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

Quilt Historian Interview with:

Carol Ely, PhD,
Museum Educator and
Exhibit Developer

The text is provided by each interviewee and is unabridged and unedited.

Contact Information

Carol Ely, PhD,
Museum Educator and
Exhibit Developer ely@iglou.com

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

“I'm a historian - not really a textile historian, but a social historian - I study the people who made and used textiles and the context of their lives in American history. As a museum educator and exhibit developer, I've worked on various exhibits to try to put quilts in context as both aesthetic objects and artifacts of a particular time and place and set of circumstances. I'm more an educator and interpreter than a curator. I've moved between the worlds of academia and the museum, and have tried to bring the best of both to each other.”

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

“I'd been interested in quilts from an aesthetic viewpoint, and in making them, since the quilt revival of the early 70s, when I was a teenager. When I was in graduate school it struck me one day that to understand women's lives I needed to understand more about their work - what they did all day. And much of that is ephemeral - the caring for people, the cooking, the cleaning - but the textiles they made might have survived, and might tell us something about the people… I started out thinking of women, but actually, men had roles to play too. So my dissertation, called Domestic Economies, was about the work with textiles done by women, men, and children too, from the 17th to the early 19th century in America. I examined spinning, weaving, other processes, sewing, and included embroidery and quiltmaking. Quilts in particular have been so sentimentalized, we see them in a fog of nostalgic associations. I wanted to cut through the fog, look at the documents, look at the artifacts, see what was really there.

“Quilts and other textiles have become part of a dearly-held myth of pioneer self-sufficiency, which has become such an important part of our sense of national character. But what I've found is not just self-sufficiency - it's interdependence, specialization, cooperation, complexity, community, technology, the role of the marketplace, and Americans as part of an evolving trans-Atlantic system of creating, trading, and using textiles. I find that not only more true, but more interesting.”

3) What "known" individual (or group) influenced you most and why?

“I got to graduate school at Brandeis University right when the 'new social history' was coming of age - the study of people's family life, work life, gender roles, and "material culture" - the "stuff" of history. My first influence in graduate school was John Demos, whose, 'A Little Commonwealth' looked at just those things for Plymouth Colony - he made the Puritans real by looking at their houses, furniture, clothing, and more. Then I went more formally into study of Material Culture as a field, and worked with Jane Nylander, who was at the time textile curator at Sturbridge Village, and with Robert Blair St. George, a great theorist. I learned to look at quilts and their history from the same critical focus that scholars apply to architecture, or furniture. I should also mention my advisor, David Fischer, who has an amazingly universal grasp of everything, who encouraged me to look at "the long run" of history, and to study the objects themselves as much as possible.

“In the mid-80s I started working with the group that founded the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, first as a museum consultant to organize the planning and do a feasibility study; and then as the first acting Director of the Museum. I got to know many people, mainly but not only women, who were passionate and knowledgeable about many aspects of quiltmaking, historic and contemporary, collectors, artists… and I got a real crash course in the politics of the modern quilting community.”

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

“I didn't really have a single mentor- many people influenced me. I also worked for a while at the Charles River Museum of Industry, which is located in the first integrated (everything under one roof) textile mill in America, built by the same company that went on to build the Lowell Mills. That gave me an appreciation of the impact of industry on women's household work with textiles, which was also a focus of my dissertation - and, forget sentiment or nostalgia for a pre-industrial past - women welcomed industrialization. More fabric, better, cheaper; work for wages in the mills. Around this time I read Rachel Maines' essay on quilts as artifacts of industrialization ('Paradigms of Scarcity and Abundance'), and thought it was brilliant. At Charles River I worked with Gail Fowler Mohanty, who studied Rhode Island handloom weavers during the transition to factory industrialization, and who has since written about Rhode Island quilts.”

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

“I always wanted to understand people, through the things they used and made. At first I wanted to help to write women and their concerns and accomplishments back into the story of American history… and I still do, but now with more nuance, complexity, concern for accuracy, and also appreciation.

