By: Jeannette Lasansky
In 1985, the Museum of International Folk Art, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, commissioned a survey of living traditional quiltmakers. The survey focused (as does this paper) on the oral histories of rural women living in New Mexico who had learned to quilt from relatives or friends – ¬not from workshops, videos, or manuals. Prior to the author’s arrival in New Mexico, news releases detailing the scope and time constraints of the project were sent out statewide. We made contact with all who responded to the request, securing recommendations for additional informants from over fifty quilt guilds, senior citizen centers, and historical societies.
We spoke by telephone to more than two hundred women and based on their responses, we visited quilting groups in Roswell, Carlsbad, Hobbs, Lovington, Portales, and Clovis, as well as individuals living at or near Gallup, Kirtland, Farmington, Aztec, Chama, Arroyo Seco, Hatch, Las Cruces, Deming, Quemado, San Patricia, Artesia, Albuquerque, Mosquito, and Solano. The quilters were primarily Anglo- and Hispanic-¬American women. We met only one African-American, and we purchased the work of one Navajo. (Many of the informants, however, had some American Indian ancestry.) Most of the quiltmakers were raised in Texas (28), New Mexico (19), Oklahoma (14), or Arkansas (5), and were older women, with one exception. Many were Baptists, Mormons, Roman Catholics, Methodists, or Presbyterians. We made an extensive photographic record of the quiltmakers and their quilts.
This paper organizes and examines some of the stories told by these Southwestern women: of personal circumstance; quilting frames; fabric, thread and batting sources; and describes how their beds were made and viewed. Since the quilters spoke to us within the physical context of their homes, ranches, or places of recreation – often beside their quilts – their oral histories establish resonance on community, place, and purpose. The paper presents a picture of quiltmaking from the time when the frontier/homesteading experience merged with that of the Great Depression, when the means to create bedcoverings was very limited but the need was great. The results are often quite unlike those of rural traditional quiltmakers of like age and of the same era back East – in Pennsylvania, where the author has done similar research. Contrasts between the two areas are noted where pertinent.