Karen Duling and her quilt ‘Catnado’ at QuiltCon 2016.
Founded in 1993, the Quilt Alliance is dedicated to documenting, preserving, and sharing quilts and quilt stories. The Asheville, North Carolina non-profit has one full time Executive Director, Amy Milne, and a few part time staff members including Emma Parker, 27, who serves as the Oral History Projects Manager and is in charge of the Go Tell It At the Quilt Show video series.
Go Tell It At the Quilt Show is an oral history project for quilts. The parameters are straightforward: one person talking about one quilt in front of a camera for three minutes.
“It’s like Story Corps for quilters,” Parker says, referring to the popular documentary series that often airs on National Public Radio programs. The project began in 2013 and over 300 videos have been recorded to date.
Anyone can record a Go Tell It video including quilters, quilt appreciators, collectors, curators, and historians.
Go Tell It at the Quilt Show is actually the Quilt Alliance’s second effort at collecting oral histories of quilts. Since 1999 the organization has been recording 45 minute audio interviews for a series called Quilters’ Save Our Stories. “Those interviews are long and because we started doing them in the 90’s the technology is not conducive to sharing them today,” Parker says. In search of a short form, easily shared oral history format Quilt Alliance Executive Director, Amy Milne, came up with the idea for Go Tell It At the Quilt. The videos are recorded at quilt shows and museums and shared on YouTube. The visual element adds an important dimension to the story telling. Parker says the videos are meant to be “visible and digestable.”
Anyone can record a Go Tell It At the Quilt Show video, not just quilters themselves. Still, the bulk of the interviews are with quilters including Jacquie Gering, Thomas Knauer, Victoria Findlay Wolfe, Jen Kingwell, Heather Jones, and many more. Paker assures me that the project is inclusive. “You don’t have to be famous to do one. If you’ve sewn three layers together we consider you a quilter.”
To record the videos the Quilt Alliance sets up a booth at most major quilt shows and puts a form on their website where attendees to can sign up for a recording slot, although impromptu interviews are also welcomed. At the most recent Quilt Con the organization recorded 40 interviews.
Local guilds can get involved as well. The Quilt Alliance has prepared a 3-page training pamphlet along with a DIY kit which incudes a tripod, a digital camera, and a wireless microphone for guilds to use. When recording an interview the interviewer asks just one question: what is important about this quilt? “We have very few rules,” Parker notes. “We leave it open ended.”
Parker estimates she’s recorded 360 interviews in the three years she’s worked for the Quilt Alliance. “I’ve absorbed a lot of quilt stories,” she says. “Often people get up and say they’re not going to get emotional and then, by the end, they’re really emotional and you can see how the quilt was helpful to them.”
Heather Kinion recorded a Go Tell It story at Quilt Con in Pasedena in 2016 to talk about a quilt she made using shot cotton scraps after a traumatic life experience. “I am heartened to see [the video] touching other people,” she says. “I feel like women are often discouraged from speaking up about painful and very common things like miscarriage even though once I spoke up, it was very obvious from my friend group that many, many, many of us have experienced it in a wide range of ways.”
“People will often turn to their quilt and say, ‘What else do you want me to say about it?’ and then come back with something really interesting, or surprising,” Parker says, recalling one woman who noticed during the interview that a block of her quilt was sewn in upside down, a flaw she hadn’t noticed until that moment.
“No matter where I go whenever I tell people that I work with quilts it seems like everyone knows a quilter or has a quilt they’re fond of,” she says. “Quilting is as much an art form as painting, but we don’t often hear people explain the artistic decisions that went into making a quilt.” This project is chance to do just that.
When we think about all of the quilts women, and some men, made over the past several hundred years, many of which are unsigned and leave us with little to no information about the maker, I think this project is an important one. These oral histories are artist statements, autobiographies, and memorials and they bring to light the vital role quilts play in our lives.
The Quilt Alliance’s goal is “no more anonymous quilts” and Parker feels that Go Tell It At the Quilt Show is a step in the right direction. “There’s just so much below the surface.”
Visit the Quilt Alliance website to request information on recording Go Tell It at the Quilt Show stories with your group or guild or to make a donation to help support the project.