Embroidering a history

Collecting Stories: The Heritage Quilt Collection exhibits the long history of quilt preservation at the Agnes Etherington, keeping century-old stories vibrant

Collecting Stories displays numerous Signature Quilts, like the “Friendship Signature Chimney Sweep” made to mark an occasion or as a parting gift for a family moving out of town.
Collecting Stories displays numerous Signature Quilts, like the “Friendship Signature Chimney Sweep” made to mark an occasion or as a parting gift for a family moving out of town.
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Walking into an art exhibit can be disorienting and over air conditioned. But the massive quilts in Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s Collecting Stories: The Heritage Quilt Collection looked warm enough to sleep in.

Collecting Stories may be a current exhibit, but it has a long-standing history at the centre. A wall-mounted TV at Agnes plays 2009 footage of three women who spear-headed the art centre’s expansive quilt collection. In 1981 Diane Berry, Frances Crandall and Margaret Rhodes approached Agnes Etherington staff about displaying a collection of quilts.

The centre has displayed the collection throughout the last three decades, with the first exhibit opening back in 1974. The collection has over 65 quilts, some dating as far back as the 1800s.

The quilts and their descriptions aim to bring the viewer into the history preserved in the quilts themselves. The “Friendship Signature Chimney Sweep” is a simple white quilt with names embroidered into the centre of each square. The names aren’t familiar and the reason for the quilt’s creation is unknown, but you feel a connection to these people.

One of the most striking quilts is the “Embroidered Sampler” by Betsy Adams Dodge from the late 1800s. It’s done in the Victorian crazy quilt style, using rich fabrics and Japanese fan motifs. The initials of Dodge’s husband are stitched into the middle of the quilt. Quilts may be an everyday object, but they have the unique ability to connect viewers to the women who wove them 200 years ago.

In another room, quilts hang staunchly behind three ghostly nightgowns. There’s a handcrafted bed in the center of the room, made in 1868 by the Penitentiary Cabinet Warehouse. The project paid convicts in Kingston Penitentiary $0.35 a day to craft their goods. Solid and stiff, the bed is a story encased in an everyday object.

Collecting Stories may not be a traditional art exhibit, but the stories preserved through the passing down of quilts make it one of the most personal exhibits at Agnes in recent memory.

Collecting Stories will be displayed until July 17 at the Agnes Etherington Art Center in the Samuel J. Zacks and Historical Feature Galleries.

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