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

Quilt Historian Interview with:

Karen B. Alexander
Quilt Historian

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 Historian."

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

"The cross fertilization of needlework patterns and textiles across all cultures has interested me since I lived overseas while in high school and again while in college. Seeing and observing crafts in some 19 countries before the age of 20 left its mark. I became especially interested in quilts as a vehicle of family history thanks to my mother-in-law, Wini Waters Alexander. Wini was very proficient at many forms of needlework before she took on quilting in the mid-1970s. The first quilt she gave us was made entirely of our eldest daughter’s art work age 3-8. Wini interpreted Sarah’s artwork in several different forms of needlework and incorporated all into a single quilt. I was hooked on quilts from then on! I embraced quilt making, quilt history and genealogical research in 1980 when we moved to Virginia the first time. In Virginia I began to dig into my paternal roots back to 1740 in the Shenandoah Valley and started a family history newsletter. In 1981 when I learned about the American Quilt Study Group I joined immediately."

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

"The American Quilt Study Group has had the greatest impact on my on-going pursuit of quilt history. I’ve already told you about my mother-in-law's influence. Truly without her influence, I may never have gotten specifically into quilting. My father was also a very powerful influence and example from childhood on due to his love of handcrafts and people’s stories."

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

"AQSG member Erma Kirkpatrick of Chapel Hill, NC, was my first mentor. She came to lecture and teach at the Richmond Quilt Guild and invited me to come to Chapel Hill and stay with her and attend the North Carolina Quilt Symposium. Because of Erma I finally attended my first AQSG Seminar in 1985. There I met Bets Ramsey, Cuesta Benberry and Barbara Brackman who eventually became mentors and friends as well.

"Erma then introduced me to the founder of The Quilters Hall of Fame, Hazel Carter, at the 1995 Smithsonian Conference “What’s American About American Quilts”. In 1995 I also joined the newly formed Antique Quilt & Vintage Fabric Dating Club of Northern Virginia founded by Hazel and her friend Bunnie Jordan. Now my textile studies began in earnest! This was also the same year I joined the Alliance for American Quilts. In 1996 I was registered to attend the first Boxes Under the Bed seminar but had to cancel when my daughter’s only child was born with a severe bi-lateral cleft that required special care. I spent 7 weeks helping her after his birth. He is one very special grandchild to me. 

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"In retrospect, meeting Hazel Carter, the founder of The Quilters Hall of Fame, (TQHF) was a life-changing event in my life. We only lived 6 miles apart and began to travel together to various quilt history events. By 1997 I was sharing my conference planning and marketing skills with TQHF and was finally persuaded to join the Board in 2001.

"In 2004 Hazel invited me to be co-chair of the Grand Opening of TQHF and to help plan the opening exhibits. After the museum opening, I continued to interview each new Honoree and write the subsequent article and to help plan and organize the Honoree exhibits for TQHF thru 2008. I also served as president of TQHF 2005-2008. So Hazel was ultimately my most “hands-on” mentor in the quilt world, if you will."

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

"Documenting the quilt maker’s story captivated me immediately for I had inherited a couple of quilts from my Great Grandfather Samuel Milton Biedler’s home in the Shenandoah Valley about the same time I first got into quilting. I set out to learn all I could about the women of that household. 

"In time I also became interested in the history of quilts as carriers of community history; the history of pattern development and dissemination; the history of textile production and its impact on the industrial revolution/economic history of the Western world; and the history of quilt revivals, but the quilt maker’s story has remained my most passionate focus."

6) What is your current pet project?

"I would have to say Signature Quilts. Signed quilts and/or Signature Quilts offer unprecedented opportunity to track down the in-depth history of an individual or a community.

"In 2004 Lynn Gorges and Nancy Hornback invited Cinda Cawley, Jan Gessin and I to participate in the drafting of a Signature Quilt documentation project. Our goal was to share our efforts with the Quilt Index in order to get feedback so that our project could dovetail with their efforts. In 2006 we five were invited to join the Quilt Index's Signature Quilt Pilot Project Team, though only three of us were free to accept at the time, Nancy Hornback, Lynn Gorges and myself. The first phase of this project was completed in August 2009. The nonprofit Quilt Index is run in partnership by the Alliance for American Quilts, Michigan State University Museum and MATRIX - The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences at MSU.

