Episode 5: Why ’70s Quilts Matter

Our guest this month is Bill Volckening, quilt collector and author. Bill owns more than 400 quilts, from all different periods of American quilt history, including quilts from the early 1800s. But lately his real passion is sharing quilts that have rarely, if ever, been shown in museums: groovy polyester quilts and vibrant Hawaiian scrap quilts, all from the 1970s.

His quilts have been shown in museums around the country, and he’s written two books about quilts, New York Beauty and Modern Roots. Beginning on May 26, ’70s polyester quilts from Bill’s collection will be on view at the International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Here are some photos of Bill’s amazing collection! All photos by Bill Volckening.

A polyester quilt from the 1970s
A Hawaiian scrap quilt from the 1970s
A polyester quilt from the 1970s
A Hawaiian scrap quilt from the 1970s
A polyester quilt from the 1970s
A Hawaiian scrap quilt from the 1970s
The very first quilt Bill ever bought: a "New York Beauty," dating to around 1850
A "New York Beauty" quilt
A damaged "New York Beauty" from the 1870s
A "New York Beauty"
1800 Rhode Island quilt
1820 "Willow Tree" wholecloth quilt
1790 wholecloth quilt
A "Drunkard's Path" quilt
A "crazy" quilt
1930 pictorial quilt
1920 velvet fans quilt
1900 pictorial quilt
A polyester quilt from the 1970s

Episode 5: Why ’70S Quilts Matter Collecting Culture is a podcast about passionate collectors and the stories behind the objects they love. Each month we talk to a collector about their art, design, history, and nostalgia. 2017, Liz Logan Our guest this month is Bill Volckening, quilt collector and author. Bill owns more than 400 quilts, from all different periods of American quilt history, including quilts from the early 1800s. But lately his real passion is sharing quilts that have rarely, if ever, been shown in museums: groovy polyester quilts and vibrant Hawaiian scrap quilts, all from the 1970s. His quilts have been shown in museums around the country, and he’s written two books about quilts, New York Beauty and Modern Roots. You can read more about Bill and this episode at: [0:00] Music. [0:06] Okay can you listen to collecting culture podcast about passionate collectors objects the law. [0:12] Music. [0:34] Fascinated by quilts and bill shares my obsession with this historic under appreciated art form. Over the past fifteen years or so he’s amassed a collection of more than four hundred quarts. [0:48] And what i love about bill is that like some collectors she’s snow. He doesn’t just limit his collecting to only the very expensive antique master pieces. He’s able to find beauty in quilt set you might find a garage sale for twenty bucks. Like psychedelic quotes from the seventies that were made with polyester or scrappy quilts made with inexpensive hawaiian fabrics. When people hear that collects polyester quell that sounds kinda gross people are kinda skeptical. [1:24] Actually quotes really really cool for a while now most of the saved items that i have on facebook have been, photos of quotes that bill posted either on his personal profile or on his public page which is the ball canning collection, it’s called always brightness my day because they have intense colors or wild or somehow whimsical patterns. They are fun and they are funky. [1:54] But just because bill has a reference taste when it comes to quell that doesn’t mean he’s not a serious collector. He knows a ton about call history and it is written two books about quilts new york beauty and modern roots. Person his collection been exhibited in museums around the country his real passion is sharing his collection. Don’t talk about some particular aspects of quilts so for listeners who aren’t super familiar with how clothes are made here’s a little bit of basic terminology. [2:28] Call text three parts top and back in the middle there stabbing which is just fiber watching the fight or what is like it is the cold its thickness and what makes it feel like a cozy blanket. [2:42] Who can fix or typically pieced and kissing means exactly what it sounds like there many pieces of fabric better son together. The back of the class is typically not peace although it can have some peace and on it and then when we say quitting or cutting stitches. There’s that are the stitches that go through all three layers of occult and the whole those flyers together the closing creates texture. And the stitches also at a beautiful decoration on and on top of the same cell that’s funny to quell. Now it’s your turn now all. Tell me about the first call you ever bought and how you discovered that and what movie about at. [3:31] Well that’s quite a story i was dating a young lady in new york she was there on a full ride scholarship for, something like ios fulbright studying if it and brought me to a private showing of quilts and your grandson apartment uptown we hopped in a cab and went up. And it turned out to be so easy urc from kentucky who is a renowned called aficionados. And today she is probably best known as the executive producer white halts matter history art and politics the documentary series that appeared on pbs stations around the country. Yeah and the point this is nineteen eighty nine i was pretty young in grad school and didn’t have a lot of money. But the quilt was magnificent it was the best thing she had and she things all over the apartment just draped all over