Spotlight: Amy Milne, Executive Director, Quilt Alliance
Every quilt tells a story, and Amy Milne, through the Quilt Alliance, provides an easily accessible online forum to document them. Long dismissed as a mere household craft, quilts are historical documents and artistic artifacts that capture a span of time or a specific event. With the oral history project QSOS – Quilters’ S.O.S.–Save Our Stories – Amy is dedicated to keeping the stories alive and making them available for all to enjoy.
What was your path to becoming Executive Director of Quilt Alliance?
My education was in art and design. I have a Bachelor’s in Surface Design from NC State University College of Design and an MFA in Mixed Media from the University of Michigan. Then after getting my master’s, I returned to NCSU to be a software coordinator for students and faculty. In addition, I taught art and design courses. Academia is an exciting environment, but universities are inherently bureaucratic so change comes slowly, and that was frustrating for me. When I had the opportunity to lead a nonprofit organization, working in the community to create experiences for talented young artists, I jumped at the chance.
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Working with SeeSaw Studio youth, who were eager to learn and be mentored by business and community partners, was especially rewarding. Then I took the nonprofit administration skills I’d learned to my next “great fit”–director of the Quilt Alliance in 2006.
Are you a quilter yourself?
I learned to sew and knit from my mom and grandmother as a child. I have dabbled in quilting since joining the Alliance. I am endlessly fascinated by process and technology, but it kills my joy to follow patterns or directions. I love to sew on my 1949 Singer Featherweight, gifted to me by my late mother-in-law. In addition, I like to hand sew and repair/renew clothes and costumes.
What (or who) has been your biggest inspiration in keeping your energy going?
I have worked alongside many inspirational people in the last 14 years with the Quilt Alliance and still do. I had the great fortune of having the late Yvonne Porcella and the late Alan Jabbour as mentors. Both were pioneers in their fields and were deeply supportive of me professionally and personally.
See the video with Yvonne.
Besides the energy and inspiration I receive from my fellow staffers and our board members, I benefit immensely from being part of a monthly meeting of executive directors of fellow fiber organizations, started by Martha Sielman of SAQA. My family of artists and my daily walks help keep my emotional and spiritual tank full.
What role does Quilt Alliance play in the quilting world?
The Quilt Alliance started as The Alliance for American Quilts in 1993. Its mission: to document, preserve and share the rich history of quilts and quiltmakers. The first projects were Boxes Under the Bed, Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories (QSOS) and The Quilt Index and Quilt Treasures. The last two are in partnership with Michigan State University.
The data collected by state and institutional quilt documentation projects was really starting to accumulate in 1993. So the Alliance founders considered a bricks and mortar museum on the Mall in Washington, DC. As they watched the power and reach of the Internet grow, they wisely chose to create a virtual museum instead.
The first Alliance website was a digital home to quilt documentation as well as oral histories about quiltmakers. It includes people who were instrumental in driving the American Quilt Revival movement started in the 1970’s. Today the Quilt Alliance’s core projects are QSOS and Go Tell It at the Quilt Show! (or Go Tell It! for short).
Other programs and initiatives include Quilt Story Road Show, National Quilting Day (with the National Quilt Museum), StoryBee, KidsQuilt Quilting Kits as well as a new podcast, Running Stitch. All Alliance programming draws attention to the urgency of quilt labeling, photography, videography and other means of documenting quilts. Our motto is No More Anonymous Quiltmakers, so we work with other nonprofits, industry partners, quilt guilds, museums, libraries, historical and academic institutions, quiltmakers and quilt owners from all corners of the quilt community to realize this vision.
What is Quilters’ SOS – Save our Stories? How many quilt stories have you collected? Where can we see these quilt stories?
Quilters’ S.O.S. – Save Our Stories (QSOS) is the largest oral history project about quiltmakers in the world. There are approximately 1,200 interviews with quiltmakers in the collection, archived with our partners at the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky, as well as the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.
You can browse and use the collection via its new and growing online home. About half of the collection has sponsors, and we are fundraising now to match sponsors to the remaining 500+ interviews. Supporters pay only $25 to sponsor (underwrite the processing costs of) an interview; they can select an honoree to memorialize or celebrate with their donation.
