The Maryland Quilt Documentation Project, like the works of textile art it chronicles and celebrates, is an elaborate patchwork. Its fabric was woven from the lives and handiwork of three centuries of Marylanders, and a busy corps of volunteers has been gathering all the patches of information and painstakingly stitching them together.

And like an old quilt, the resulting document will be more than a compendium of calico. It will tell us not only about stitches and styles, but about the people who wielded the needles, their communities and the events that swirled around them as they worked.

For 3 1/2 years, project workers have been conducting a county-by-county survey of Maryland quilts and their histories. On specified county "documentation days," residents have been invited to take their family quilts off the beds and walls, or out of chests in the attic, and bring them in to be examined, photographed and recorded -- and to share their stories about the quilts and their creators.

"I thought it was time Maryland documented their quilts, because lots of other states have done so," says Alice Skarda, former cultural arts chairman of the Maryland Extension Homemakers Council, which is supporting the search.

Maryland, one of America's first colonies and blessed with one of its most important ports, was a logical center for the quilter's art, and the lavishly appliqued Baltimore album quilt is one of the antiquarian's choicest prizes. But while individual collections and styles had been researched and featured in museum exhibitions, there had previously been no comprehensive attempt to catalog the richness of the state's 350-plus years of textile history.

During each cultural arts chairman's tenure of office, she chooses a special project, and quilts were a natural choice for the retired College Park resident, a past president of the National Quilting Organization.

Ms. Skarda enlisted the help of the Homemakers Council's county cultural arts chairmen, who were then trained in documentation procedures and equipped with fact-gathering work sheets. Local quilting clubs (of which Maryland has an abundance) were a valuable resource; not only did their members know all about stitches and fabrics, but they rapidly spread the news about the documentation days through newsletters and the quilters' grapevine.

Documenting took place, Ms. Skarda says, "any place we could get": church halls, municipal buildings, schools, libraries.

"We would begin in the morning," she explains. "The ladies would bring their quilts, and we would assign them numbers. One lady would take down the history of the maker, and another would take the history of the quilt. They would find out where it was made, and who by, and how it passed down through the family."

Two to four white-gloved workers, most of whom were quilters themselves, would stretch the quilt out to its full size, measure it and examine it, attempting to date it by its fabric, pattern and other visual clues. In some counties, professionals such as Nancy Tuckhorn, associate textile curator at the DAR Museum in Washington, contributed their expertise.

The project has been fueled by volunteer labor; the only paid position is held by Madeleine Greene, an extension home economist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension

Service. Ms. Greene is adviser to both the Homemakers Council's cultural arts chairman and the quilt project itself.

"I have had every role from broom pusher to chauffeur," Ms. Greene admits. "I've been a letter writer, a ghost writer, a graphic artist and an ego smoother. You name it. And I'm expected to do my regular job, too!"

Ms. Greene is not the only participant who has been juggling home

and professional life with the enormous project's myriad tasks. There's Belinda Crews, for instance, who took over the chairmanship of the documentation project when Alice Skarda was widowed 1 1/2 years ago. Ms. Crews coordinates documentation activities in 24 counties, while holding down a job as a hospital medical technician. And Cindy Edinberg managed to chair "Stitches in Time," a recent exhibition of documented quilts at the state fairgrounds, while working as a graphic designer and taking care of a 3-year-old daughter.

Despite such dedicated volunteer efforts, the project was not inexpensive to mount, and a number of funding sources had to be located. Grants were received from the Maryland Arts Council and county arts commissions, and support was provided by the Homemakers Council and the Annapolis Quilt Guild. Businesses supplied in-kind donations, photographers contributed supplies and services, and individual homemakers and quilters all pitched in. Among them, Ms. Crews says, was a woman who owned a beauty salon, and donated one day's take to the project.

The quilts documented were limited to those made during the first 300 years of Maryland's history, from 1634 to 1934. No 17th century quilts actually turned up, but a few fragile examples from the late 1700s were found, giving the survey representative examples of quilts from three centuries. A surprising number of pre-Civil War 19th century quilts were discovered, many in excellent repair. One of these, done in a technique called "broderie perse," in which motifs from chintz fabrics are appliqued on a white background, was not only discovered to date from the first part of the 19th century, but its fabric was traced by textile experts to a particular mill in England.

Several of the quilts brought forward on documentation days were from notable Maryland families. There were quilts from the family of John Wilkes Booth, and from the family of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated Booth's injured leg after the Lincoln assassination and was imprisoned for his alleged part in the conspiracy. One quilt was, according to family lore, made by one of the women in Francis Scott Key's family for her lover.

A handful of quilts, according to Cindy Edinberg, were even made by men. Although quilting is traditionally a feminine medium -- and one hears the word "ladies" a lot when one talks to quilters -- in some cases men did pick up the needle.

"Some men quilted for therapy after the Civil War," she says. "Menwere well-known for piecing quilts together while on ship, because there wasn't anything else to do."

As rare as "man-made" quilts are African-American quilts, a special interest of Belinda Crews, who is black. These quilts are so scarce (and hence collectible), Ms. Crews says, because most African-American quilters made quilts for utility, not show, and they were used until they wore out.

"That's the reason I think I love old quilts so much," she says. "I know my grandmother quilted, but I don't have one of her quilts, so I cherish every one that's out there."

Among the African-American quilts documented are a quilt made in the Log Cabin pattern by a slave for her master's son. Another was made in 1879 by a hired companion for her employer.

Many of the quilt owners proved to be extremely well-versed in the history of their quilts, sharing tales that had obviously been told over and over at the family hearth. About the Union soldier who escaped from the enemy and returned to his Southern Maryland home by hiding in a wagonload of bodies; a quilt was made to honor his escape. About the Western Maryland "healer," who made home remedies from herbs and roots, and spun the thread she used to stitch her quilt. About the women who kept vigil for their soldiers by stitching quilts appliqued with stars and stripes.

"It's really great the way people took so much interest in this project," Ms. Crews says. "People have brought in photographs, and family history research. They come in with volumes!"

Even without special histories attached, the quilts often speak for themselves. The fabrics used can demonstrate the creators' wealth. The achievements of the maker or recipient might be revealed in appliqued motifs, or in written or embroidered inscriptions. Political beliefs make themselves known in quilts, too; Log Cabin quilts were designed in honor of Abe Lincoln and often stitched by his supporters, flags were worked into quilt designs and campaign ribbons were incorporated into crazy quilts.

More than 2,000 quilts have been documented to date, and eventually the project plans to publish a catalog and make the research available to the public. Still more documentation days have been scheduled, however, and the organizers are looking forward to quilts, and stories, as yet undiscovered.

"It will be interesting to see what comes in the door," Cindy Edinberg says. Although, the quilter confesses with a smile, "I keep saying to myself, 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods.'"

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