The earliest known American-made patchwork quilt is a handscreen, a type of small fire screen. That this little quilt still exists is incredible, author Lynne Zacek Bassett calls it, “merely a battered ghost.” It was stitched by Deborah Clark, wife of Parson Clark of Salem Village sometime between 1730 and 1750, in a community still wracked by sorcery. She placed at the center of her patchwork star a square of silver brocade -- this tiny patch of brilliance must have held significance for our Calvinist parson’s wife, perhaps part of an inherited costume?
Who cares...one might ask. That textiles were the most valued possessions women owned, either imported or created by an individual or group, is a significant part of New England’s history. Needlework schools and quilting groups produced valued wives, the proof often on display for wife-seeking husbands to admire. Recently acquired, Massachusetts Quilts: Our Common Wealth is a most unusual catalog of the history of this needlework, from the exhibition of the same name at the New England Quilt Museum. We learn more about the owners and their communities of such objects, rather than their patterns.
My recent visit to the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, MA, revealed the power of cloth. The textiles are lovely, but the machines are genius. Recently renovated, this museum has charming period rooms and deafening mill machines. And lastly, both the book and the museum remind this reader of the complicated history between the textile industry and slavery, conjuring up ghosts that haunt us still.