe followed from the 17th century onwards. Calico was woven using Surat cotton.
In the eighteenth century, England was famous for its woolen and worsted cloth and jealously protected their product with commercial legislation passed to protect the industry. Cheap calico prints, imported by the East India Company had become popular. But in 1700, an Act of Parliament was passed to prevent the importation of dyed or printed calicoes from India, China or Persia. Another law was passed to fine anyone caught wearing any printed or stained calico. But over the years, England learned how to make its own calico.
In the 1700s, it was stylish for English women to wear quilted petticoats and underskirts and for men to wear quilted waistcoats. Quilted bedding became popular.
Quilts were first brought to the American Colonies during that century.
Michele says the image of the frugal colonial woman taking scraps of material to make beautiful quilts is a fallacy.
"Calico fabric was difficult to make and could be found only in homes of the well-to-do," she says.
It was considered a luxury item and was taxed in the colonies.
Women got angry. They learned to make their own calico in what was called the Homespun Revolution. This made a huge impact. The boycott of 1767 made a difference.
In England and France it was prohibited for calico making machines to leave the country.
Benjamin Franklin, an ambassador to England, met John Houston, who worked at the best factory in England. He invited Houston to America. Houston had a photographic memory and brought his work to America.
When the Revolutionary War broke out, Houston joined the Revolution. There was a ransom on his head by the English. He was caught and imprisoned but after the war, he was released and went back to his work.
Martha Washington went to Houston for her fabrics to be printed.
By the 1850s there was a big change. A cheaper process was developed and calico, manufactured mostly in New England, became more accessible to middle income women.
There are only written references of the first American quilts. Very few samples survived. These quilts were styled after English quilts and were probably not patchwork or appliqué but whole cloths.
Quilting in America became popular in the 1800s. Distinctly American patchwork and appliqué designs were created. These quilts were produced for utility and pleasure and are the inspiration for today's quilters. They are also an important part of American Folk Art.
From the 1940s to the 1970s, the art of quilting lost some of its interest, but since 1976, quilting has again become popular.
A quilter today has a love of color, pattern and textiles. They can be as imaginative and creative as their minds allow. It is almost impossible to duplicate a quilt because the quilter uses this art form as a way to express what is inside of her. But to appreciate any art form, one should understand its history.
Michele says folklore abounds about quilt making in the United States and has often overshadowed the true and more interesting history of this craft.
"Quilting has made a unique impact in American history and Pennsylvania has a distinctive place in quilt history and caring for antique quilts."
Michele believes the best quilts are from Pennsylvania.
"Pennsylvania is unique. Pennsylvania is an adjective for quilts. It's a synonym for unique craftsmanship and color. We are a hot bed of quilting and is an integral part of our heritage. We have taken it farther than any other state when it was brought over to the colonies. We made it our own," she says.
She believes this to be true because since the 1980s, national quilt study groups have been documenting and photographing their state's vintage and antique quilts, then publishes a book.
"In Pennsylvania, we have so many antique quilts we have to do books county by county. I think people in PA understood the value of the quilts and that is why we have so many preserved."
She is the founder and president of the Lehigh Valley Quilt Study Group and this group is planning on documenting the quilts of the Lehigh Valley.
"We know there are quilt patterns unique to the Lehigh Valley."
She admits it will be a lot of work and could take years to complete.
"As the community learns about our group, they bring us their quilts and ask us what we can tell them about them."
After hearing Michelle speak at the Palmerton Concourse Club meeting, Debbie Lutz of Palmerton attended the February meeting of the Lehigh Valley Quilt Study Group. As she unfolded a quilt, it was met with an excited chorus of "oohs" and "aahs" as members of the group began to inspect it. It was identified as a Centennial quilt because of the center triangle of fabric with the date, "1776-1876." But Michelle identified fabric from a later date of 1890.
"Some of the fabrics may have been handed down to the quilter who made it after the Centennial," says Michelle.
Debbie's other two quilts were identified as a Neon (made with bright colors) and was dated at 1890-1900 and the baby quilt was determined to be machine quilted, dating it between 1920-1940.
The members study old quilts because they strive to learn the truth about them.
Michelle graduated from Kutztown University and worked for the federal government as a congressional aide and later worked at Cedar Crest College as assistant director of adult education before she retired in 2002. She can now devote more time to her love of quilts.
In addition to the Lehigh Valley Quilt Study Group, she has membership in various quilt organizations including the American Quilt Study Group.
"I love textiles and fabrics. You'd be amazed at what knowing about the fabric used in a quilt can tell you."
Quilts and quilting are a big part of her life.
"My husband and I believe hobbies are important. They're gifts we give to ourselves. I'll never be a great quilter but I do it because I love the end result. And I treasure the textiles I have of my grandmothers."
She has two sons and two grandchildren, Helena, 8 and Miles, 2.
To quote an unknown quilter, "Quilters touch the past and the future."
"My granddaughter told me she wants to learn how to sew and I'm thrilled. I'm looking forward to teaching her and hopefully she'll love quilts as much as I do."
Michelle will probably share the history of quilting with her granddaughter as they work together. Nothing would please her more than to ensure that the next generation continues to carry on the art of quilt-making and also to care for the quilted treasures of the past.
(If you have an antique quilt and would like to learn more about its past, you may contact Michelle at (610) 704-6181. The next meeting of the Lehigh Valley Quilt Study Group will be April 19 at the Emmaus Public Library and they invite you to attend.)