Spotlight: Pam Weeks, Quilt Historian

Close up of a vintage star silk quilt

Spotlight: Pam Weeks, Quilt Historian

The stories behind quilts fascinate historian Pam Weeks – their purpose, the materials, the makers. She pulls all of this together in volumes that she researches thoroughly and documents meticulously to give all of us a taste of this important part of our history. It all inspires her to make quilts of her own when time permits, and she hopes it inspires others as well.

Pam Weeks head shot

How did you become interested in quilts? Do you study them, make them or both?

I mostly study quilts now, and especially the stories they tell. I write about history through the object—textile history, womens’ history, New England history, and family history.

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As a quilt historian, what do you think is the most common misconception that people have about quilts and quilters?

The common misconception that drives me nuts is that it is “Grandmother’s Craft.” Second, is that most quilts were made from necessity out of left over clothing.

Many thousands of quilts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were luxury items. Sure, many quilts were utilitarian, but most of those were used up and aren’t around to be examined. The quilts that remain are the beautiful examples—the fancy ones, made for special.

Full image of a vintage silk star quilt

What makes a good quilt exhibit?

A strong theme, good stories, and strong artistic work. Visual strength is a prerequisite.

In your study of Civil War quilts, what was their purpose, in addition to keeping loved ones warm? Did quilters of the Union and the Confederacy make different kinds of quilts?

So think of two kinds of Civil War quilts—those made for the cause, and Civil War era quilts. The ones made for soldiers were to keep them warm, of course, but early on the Sanitary Commission recommended inscribing the soldier quilts.

The ones that survived have multiple inscriptions that include puns, bible verses, verses from hymns, popular poems, and messages from home, all meant to comfort and inspire. Quilters made other quilts for the cause to raise funds (Southern gun boat quilts, Northern raffle quilts).

Civil War Era quilts have nothing to do with the war—they were just made between 1861 and 1865 and are typical of many quilts made in this decade.

Tell us about “potholder quilts”. What makes them unique, and how many have you discovered?

Potholder quilts are a sub-set of quilt at you go (QAYG), constructed differently with each block individually finished, either by binding the edges or using a knife edge finish (turning the edges of the block under and into each other). If you took a potholder quilt apart, you’d have a stack of finished blocks, each its own little quilt. There are different finishes for other forms of QAYG.

I think my data base includes nearly 150 examples, many in private collections and many in museums. Some are very simple, some are very elaborate. The majority are group quilts, and also inscribed with names, place names and dates. Several Civil War soldiers quilts were made potholder style.

What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your new book, Deeds Not Words: Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage, co-authored with Sandra Sider?

I wrote the essay at the beginning of the book, and read widely about the history of women’s suffrage in this country. The most important take away is that the history that we were taught in school was over-simplified and white-washed. Thousands of women worked on this social action over more than 100 years, and the work passed from one generation to the next, changing as it went on. Women of color played major roles – but left out of that history. Only recently have they received the beginning of sufficient attention.

The book is also the catalog for the exhibition, and nearly a third of the invited artists chose to make pieces that feature women of color as their subjects.

Close up of a vintage star silk quilt

What information do you need to determine the historical significance of a quilt?

The provenance/maker is number one. Who were they, what were they trying to express in this work? Does the piece commemorate an event? Are there inscriptions or symbols that explain it? 

If you could live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose? Why?

I wouldn’t want to live earlier than now—women had to fight too hard to be heard.

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

Tasha Tudor (don’t laugh) had such a vivid imagination, was so creative and knew the “old ways.” I can draw a little and so wish I had talent as an illustrator.

Close up of a vintage star quilt made from silk

Are you able to find time to make quilts of your own? If you were to begin a quilt today, what would it be?

Currently, I am working on a hexie quilt using reproduction fabrics circa 1850’s. I don’t quilt much anymore, but I can’t sit still without some kind of handwork. I have about 10 projects going at once. I’m knitting a sweater for my grandson, I’m fixing to make a cloth doll for his sister, I need to bind a hooked rug I made during March, and I have a bucket of UFO’s to think on.

What inspires you? Are there recurring themes in your work?

Old quilts inspire me most. It will sound odd, but I have memories of one previous life lived in the 1850’s-1860’s, and the fabric is very very familiar to me. I am drawn to printed cottons from the period. I did some Civil War re-enacting when my first book came out, and the clothes felt like home. I’ve made more repro quilts from this era than anything else.

When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?

It usually evolves.

Tell us about your own creative space. What does your studio look like?

Books line one long wall of my studio, while notebooks containing my research fill one of the book cases. (I have at least 2 more books that need writing.)

The center of the room has three work spaces. My two computers sit opposite each other with a swivel chair between them so I can turn from one to the other with ease. There are two sewing machines here, too, one a Bernina that I use for quilting and a Featherweight that I use for piecing. There is a narrow walkway the length of the middle of the room that goes from the door to the window.

Opposite the books, computers and sewing machines is my cutting table, about 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. Right now it’s covered with wool from my rug, a lovely doll bed that needs dressing, magazines needing sorting, and a small wall hanging with 4 different border fabrics lined up around it so I can sort out how to finish it. I have lined the far wall with folded fabrics, sorted by type, from my collection of stripes to brights, to solids to repros to wool.

If you could have only 5 items in your studio, what would they be?

My featherweight, my computer, my craft supplies and my fabric.

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

Classical music, especially Baroque, followed by electronica. Podcasts are next, loving “Bear Brook,” a production of NH Public Radio concerning the use of genetic genealogy to solve the murder of 3 children and a young woman.

Pam Weeks Quote

Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?

I believe that all people have some kind of talent. But how it plays out depends on nurture, training, and the willingness to put in the hard work.

Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?

I have several lectures on quilt history. 

[email protected].  I have a website, but it’s pretty inactive and I treat it like the brochure it is. 

Interview posted July 2020

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