Building and Preserving Quilt Provenance



noun: the place of origin or earliest known history of something.

If you’ve ever visited an antique quilt booth at a quilt show or found an amazing old quilt at a second-hand store you know the frustration and sadness that comes with the realization that, usually, absolutely nothing is known about the makers of the quilts you encounter. 

Unfortunately, most quilters don’t plan for a day in the distant future when no one remains to remember the quilter, why they made a quilt, or why the quilt matters to them. In Laura McDowell Hopper’s article ‘Documentation: Quiltmaking’s Missing Step’ she discusses the importance of this all-too-often-overlooked step of quilt making. 

Curated Quilts: Labels in the Half-Square Triangle Issue

Fortunately, there are tools to help you keep the history of your quilts for future generations. Hopper says that if you’ve never labeled a quilt before, the nonprofit Quilt Alliance is an excellent place to go for help. “The organization’s mission is to, ‘document, preserve, and share our American quilt heritage by collecting the rich stories that historic and contemporary quilts, and their makers, tell about our nation’s diverse peoples and their communities.’ The Quilt Alliance’s rallying cry is, ‘No more anonymous quilters,’ and they strive to support any and all quiltmakers with preserving their stories.” 

Amy Milne, Executive Director of the Quilt Alliance said, “Quilts are historical documents, containing important information about the life and times of the maker, their family, and their world. Adding a label to a quilt helps preserve that information. Quilts often outlive their makers and are passed on to relatives, friends, or strangers. If the new owner doesn’t know any of the information about the quilt and the quilt doesn’t have a label, that quilt’s story and the maker’s name will likely become disconnected from the quilt. Quilts with labels can teach us personal, cultural, regional, technical, artistic, and genealogical information.” 

Curated Quilts: Labels in the Half-Square Triangle Issue

If you have a quilt-making family member from an older generation, they can benefit from recording their quilts’ history, as well. We encourage you to share with them how important it is to label their quilts. 

Recently my family was going through the many quilts my grandmother made during her life. Grandma Mary was an avid quilt maker. She gifted each of her grandchildren a quilt when they married. She also made quilts as gifts for other special occasions. She never labeled her quilts. My mother and I have volunteered to assume the responsibility of making sure all these beautiful and, to our family, memorable quilts receive labels sewn onto them. It is a large project: there are well more than one hundred quilts, but the alternative of not labeling them is that the meaning and history of Grandma’s art and love, sewn into each quilt, will be lost to time and memory. 

Curated Quilts: Labels in the Half-Square Triangle Issue

Hopper’s steps to successful quilt labeling:

  1. Don’t overthink it.
  2. Remember the most important information: Your name, quilt title, date quilt was completed. 
  3. Don’t only do digital documentation.
  4. Start a quilter’s journal
  5. Make labeling part of your process.
  6. Have fun. 

Don’t make the mistake of skipping the important step of labeling your quilts. Your creations matter. They are part of your own story, but also part of the larger story and history of your community and our culture.

You can read the full article, ‘Documentation: Quiltmaking’s Missing Step’ inCurated Quilts: Half-Square Triangles, issue no. 12 

Laura Hopper is a historian, curator, museum professional, writer, and quilter currently working in the craft industry. Laura works for the Craft Industry Alliance, a trade organization for craft professionals. She has been a frequent speaker at national museums and quilt conferences. She can be found online at and on Instagram at @sonicstitches.

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By Brittany Bowen Burton

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