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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

Quilt Historian Interview with:

Bill Volckening
Quilt Magnet

Contact information:

1220 NW 119th Place
Portland, Oregon 97229

1) How do you prefer to be described within the field of textile history?
If you have a business, please tell us about that.

“Quilt magnet: collector, writer, blogger, photographer, and budding historian.”

2) When and where did you begin your serious interest in the history of quilts, textiles or garments?

I’ve always been interested in art and antiques. When I was a graduate student in photography living in New York City in 1989, I was dating a young lady from Germany who was in New York studying under a Fulbright Grant. She’d heard about the tradition of quilt making in America, and wanted to buy an old patchwork quilt to bring home to Germany. One day she brought me to a private showing of antique American quilts. The showing was in an upscale, uptown brownstone apartment, and there were beautiful old quilts draped all over the furniture. A nice lady who was bursting with passion about quilts greeted us. It was Shelly Zegart.

"That day, I spotted a spectacular, densely quilted red, white and green quilt, which Shelly called a "New York Beauty" It stood out from the rest. I found myself obsessed with it, but couldn’t afford it. Shelly could see I loved it, so she offered to hold it for me, and allowed me to pay in installments. Several months later, I owned my first quilt.

"For years, I viewed quilts primarily as art, and would hang them in my home as wall décor. I was only casually interested in the history. Between 1989 and 2009, I bought more quilts. Every so often, I would visit a local guild such as the Northwest Quilters, or would loan a quilt for a show. I’d even visited Latimer Quilt and Textile Center to show a group of quilts to board members and offer to loan quilts. Even though I made these occasional efforts to share quilts, I remained very much under everyone’s radar.

"In 2009, around the time I left my job as a magazine editor and journalist, I heard about the Columbia-Willamette Quilt Study Group, and contacted Mary Bywater Cross and Martha Spark to introduce myself. I thought maybe I’d join the group and bring quilts for show and tell. Mary and Martha seemed interested in my collection, and they invited me to do a presentation. I brought a dozen “New York Beauty” quilts, and was very surprised by the reaction of the audience, all the attention, and the number of knowledgeable people in the group. That’s when I started to have a more serious interest in learning about quilt history. Now that I’m semi-retired, I can devote as much time to it as I like.”

3) What “known” individual or group influenced you most and why?

Shelly Zegart was influential early on. I bought several quilts from her and she’d given me a copy of her book, American Quilt Collections: Antique Quilt Masterpieces. I’d also corresponded and done business with a few other dealers. Other than that, I had very little contact with anyone in the world of quilts until 2009.

"However, I had several influential experiences. I studied art and photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, the School of Visual Arts in New York City, New York University, and the International Center of Photography. In 1989, my mother brought me to see my first quilt show, 19th Century Appliqué Quilts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I saw my second big quilt show in 2002, when I was visiting my godmother in New York. She told me to go to the Whitney Museum of American Art, where there was supposed to be a sensational new quilt show. It was the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibition, and for me, a life changing experience.

4) Who became your personal mentor as you began your learning?

“Mary Bywater Cross has really taken me under her wing, and we’ve started to work together on projects. I was doing a short documentary film, and invited her to be in the film. More recently, we have worked on transcribing names from a 1931 Oregon American Legion Auxiliary quilt made in Salem, and we’ve worked with the Andrea Balosky “Small Wonders” doll quilts. Martha Spark has also been a mentor, through our involvement with the Columbia Willamette Quilt Study Group and Oregon Quilt Project. I call my new friends “the quilt ladies” and have learned so much from them.”

5) What aspect of study were you most passionate about at first? How has this changed over time and why?

“At first, I was most passionate about identifying visual characteristics of quilts and associating those with dates and places. As I’ve gotten more involved, I’ve developed an interest in genealogy, folklore, quilt construction, regional traits, migration, and really all aspects of quilt history. As a member of the Oregon Quilt Project, I am now very interested in documentation.”

6) What is your current “pet project”?

I have a few. The Oregon Quilt Project is one. I’ve been presenting talks, and will speak at the Sisters, Oregon quilt show this summer during The Quilter’s Affair. I’ve just organized my first exhibit, “Small Wonders: Doll Quilts by Andrea Balosky” at the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center in Tillamook, Oregon. I’m working on my first museum exhibit, “Beauty Secrets: 150 Years of History in One Quilt Pattern” to be held at the Benton County Historical Museum in Philomath, Oregon, August 5th through October 1st during Quilt County 2011. Both of those shows come with self-published, full color catalogs, available through Blurb (blurb.com). The Small Wonders catalog is currently available, and the Beauty Secrets catalog will be available in August.

"I’ve also continued to buy quilts. My recent acquisitions include
three best-of-kind, masterpiece "Rocky Mountain Road" aka “New York Beauty” quilts from Kentucky, and a quilt made by Lucy Mingo of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

7) What aspect of your research or contribution to textile studies has satisfied you the most?

“The most satisfying project thus far was the subject of a virtual poster presentation I did for the American Quilt Study Group, called “Separated at Birth”. The research linked a masterpiece album quilt, separated from its family history for many years, with another family quilt discovered by the West Virginia Heritage Quilt Search. My quilt, made by Mary Couchman Small in 1850, is the sister quilt of another quilt made at the same time by Mary’s daughter, Harriett Small. I’ve been invited to come to West Virginia in 2012, when the two quilts will have a reunion of sorts."