“I think I've come back to seeing quilts more as simply visual and sensory experiences, rather than always intellectualizing them as much as social constructs.”

6) What is your current "pet project"?

“Right now I'm working on a book about something else entirely, and I'm working on an exhibit about something ELSE entirely… but I hope to go back to the topic of my dissertation and redo it for publication. Much of it was drawn from documents, trying to get at the background of the creation of textiles as objects of commerce and utility. What I missed out on was really studying the textiles themselves, as a curator might, and more of that visual and tactile understanding.”

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

“It felt great to get the New England Quilt Museum open, which was a collective accomplishment. My research doesn't feel completed yet… so not fully satisfying, yet… maybe when I get it shaped into a book. Recently, here in Kentucky where I live now, I taught a short course on quilting history with Shelly Zegart, and it was great fun to work with her and hear her stories and insights, and learn more about the world of quilt dealing and collecting.”

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

“I'd like to really put all the pieces together (a quiltmaking metaphor!)… find a way to explain and illuminate the experiences of people in the past through their material accomplishments… particularly through quilts, which were a conscious and unconscious repository of hopes, dreams, traditions, comfort, technical precision, status, nostalgia, memory, culture….”

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

“Because I work as a consultant on many kinds of museum exhibits and also teach, my work has been eclectic, generally combining history with the study of buildings and objects, not always directly involving textiles. In some of my work, such as teaching undergraduates American History and training museum docents, I make sure to integrate and include textiles as part of the class.

“These are some of the more textile-relevant contributions:”

Museums and exhibits:

“I was the first Director of the New England Quilt Museum, Lowell, Massachusetts. As a consultant on museum planning, I prepared the initial feasibility study and development plan that established the Museum in its first home in Market Mills. As the museum's first Director, I managed start-up operations, including building renovations, work with other agencies and commissions in Lowell, program and exhibit planning, and staff and volunteer hiring and training (l986-1988).

“I was the first Education and Public Program Director, Charles River Museum of Industry, Waltham, Mass. (the original Boston Manufacturing Company textile mill building), doing the start-up planning and programs for a new museum interpreting the technology, labor and culture of the industrial towns of the Charles River valley from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries (1985-1986).

“I was a Guest Curator, South Area Jewish Community Center, Stoughton, Mass., for an exhibition called Joseph's Coat: Contemporary Jewish Quiltmaking, an exploration of the role of textiles in the Jewish folk tradition and in the modern expressions of quilters (1989).”

Research, publications, and presentations:

Ph.D. Dissertation: “Domestic Economies: Household Textile Manufacture and the Family in Massachusetts, 1630-1830,” done in the program History of American Civilization, at Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1999. (Dissertation available for purchase online through University Microforms; I hope to revise and publish it in the future.)

Presentation: “Domestic Economies: Household Textile Work and the Family in Massachusetts, 1710-1840,” at the Third Textile History Conference, sponsored by the Museum of American Textile History, held in Tewkesbury, Mass., September 21-23, 1990.

Class: “The Story of Quilts,” Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, with Shelly Zegart, Spring 2002

General-interest museum publications/presentations:

Creating a Web Site for Your Museum,” in Collective Vision: Starting and Sustaining a Children's Museum, ed. Mary Maher, published by the Association of Youth Museums, 1997.

Creating In-House Exhibits that Work,” presenter at the Virginia Association of Museums Conference, Norfolk, Virginia, 1996.

Exhibits Out of Thin Air,” presenter and moderator of panel presentation on exhibit design for small museums, at the conference of the Association of Youth Museums, Philadelphia, 1995.

Chapter “Museums and Galleries” in The Guide to Jewish Boston, 1985.

. . . and lots of non-textile exhibits, programs, and writing.

Thank you Carol, for enlightening us on your creative pursuits in the museum world. You have developed quilt and textile oriented museums and exhibits that we enjoy today. We wish you success in your new, or different subject areas, but look forward to further work and book publishing in the quilt history arena.


* Women (and Men) at Work

© 2002 - 2016 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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