the furniture, my girlfriend will only rica she went home with a blue and white indigo and white drunkards path, [4:36] and we thought that was pretty funny that there was a coke all the truckers path because we used to go down the corner irish pub you know bar and. But back couple drinks and have you no play darts and things like that so drunkards path was pretty funny and we laughed about that the one i found was a pattern that. Shelly called me your beauty. [4:59] And it is i still have it is a red white and green well with pops of chatter made around the eighteen fifty period and it’s a magnificent masterpiece wells. [5:12] Back low compared to the other quotes wasn’t like brighter or it was clearly the best one there in terms of how it was made the amount of building on it. It was very densely quilt, there were a lot of pieces and they were small triangular pieces if you’re familiar with the new york beauty design it involves the skirt wedges and spiky points that are on the curve seem, and it’s a complex design, there was something about it that struck me at the time i thought it was maybe tribal or something like that but now i really think of it more in terms of victorian architectural detail, and its complexity there are sun burst and starboard designs as part of the motif and for some reason i. I had in my mind that red white and green meant was an old quilt that that old quotes room in a really old school to red white and green. It’s the oldest in your beauty in my collection i learn much much later that the name your beauty came about in the nineteen thirties so in the eighteen fifties when that was made were not sure what they would of called it. [6:26] I call it a beautiful masterpiece quilt and i was compelled by the whole thing and had to have it. You know who the maker was and and where the new york based. [6:37] I do not but i can say that they were most likely not new york based on the pattern to not. Show step you’re in new york in fact the new york state documentation project called their book and their project new york beauty. Anticipating that they would discover the roots of them your beauty their new york but in fact it was most often discovered. [7:01] The earliest examples in the south places like tennessee and kentucky. [7:07] And there was a concentration in those states so it was a southern design at first. [7:13] And it got me in the nineteen thirties how did the name come up and there is a company called mountain messed. And now miss was manufacturing batting for quilts and they sold in rolls and wrapped around the roles were paper patterns and the paper patterns were kind of like a premium that were extra incentive to buy the batting. New york beauty i believe was pattern acts and it was designed by, a designer that was employed by the company a female who work with the man i can’t remember their names right off the top of my head but there was wonderful research about it and the american quilt study group. Journal couple years ago the and covering journal and it was paper done by merit okay well vocal. I’m the topic of these letters that had been found correspondence between the woman who was the designer and the man who was the representative from the company and how they how they interact and work together to create these court decides. That’s really all we know about and your beauty there were a lot of, designs that were inspired by traditional quilts and they were given names i think of the time new york was the largest city one of the largest and most populated cities in the world. And still is and the center of culture and fashion and and had certain associations but also around that time the chrysler building one up and it had very similar motifs. With the points and curves on the the crown if you look at the chrysler building in new york beauty next to each other you’ll see similarities. [8:52] So i think that could be part of the connection there’s also people who say things like the statue of liberty crown is reminiscent of the design motifs in your beauty. That’s it’s a little bit of a controversial subject with some the naming of the quilt because we really know it as new york beauty and that’s going from today backwards we kind of applied that name to this motif, but there are a few southern will historians are not happy with the use of that term it’s a yankee name. [9:25] To describe a very southern well so there’s universal conflicted feelings about it at all i i accepted the nomenclature on your beauty because that is what people use today. And my approach was really to go and go about explaining how that came to be and where your beauty the name came from. So i agree with that it’s not the original name but i don’t agree that it’s not what we call them it and it really is what we call these belts so let’s go back you said you were collecting for twenty years and people that know about it. How did it go from the first, quell god which is new york beauty and eighty nine i think is sad how did how did it snow balled from there what made you wanna what fascinated you about quilt someone made my wash, well that’s kinda funny story because, if the first book i bought i really thought it was a one-shot deal i thought okay you know i’ve got my one and the quilt and now i can say i have that and it. Big thing was that no home was really complete without a great old quilt that and i guess i grew up thinking that somehow i don’t know that