8) Within this arena, what would you like to do, but haven’t done yet?

“Well, I’m really just getting started. In general, I would like to bring American quilts to the rest of the world, teach younger generations about American quilts, and help tell the story about Oregon’s quilt heritage. On a broad scale, I’m especially interested in using mass media to alter mainstream perceptions of old quilts. In other words, academic papers will probably never be my preferred method of communication. I’m much more likely to do a podcast, blog, or documentary film.”

9) Any further comments are invited.

“Most people are very surprised the first time they meet me. I don’t fit the mold. I’ve arrived at guild meetings where I’m the presenter, and have been greeted by people who probably thought I was there to mow the lawn – “May I help you?” they say. When I start talking about quilts, people will usually look at me as if to ask how a guy like me knows about a subject like quilts. They don’t expect words like “fussy-cut” to come out of the mouth of a guy built like a football player.”

10) Please describe the contributions you have made via books, exhibits, presentations, contests, articles, fabric lines, research papers and the like.

Beatuy Secrets” a short documentary film (2009) – NW Documentary

Small Wonders: Doll Quilts by Andrea Balosky” (2010) – curator – catalog, self published through Blurb

Quilts: A Melting Pot” – selections from the Volckening Collection, limited edition book, self-published through Blurb, soon available in second edition.

Separated at Birth” my AQSG Virtual Poster Presentation

Wonkyworld Blog: http://willywonkyquilts.blogspot.com

Web site: http://www.billvolckening.com

Presentations from 2009 to January 2011

New York Beauties

Columbia Willamette Quilt Study Group, Eugene

Pioneer Quilters Unbroken Thread Quilt Show, Eugene

Oregon Quilt Project with Martha Spark

Pioneer Quilters Show, Eugene

Guild Night Out, Sisters

Coburg Quilt Show, Coburg


The Oregon Garden, Silverton


- Six Masterpiece Quilts - Northwest Quilters, Portland

- Good, Better, Best - OQP Core Group Training, Eugene

- Separated at Birth - Tidal Treasures Quilt and Fiber Art Festival, Tillamook

- The Julie Silber Connection - Oregon Coastal Quilters Guild, Newport

- Four Signature Quilts - Clark County Museum, Vancouver, WA

- Latimer Quilt & Textile Center - Bed Turnings, Expo, Portland

- Red and Green Quilts - Northwest Quilters, Portland

Upcoming in 2011

- NW Quilters show in March,
- Sisters at The Quilters Affair in July,
- Benton County Historical Museum and NW Quilting Expo in September.
- Beauty Secrets: 150 Years of History in One Quilt Pattern," Benton County Historical Museum

Notes on the Pictures:

Rocky Mountain Road / Crown of Thorns, c. 1850, Kentucky
Rocky Mountain Road / Crown of Thorns, c. 1850, Kentucky. More recently called a New York Beauty, this quilt features intricate piecework and dense quilting. The red, green and white color combination is indigenous to the civil war era. This quilt was part of the 2001 Heritage of Genius exhibit in New York, and was featured on the cover of the exhibit catalog. The quilt and a second quilt were both on display in the Durst buildings in midtown Manhattan from November through January 2002.

Bible Story, c. 1995 by Lucy Mingo, Gee's Bend Alabama.
Lucy Mingo was a central figure in the Freedom Quilting Bee and the Civil Rights movement. Among the quilt makers of Gee's Bend her work stands out, but it is not as well known because Mingo didn't always sign her own name on the backs of her quilts. This quilt has the name of her daughter, Polly Raymond. Through a stunning Facebook correspondence with original owner Carolyn Mazloomi, Bill learned the quilt had indeed been made by Mingo. The quilt sings and dances with pattern and color.

MacMillan family quilt, 1868, Kentucky.
This amazing quilt was among those discovered in the early 1980's by the Kentucky Quilt Project, the first statewide quilt documentation survey. Elaborate piecework, curved seams, and lush decorative quilting details make this quilt a true Kentucky masterpiece. This iconic quilt, a recent acquisition by the Volckening Collection, has traveled far and wide.

Rocky Mountain Road / Rocky Mount of Scotland, c. 1870, Kentucky.
Noted quilt dealer Stella Rubin included this rare example in an advertisement that appeared in the Autumn / Winter 2010 issue of Antiques and Fine Art Magazine. However, the quilt was snapped before the magazines hit the newsstands. It is one of only a few 19th century examples displaying vines and pomegranates as sashing.

Album quilt by Mary Couchman Small, c. 1850, Virginia/West Virginia
This exceptional quilt was separated from its family history for at least 15 years after it was acquired by collector/dealer Sandra Mitchell in the last decade of the 20th century. Elaborately quilted in rows of echo quilting at 11 stitches per inch and 1/16th of an inch separating rows, this quilt could easily have a million quilting stitches.

Thank you Bill. You are the first self-proclaimed quilt magnet I've met. I'm guessing you have coined a term many quilt-lovers relate too. How fun to hear your story. I look forward to seeing the multi-media avenues of quilt expression you will bring to us as you continue to magnetize other "Beauties" from the quilt world to you. Carry on and may the wind be at your back!

* Women (and Men) at Work

© 2001 - 2015 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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