You can see an example of future QSOS interviews once we meet our goal. This page presents an interview with Christine Bradford conducted in 2005 as part of the Daughters of Dorcas QSOS subproject. Volunteer Evelyn Salinger was the interviewer and Janneken Smucker is the sponsor. Preserved in this interview is Bradford sharing important family memories: a tie quilt her father made when he was a child, a quilt made by her great grandmother of Cherokee descent, and a quilt she made for her daughter, who is both Nigerian and American.
Why are the stories behind the quilts important?
Quilts are historical documents containing important information about the life and times of the maker, their family and their world. Quilts often outlive their maker; documenting and preserving the story of these objects today prevents this important and valuable history from fading away when the maker passes away or becomes separated from the quilt.
Documenting and preserving quilt stories are important to historians, families, collectors and anyone who seeks to connect objects to people, events and cultural heritage.
Take, for instance, a Go Tell It at the Quilt Show! recording with American Folk Art Museum curator Stacy Hollander. She tells the story of a beautiful quilt in the museum’s collection made in 1907. Documented during the New York State Quilt Documentation Project, the museum later acquired the quilt.
In the video, Hollander reveals that the story of the quilt was only recently filled in when a colleague made an exciting discovery: an old newspaper article written about the quilt shortly after it was completed. The article reports that the maker was a German immigrant tailor. The tailor began the quilt shortly after he and his wife adopted a baby girl they found on their doorstep. He worked on the quilt meticulously in his spare time over the course of twenty years. The beautiful quilt contained over 30,000 pieces, and then the maker gifted it to his daughter on her wedding day. The retelling of this story to a live audience at our Quilters Take Manhattan audience in 2014 was so very inspirational–a story about patience, persistence and love, and the recording preserves this moment in perpetuity and makes it available to anyone with an Internet connection.
Who can submit quilt stories? How?
Anyone can submit their quilt story to the Go Tell It! project via the Quilt Alliance website. The protocol is simple: “one person talking about one quilt in front of one camera for three minutes or less. Another quilt story saved!” There are no questions. It’s just the “teller” sharing a story about that quilt (one they made or one they own).
There are 679 Go Tell It! videos presented on the Alliance’s YouTube channel. They reflect and celebrate the full diversity of the quilt community, while they reveal the stories beneath the surface of the quilts. Every deep dive I take into the Go Tell It! collection reveals a story that is new to me. Some of my favorites: a modern scrappy quilt constructed in the aftermath of the maker’s miscarriage, an art quilt made in memory of Trayvon Martin, a collaborative quilt made by eight friends who met online, and a pristine antique quilt found at the local trash dump and later donated to a museum.
You can find the Do It Yourself guide for Go Tell It! here.
Guilds and groups can also hire the Alliance through our Quilt Story Road Show program. You can schedule a virtual documentation day with your members. Contact me at [email protected] to find out more.
How have you adapted Quilt Alliance activities to align with COVID-19 safety protocols?
In many ways the Alliance was well-equipped for the changes we’ve all had to make because of the pandemic. All staff were already working remotely from their own home offices–so we haven’t experienced any interruptions to our work thankfully.
Our biggest challenge has been to convert our Quilters Take Manhattan event, an important annual fundraiser, to a virtual event. We changed the event name and spirit to Quilters Take a Moment, presenting most of the content we originally planned. Luckily we have offered QTM “Home Ticket” for several years for those who could not travel to New York City. So this gave us some good logistical experience to draw from.
Quilters Take a Moment was a great success thanks to the generosity of our attendees and our partners. We had talented presenters, generous sponsors, and flexible volunteers. Our audience gave us very positive feedback and we exceeded our fundraising goals. Tickets that include all four hours of recorded programming and full access to the Known & Unknown exhibition.
Another really positive pandemic response is Textile Talks, a weekly lecture series put together by a group of fiber organizations including: the Quilt Alliance, the International Quilt Museum, the Modern Quilt Guild, San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles, Studio Art Quilt Associates, and Surface Design Association. We hold Textile Talks on Wednesdays at 2pm EDT. Registration and recordings are on the Alliance website.
Interview with Amy Milne posted October 2020.
Browse through more quilt inspirations and projects on Create Whimsy.