you know if you if you really have a home then you really have a great all quilt and it. America’s idea because we really didn’t have a lot of twelve i was going out but we did have a couple of old quilts that my mom i just found an antique shop somewhere and whenever we were sick we would get to crawl up under the quilt that was the only time. [11:01] So i guess i understood them is comforting objects it didn’t get going for a few years because i really thought like i said it was a one-shot deal, but then i realized and, my dad used to hang it on the wall so i hung it on the wall and then i started to think about it and think he really don’t know if that should be on the wall. It wasn’t a cheap thing or anything like that it was a lot more money than i should have been spending at that point in my life but i did it anyway. So the idea was to get another wells. So when looking for another quilt was red white and green so that i could swap them out during your have one hanging part of your in the other hand and the other part of your so i was gonna be just two quarts. Then the second one and main at an antique shop in range lee yourself back mountain called liberty hill antiques and it’s actually in my model roots book my second book is a star quilt, with the two points in each corner, and it’s kinda red white and green yes it’s a very interesting quote in terms of its graphics but it’s definitely not the same as the first one and i wasn’t hundred percent satisfied that i had, done a good you know substitution for this other quilt during the rest of the year. During those years i was moving around alot and my decor changed quite a bit and you know is moving once a year at at a certain point, and with all the changes and where i was living i had new wall spaces different colors different furniture and started using close to decorate the walls at that point. [12:39] It really really got started around two thousand two thousand one after i moved into my first house which i’m still in and at that point i discovered the day i was gonna say you buy a lot of clothes on line and. If you don’t mind me asking what what how much you spending on is what’s what’s the range. And prices these days not as much because i’ve finished sir finish shopping for mostly of the high and quotes that i was. Buying together and your beauty book and and some of the other quotes i bought over the years and not as focused on i would still look at anything that, would be for eighteen thirty at this point because i’m really intrigued by what happened when, [13:25] before america started import may producing fabrics rather than importing them. I was really intrigued by that and you know transition was happening around nineteen forty so i look at eighteen thirty and earlier and those are hard to find so you can just go around collecting those everyday, during the last five years have been very much focused on the nineteen seventies and lately the hawaiian scrap quilts. [13:51] Yeah i’m since nobody’s really collecting those at this point i’ve been able to get a lot of them for really not a lot of money. And i’m talking about you know from for free to you know the really expensive ones that might be two hundred fifty dollars at the very most and you know five years ago two hundred fifty dollars within totally outrageous. [14:13] For one of those codes but they started to climb a little bit, he bag does that take away some of like the thrill of the hunt like finding something in the back of an antique store, or is it still thrilling not at all no it’s a different role because you’re watching the timers and. I’m kind of a sniper when it comes to something i want i will go in and i will place my bed but in the last ten seconds and it will be one of those. Outrageously high bids knowing that you know to just go up incrementally based on what everybody else is dead so if someone else paid fifty bucks and i did. Three hundred and eighty five dollars and twenty six cents in my coming at fifty one dollars because it just on set up on dollar or whatever it is. That’s called sniping and they do that and there is a definite adrenaline rush when you do that, so il leave it you still shop at antique stores do you go to like estate sales garage sales all kinds of things usually not in this area i have such a network going that people call me, and are they contact me they email me and most the time i am kinda sad to admit most the time there they do not have what i’m looking for. But sometimes it do i look at everything and i listen to every everyone who who approaches me with quilts. I sometimes go shopping in the area but there’s not a whole lot to be found i found a couple really amazing things though so that’s why i’m always looking in your collections more than three hundred quarts at this point right. [15:49] It’s i need to update my website its over four hundred my ass. See you talk a little bit about how in the past five years you’ve been focusing more on seven days off polyester quotes and hawaiian because he not other people are collecting those on. [16:10] Seven is the rest of your collection the is like nineteenth century really incredible historic welts has a breakdown, she, that’s that’s a question i have i have been catalogued the whole collection like to have them in my i photo so it i have been going chronologically and, i would say that my collection is kind of a timeline but its weak in certain areas such as