Spotlight: Bill Volckening, Quilt Collector and Blogger
Bill Volckening is proof that if you pursue what you love, good things follow. Now regarded as an expert on vintage and antique quilts, Bill got his start when he bought a quilt he to hang on the wall in his home. Then another. And another. As his collection grew, he wanted to know more. And thus began his second career. So many quilts, so little time!
Why is your blog titled “Wonkyworld”?
Most antique and vintage quilts are far from perfect. They are handmade, and they have condition issues and mistakes. Part of loving old quilts is embracing the imperfections. We live in a wonky world.
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The blog is about being a collector today. We can buy and sell anonymously online, and reach millions of people around the world without ever meeting them in person. The Internet mobilizes collecting, but it presents new considerations, such as how to establish authenticity. Historical accounts of quilts can be wonky, too.
Recently I did a blog post called “What is Wonky?”
What inspired you to collect and study antique quilts?
There was a eureka moment, I blogged about on Why Quilts Matter.
At first, I used quilts to decorate the walls of my home. Education came much later, even though I wanted to know more about quilts from the beginning. After 20 years of picking up quilts, hanging them on the walls and putting them into storage afterwards, I looked at the quilts and realized it was a collection. Around the same time I retired, so there was all the time in the world to learn more.
What did you do before quilts consumed your life?
I was editor of SWIMMER Magazine, the publication of United States Masters Swimming. The funny thing was, hardly any of my swimming friends knew anything about the quilts. Usually we were traveling to events, such as the national and world championships or the annual convention, and we would all see each other at large swimming venues or conference centers. We would talk about a lot of things, but usually not quilts.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your books, especially your new title with Amanda Leins, Inspired Free-Motion Quilting?
Old quilts have information we do not find anywhere else. They have information about design, history, and methods of women’s creative expression.
Inspired Free-Motion Quilting is about the inspiration and ideas we find in old quilts, specifically design motifs. Many of the decorative, hand-quilted designs are elegant, fanciful and floral. Mandy created free-motion line drawings, and she did a magnificent job.
If you ask Mandy about it, I’m sure she would say the old quilts were influential to her as a quilter. The way the patchwork and quilting work together was especially intriguing to her.
How did you and Mandy decide which quilting designs to adapt for free-motion quilting?
We looked at all the quilts in my collection, and saw something we liked in the early American quilts. A lot of people think early American quilts were make-do objects, but they were really the opposite—elegant objects made by affluent women for well-appointed homes. There was so much beauty in the quilts. We looked at applique, embroidery and quilting designs. Most of the inspiration quilts and coverlets were made between 1790 and 1850, but there is also one quilt in the book from 1870.
What do you first notice about a quilt that draws you in for a closer look?
Every quilt is unique in its own way. You can always see the makers’ preferences and choices. When I first started looking at quilts, I was most intrigued with how modern they were. Today I am most intrigued with how quilts speak to us.
Tell us about “fabric time capsule” quilts.
I recently did a blog post about quilts that are like fabric time capsules.
They are objects with a wide variety of fabrics, made as if they were intended to showcase whole collections of fabrics. Quiltmakers today work with this idea a lot. They buy a collection from their favorite designer, such as Tula Pink or Kaffe Fassett, and they make quilts using all the fabrics because they go together so well.
Right now, I am most intrigued with the Hawaiian scrap quilts of the middle-to-late 20th century. These quilts include cutaway scraps from the Hawaiian garment industry. They document important aspects of Hawaiian history from a pivotal time period.
What has surprised you most as you learn more about antique quilts and their makers?
Antique and vintage quilts were originally made for beds, but they were eventually displayed at museums—so their function and context evolved as the objects aged from new to surviving example. The more I learn, the more there is to learn, and that’s the most surprising thing.
Where do you find the quilts for your collection? Or is that a deep, dark secret?
It is not a deep, dark secret. In fact, most of it is happening out in the open for all to see, on the Internet. I find a lot of quilts through online auctions and sales, eBay, Etsy and Live Auctioneers. Sometimes I find quilts in other sales or shops, but mostly online. People buy all types of goods online. I buy old quilts.
Is there a quilt in your collection that you are most proud of? What is its story?
I never really thought about it, but the piece that comes immediately to mind is one I donated to the D.A.R. Museum in Washington, D.C. It is an applique chintz counterpane attributed to Achsah Goodwin Wilkins.
It really is a national treasure—an important discovery.
What has been your deepest rabbit hole in historic quilt research?
The quilts of the 1970s led me down a very deep rabbit hole. When I started hanging around with quilt historians, they would often talk about the 1970s and the great American quiltmaking revival, but nobody seemed to have the quilts. When I started collecting 1970s quilts, hardly anyone else was collecting them. They were terribly undervalued and still are.
Collecting led to research about various subjects such as feminism, the arts and crafts movement, the Bicentennial and the invention of polyester. It also led to the discovery of an undocumented tradition of Hawaiian scrap quilts.
Those quilts look nothing like the austere objects most people recognize as “Hawaiian” quilts—the traditional, medallion style snowflake-cut, two-color botanical applique quilts with echo quilting. Visually and in the way they were constructed, the scrap quilts are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Erupting with explosive color, extremely energetic but contained with geometry, they are mostly foundation pieced on cloth and include no batting or quilting.
Whoops, it looks like I’m going down the rabbit hole again. Better move on to the next question…
What advice do you have for someone interested in collecting antique textiles?
My mother is a collector. She collects white ironstone, sterling silver commemorative spoons and Staffordshire childrens’ mugs. Mom always has good, simple advice, and I will happily pass it along.
Buy what you love, buy the best you can afford, and if you left something behind and can’t stop thinking about it, go back and get it.
Do you have advice for the care and feeding of vintage textiles, especially quilts?
Keep them away from extreme temperatures, moisture and light. Do not store them in cedar chests or in contact with wood or cardboard. Those materials contain wood pulp, which has acid. It can stain textiles. You can find boxes made of acid-free, cotton rag board, such as wedding dress boxes. I keep my best quilts in boxes like those, and others stacked on shelves. The polyester quilts are usually not as fragile, but I do try to keep them away from open flames!
What inspires you to make quilts of your own?
When I make a quilt, which is not too often, I do it with quilt history in mind. It is not that I think I’m making a quilt for the history books; more like having historic context in the effort to create something new and different.
Tell us about your library/office/archive/studio. Separate spaces? If so, how do they differ from one another?
Right now I have quilts stored all over the house. My office is like a storage room, and the loft area outside the master bedroom is where I evaluate and photograph quilts. I can either set up tables for looking at quilts, or I can set up a stand to do photography. I do all my own photography, which helps me share old quilts with the world.
Are there tools and supplies that you cannot live without? Why are they important to your work?
Yes! My digital, single lens reflex camera, my laptop, Photoshop, Savage quilt stands and Husky A-clamps. I also like large pieces of white foam core and bed sheets for bouncing ambient light around the studio. You could also say knowledge of photography, writing, editing and social media are also tools. Experience may be the most important tool of all.
What’s next for you?
The new book, Inspired Free-Motion Quilting is coming out soon, and I’m very excited about it. I will be appearing on The Quilt Show early in 2019, and I have a small exhibition planned for next summer at Latimer Quilt & Textile Center here in Oregon. Most importantly, my fiancé Linda and I will marry next August at McMenamin’s Edgefield, here in Oregon. We are madly in love and delighted to have such a magical place for our wedding day.
Interview posted October, 2018.
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