Spotlight: Barbara Brackman, Quilter, Quilt Historian and Author

Hospital Sketches

Spotlight: Barbara Brackman, Quilter, Quilt Historian and Author

Was it fate that Barbara Brackman would become a central figure in quiltmaking? An accidental find of a drawer full of vintage quilt blocks ignited Barbara’s curiosity, and since then she has studied and written about quilt history. While she has followed her muse, her meticulously researched volumes have become go-to reference materials in many quilters’ personal libraries.

What are your earliest memories of creating with needle and thread?

I loved to sew as a kid, and my favorite thing in the 1950s was to watch old movies after school while I embroidered dish towels I bought at the dime store. I’ve never been good at it, but I still enjoy sewing.

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What inspired you to study and share quilt blocks? 

I was taking an art history class at the University of Kansas and found a drawer full of quilt blocks, made by Carrie Hall in the 1930s. Hundreds of them. Then I got fascinated by the variety in the patterns. I would never have figured out that it would become a career and such an obsession.

Did you know at the time how deeply you would dive?

So much quilting was undocumented.

Vintage image from civil war times with Barbara's book cover

How do you discover the story behind a quilt?

I spend a lot of time on the internet looking at family genealogies. The availability today of newspapers, grave sites, family histories, etc. is a great resource. I start with a quilt and the maker’s name, then see if I can tell her story.

Women’s life stories have been so rarely told. So I also spend a lot of time just looking at the photo of the quilt, comparing it to others made at the same time and trying to figure out the thinking behind the aesthetic decisions. We really can’t guess what an individual was thinking, but we can look at style choices, etc. that reflect fashions, fabric availability and ideas about how a quilt should look. I also love to read history and try to get a real understanding of the context of her times

If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? What is it about that person that intrigues you?

I am fascinated by Jane Austen and wish she could come for dinner (but take-out). I’d have so many questions. Mostly about gossip in London, but I would like to hear from her why she didn’t marry, who she based Mrs. Bennett on, and exactly what parts of the Austen family quilt she worked on. What I love about her is how long ago she lived, but she continues to make us laugh.

How many books have you written?

I don’t know—20? Writing books is what I do and I love to write. I’ve got no husband, no kids, thus no grandkids, so my family obligations and duties are few. Boyfriend is quite self-sufficient.

Do you sleep?

Entirely too much.

Divided Hearts book cover image

What is the greatest takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title, Divided Hearts, A Civil War Friendship Quilt: Historical Narratives, 12 Blocks, Instruction & Inspirations?

I would hope people would look at the women who lived through the Civil War in fresh fashion without the patriotic hoopla and sectional prejudices that previous histories have trained us in.

How about your own quiltmaking? What is the most recent quilt you made just for fun?

I only make quilts for fun. The most recently finished top is from the wonderfully abundant fabric exchange at our guild where you throw stuff you don’t want on the couch in the back of the room and then take what looks interesting. I found a bag of rather alarming fabrics cut into the curved pieces for a Drunkard’s Path and decided I’d go with that color scheme and add to it, so I have just finished a small bull’s eye top about 36″ that tends towards raspberry and lemon. A found object.

Bullseye Quilt by Barbara Brackman
Bullseye 2020

Tell us about your blog/website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?

As I say, I love to write and I love an audience. So the blog is a place to say “Hey look at this!” My theory is that I can do some close examination of quilts and women’s history, park it up there and then people will be able to find the information in a web search.

Many of my ideas are half baked, but I appreciate the input from friends and pen pals who are only too glad to tell me that there are a few flaws in my theories. I do hope to inspire people to do their own research. And I love to see the quilts people make from my patterns. Most of the time I don’t make the model, so friends Becky Brown and others sew for me. I did make a model for last year’s BOM Hospital Sketches.

Researching Becky Brown

When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?

Improviser, no attention span.

How many projects do you have going at once?

How would I know that?

Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?

We have a large house. Boyfriend gets one office and a recliner in front of the TV. I get the rest. He only notices occasionally that I have taken over the top shelf in his closet and every other square inch. Luckily, he collects bass amps and the cardboard boxes they are shipped in, so he keeps quiet.

Barbara's Office & Studio
Barbara’s Office & Studio

What is your favorite storage tip for your fabric and creative supplies?

My brother-in-law occasionally tries to organize me and he wisely once told me that my biggest storage problem was all those empty plastic storage boxes, so he threw out the boxes.

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?

Silence—older I get the less I can multitask.

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?

I feel that it’s a gift. If you are not creative you can train yourself to think more creatively, but the hopelessly creative do not need training. Of course there are down sides—short attention span, mood swings, etc.

Barbara Brackman Quote

Do you think there is a driving force that inspires you? What’s next for you?

I was a special education teacher for many years and I ran a tight ship—on a schedule. I really feel I am retired from a job as such, so I love being able to follow an impulse and see where I wind up. No schedule. The driving force is my own entertainment. Right now I’m reading about the 18th century in England and the Americas. And I’m still a teacher at heart, too.

I have several Facebook pages that people interested in quilt history might like to join. They are like a seminar class. 

Here’s one for the blocks from the new Divided Hearts book.

We’ve been discussing Southern quilt style this year at QuiltHistorySouth.

And I’ve got two blocks of the month (pieced & appliquéd) going at my Civil War Quilts blog this year.

See last year’s appliquéd BOM Hospital Sketches by me, quilted by Lori Kukuk.

Hospital Sketches
Hospital Sketches Block of the Month by Barbara Brackman
Quilted by Lori Kukuk.

What’s next for you?

Working on a show called Out of Control: Quilts That Break the Rules opening July 9 at the Iowa Quilt Museum. Some crazy good vintage quilts by quiltmakers who followed their own muse.

The following pictures are of the Block of the Month blog readers stitched for Divided Hearts.

Antebellum Album Quilt
Antebellum Album Quilt made by Cynthia Brouillard
Quilt made by Dena G. Brannen
Quilt made by Dena G. Brannen
Quilt made by Meliss Henderson Swenson
Quilt made by Meliss Henderson Swenson

Interview with Barbara Brackman posted June 2020

Browse through more quilt stories and projects on Create Whimsy.

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