victorian, i’ve avoided victorian quilts a lot because of the condition of the socks. They often get to be deteriorated and it becomes a project i think. [16:52] Although i have to say i’m much much more interested in crazy quilts now that i used to be because i see a connection between crazy quilts an earlier period. And cubism which came later a kind of design that you see in crazy quilts almost predicts cubism and it definitely predates cubism. So i’m interested in how. Things that we see in the world of art surface earlier and quilts if you think about pop r and the repeat designs that we see in andy warhol ss works. Well we see repeat designs and quilts of sort of pop art type objects or maybe not popped are. [17:31] Recognizable motifs and representation motifs in a read peak red. We see that in the late nineteenth century in the middle nineteenth century and quilts. [17:42] I love you guys so much credit holders feel like the rest of the world is not do that you clearly love these people. [17:51] Well i learned that from the very beginning when i started talking to shelley secret about quilts and she presented them as this whole. [18:02] I’m new world of women’s creative expression that has been on broken shane since the beginning of colonization of the united states i am. [18:13] And i related to that because i was studying photography at the time and photography had its own struggle for acceptance in the world of our. So we talked about we’re you by the quilts. [18:25] And obviously we we talked about how you’re trying to represent the different time periods and make sure you at this time in your collection. [18:34] What else do you look for like at what moment are you like i have to have back well. [18:41] Dear sir different attributes to look for in after all together and combination minutes and you know click me by and now were you know grab me and run out of the shop sort of thing. Pay first of course one is the visual appeal and, it relates to know whether the quilt will be photogenic because my primary method of sharing them if this plane is true visual media, print media online so forth and so on so the photographs are really yeah it’s important that the quote be photogenic for me. I like girls that have information but it’s rare to find them especially the old ones the information didn’t get. Past along with quilts. That’s why i had to speak about wilson different terms in the new york beauty book for example and i look for good condition. [19:43] Yes the connections not good and its still something rare and unusual i will look beyond the condition and buy it anyway. [19:51] You like my near the book there’s one quote that has to large chunks of where are about a foot square cut out of it very crudely and. [20:01] It didn’t matter to me because near cuties were so uncommon that i was buying every single thing i could just to put it together a time line and see what it said. [20:11] So sometimes i would be on condition i really am looking for things that are visually exciting because i think what’s in general are visually exciting. And that’s something about girls that i love sharing with the rest of the world especially the mainstream that’s not inside the quoting bible. [20:29] Eventually we collected enough when your pt quotes that you and operating this really happy coffee table park it is beautiful. Call new york beauty how is your approach writing your first book about cops. Where’s a couple things about it that are different from other quickbooks and this is something that i want to bring to the table with my own books and that’s photography, and the detail level of detail and a physical description both the photography and with the writing. I talked about things like the number of pieces in the well and the number of quilting stitches even though i didn’t sit there counting all day is estimated i would take sections an estimate. Based on the work that was there and the work that was in the hall well and i could say well this girl has three thousand five hundred pieces and two hundred fifty thousand quilting stitches and then, the detailing the photos reflected that including the full the full view photos sometimes. Well now you can’t see any surface detail at all when you look well photos even in the best books because they they shoot them wipe them from the front mostly was stroh. And if flattens out all of the surface detail so this is something different and my book i use natural lighting and you can see a lot of service detail and the quilting. [21:50] I love that has its obviously such an, homage to these makers and all the incredible work that went into at to know how many pieces and how many stitches was, it was also a decision for me because there’s feedback i was getting from the small group of you know about people that were trying to give me a hard time about the name, i wanted to close to tell their story so i did an intense physical description of the quilt based on what, the girls had and what they said in the, than the actual attributes of the quilt i wasn’t making up stories of you know southern romanticism and then, what the name meant and all of that can and, we’re guessing what people could’ve called them that’s what we say about quotes that’s not what the quilt say about themselves so this book is a little different because it really focuses on what the quilt say, haven’t really tries to cast away some of the other stuff that we might say that may or may not be true, [22:55] the second half of our conversation don’t i talked about his love groovy seventies clouds and why that date wasn’t important period for making, to So what happens to separately about your hawaiian clouds and your seventies polyester twelfths you mentioned that you didn’t exhibit of wine quelled ss. [23:22] Recently tell me about that and and also we should say that. You really only started sharing the scroll to the outside world in like two thousand nine how did that happen. [23:34] I was just went around i’m retired i was working in editorial with the swimming magazine before that and for a number of years and, i was no longer doing it and need a hobby for my retirement at all what may be able to something with these quilts, and that’s kinda where i went with that the polyester and the hawaiian quilts came kind of in that order actually polyester came. Sort of first although ironically the very first nineteen seventies quilt i found turned out to be one of these hawaiian scrap well so they’re a little bit inner tangled. I bought equipment understand why and you know this is one that will have to give you a picture of, it’s crazy block well with lots of moose fabrics and aloha shirt fabrics in it it’s very bright and colorful it has hot pinks and all kinds of things, and up when i wasn’t looking at anything that was less than a hundred years old i was a real snob about, when i was collecting cuz i wanted to collect antique quilts not new ones. But there is something very intriguing about this this piece so i bought it and i realize. Partly was because it was made in the nineteen seventies and it had these fabrics that i recognized growing up, on the brady bunch and at the swimming pool and just you know bright colored seventies fabrics reminded me of my childhood in a quilt even though i never had quilts in my childhood. [25:08] So i collected nineteen seventies go starting from their first that was very drawn in by the color and then i realized that the polyester was something different. [25:18] Then it was the that person is called had poly and. [25:23] It had polyester and turned out and had move fabrics and aloha shirts and it was constructed in the way of the hawaiian scrap quilts which i sort of. Put together later. It came from a dealer that was your in oregon who may be found in california but it’s typical all hawaiian scrap quilts and i just got back from hawaii so you know i know what i’m looking at with those for sure now i went to the, vintage shops and a lot of those same types of objects of a polyester ones. Really related to the period around the bicentennial when a lot of people in america we’re learning how to quilt for the first time. [26:02] And quilting and kind of mr generation almost there were still people maintaining the tradition sure. But it wasn’t as wildly popular as it had been in the nineteen thirties and the industry and really lag. The whole time i’ve been collecting quilt and learning about them i’ve heard about. The great quote revival of the late nineteen seventies and now it revolves around the bicentennial. [26:26] But there wasn’t really a good resource or a lot of information about what those quilts you were. Where where were those girls a actually haven’t started to surface until we really recently and as soon as they started popping up and i put two and two together. Realizing that these were the quote of the revival this is this is the stuff that people are talking about an we need to take a look at it now. [26:51] Collecting them like crazy and they were ten dollars piece twenty dollars a piece of getting these phenomenal. Well tuner people one-way same people who were bugging me about your beauty sue thought it was very gauche that i could collect something so. [27:07] You know low as a polyester twelve and and call that that was. I think there’s something really great about them and so in the last five or six years maybe even longer now gosh time is flying by. I collected at least a hundred fifty of them and had an absolute field day in the market because nobody else was wrote there a couple of collectors. Victoria findlay wolfe collects them. What are your cough is collected them and there’s a few others out there marjorie childress is one who will pick up polyester she’s looking at a lot of improvisational quilts, so there are other beaters but for the most part i been able to pretty much hack my way with that. The hawaiian quilts came out of that because there was is realization, at a certain place water and coke on in austin the last one in austin i found another coat very much like the one i had on e bay and there was this whole story with id about how the women in hawaii they call them to choose and that’s a word for on tv or. [28:08] Grandmother would sit around and make these quilts out of hawaiian scraps. So that intrigues me and i pursued it and i found out that this really was saying in this really wasn’t on discovered undocumented tradition at least two how late are main landers. [28:27] And so i started trying to collect and they’re hard to come by but over the last couple years i think i have. Maybe fifty pieces of the group wedding maybe not so much maybe forty eight almost double when i went to oahu this last week and tell me about the exhibition, cuz there’s a difference between the traditional but we traditionally think of as hawaiian quilts and scrap that you’re talking about. I’m glad you asked because. The idea of the hawaiian quilt is that it is very austere ellie can’t and kind of flamboyant large medallions type design that’s paper cut snowflake but botanical, and there are usually two colors they’re usually echo quilted, and they have a very distinct kind of look about them along with that genre we we find flag quilts which were sorta part of the movement and constructed in similar ways. They involve these work as well but they were basically very similar types of construction and graphic or graphics so that’s what we recognize of your go to hawaii and you. Stroll a gift shop and selling quilted items diesel the quotes that that we know as hawaiian it’s kind of like the same idea that, african american girls look like she’s been quilts well we know that that’s only of. [29:58] The slice of the hall you know you were part of the whole picture in hawaii there were the scrap quilts that were made. Starting probably in the forties but really a concentration of them in the nineteen seventies and they were all also missed that went along with that during the time of researching, i was to early research led me to a blog where somebody found one of these pieces at a vintage flea market, and they got very upset because they saw fabrics from shirts that were worth hundreds and hundreds of dollars in the collectors market and they didn’t understand that, the quotes probably were not made from shirts that were cut up they were most likely made from the garmin cutaway so that were available from the fabric company companies producing the garments. Had piles of scraps and that’s what were made into these quilts there very very unlikely to cut up a four hundred dollar shirt and put it in a while. [30:58] Specially if it was still useful seven tell me about the exit of the hawaiian scrap crops, it was atlanta quilt and textile center and tillamook oregon i’ve had a few exhibitions of course certainly very small back then you on the oregon coast and it’s it’s kind of funny town because that’s where that selma creamery is, and i think there are ten times as many cows in the town as people so it’s kind of a huge dairy farm by the sea. And they have this little school house that has a wonderful little textile center. And i’ve been involved with them for a few years and actually life time member and under dice report but they ask me to do exhibitions every once in awhile. And last your i did an exhibition on hawaiian scrap ghost introduce the whole subject i’ve been keeping it sort of under wraps for a while because it was it’s really. Wonderful to be able to discover this type of tradition and then share it. But there are people who wanna get their hooks in and it along the way so i was really a little bit more territorial with this idea and they have ever been. With any subject in the past because i wanted to be the one i guess to show that this was something that was going on. So the exhibition was the launching of that and there were articles that came out and generation q magazine. Right around the time of the blanket statements and which is the newsletter the american what study group. [32:33] And later in the year cultures newsletter write an article coming at the end of may you have an exhibition opening at international quilt study center in lincoln nebraska. [32:44] Tell me that about twenty and you there. [32:47] Yep this will be nineteen seventies polyester double knit quilts and you know these these quotes are kind of interesting i think. I started saying i was visually drawn to them at first and then i got more drawn in to the whole story of when they were made and what they represented as a group of the visual, which we shouldn’t necessarily look past the visual aspect of these quotes. One thing that is really intriguing about them is that a lot of antique quilts and a faded. Because they are made of cotton and their washed and they are left in the sun or whatever, we don’t always see the original colors and if you look on your beauty but you see like we’ll to have ten fabric we you know were not sure exactly what color that could have been but it wasn’t originally ten in a lot of cases. But with the double knit polyester goes in the nineteen seventies they are exactly the same colors now as they were when they heard he those fabrics did not paid off, and when you say polyester double and what is that mean tablet is just a way of, grieving and it became very popular and garments it’s a thick fabric it’s usually you know, thinking of like pant suit fabric from the seventies or leisure suit fabric that’s really what we would consider double that and it was, interesting because it was plastic like i said and there were different creative possibilities with. [34:18] With double knit polyester i’ve seen all kinds of prints and embossed textured fabrics and we use different things elements like metallic elements of seen. I don’t like bandannas amber printed on. Yeah when you won’t why would anybody need polyester double that bandana fabric but it was possible they did it, what is your mission now with your collection and will you give it away or yeah yeah yeah mission is to. Which the mainstream i want people, outside of our community to understand the importance of quilts the importance of quilts in america the importance of quilts as these objects of women’s creative expression, as as they represent for many many you know centuries now. [35:14] Music.