"I presently (Jan 2011) serve on the board of our local historical society, am one of four advisors to the newly launched Oregon Quilt Project and serve on the Quilt Index Signature Quilt Pilot Project Committee. 

"In light of this niche interest, I am one of three quilters who has initiated a local Signature Quilt Project on the island where I currently live, which has approximately 2500 year-round residents. Our goal is to capture the signatures of as many of our residents as possible as well as their stories about how they heard about Lopez Island and what living in this very special community means to them."

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

"Writing. Lecturing. And being a facilitator -- bringing people together in the quilt world who 'need to know each other' so that things get done in this field I am so passionate about! The Internet makes it so much easier to share our knowledge with others and to connect with others. In December 2008, while snowed in for a week over Christmas, I created three quilt history blogs: one for TQHF; one to document the history of quilting on Lopez Island where I now live; and my own blog — Quilt History Reports. As a result of starting the TQHF blog, people from over 96 countries have now visited the blog. Another example of facilitation: In 2004 I was able to assist Georgia Bonesteel and her film documentarian son, Paul, in the making of the documentary “The Late Twentieth Century Quilt Revival” by helping them bring people together and arranging studio space. The documentary was filmed during the TQHF Grand Opening and began airing on PBS stations in late 2005. In 2009 I was able to bring Carol Veillon, editor of the French magazine Quilt Mania, together with Xenia Cord. I had met Carol while on a textile study tour to Great Britain in 2007 and invited her to come to the TQHF’s Triple Anniversary. Then I turned her over to Xenia Cord, whom I had known for many years, when I could not be there myself to host her. Out of that came a whole series of articles in Quilt Mania about Indiana quilters because of Xenia's connections. This is all very reminiscent of the kind of work I used to do in the business world and I love it."

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

"Complete a Q-SOS (Quilter's Save Our Stories) project where I live and become a facilitator to help Washington and Oregon guilds to start Q-SOS projects.

"I want to fully document all quilts in my collection --- especially my Signature quilts. I’d also like to start quilting again."

9) Any further comments are invited.

"My history of volunteer work in the quilt world is actually based on previous work experience in conference planning and/or direct mail marketing with museums or companies based in Richmond, VA, New Orleans, Potomac, Maryland, and Reston, Virginia. I have loved history and have loved to write since I was at least 10 years old. I have been enamored of textiles ever since living overseas twice as a teenager. I have loved to organize events since my high school days. All of these streams seemed to finally converge in my life’s avocation – quilt history. 

"In 1980 I took my first quilting class. In 1981 started a newsletter for the Richmond Quilters Guild, served as Program Chairman, volunteered at the Valentine Museum and joined the newly formed American Quilt Study Group. While in Richmond I also co-founded a children’s division of the Virginia Guild of Needlewomen and served as its first co-director; taught quilting to children while working at the Richmond Children’s Museum; and designed and sold my own small quilted pieces through Rocky Road to Kansas in Old Towne Alexandria.

"While living in Louisiana, I published my first quilt-related article outside a guild newsletter (Robbie Fanning’s Open Chain); joined the National Quilting Association; and entered and won the logo design contest when the Gulf States Quilters Association was formed. This must have been 1985 or 1986. My suggested newsletter name entry also won their contest! Both were voted on by all members.

"In 1984 Bonnie Leman wrote in one of her editorials about my efforts to persuade the National PTA to change its rules so that needlework could be included in their annual “Reflections” contest. The rules were successfully changed in 1985 due to the grassroots efforts of several like myself from within the quilting community but I don’t know if students ever took advantage of it! I could never persuade either of my daughters to do any more quilting once we left Virginia!

"I have belonged to a quilt guild wherever I have lived since taking up quilting. It is the best way in the world to make new friends if you have to relocate! In 2005 I helped found the Western Washington Quilt Study Group shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest and volunteered to become a Regional AQSG Rep."

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

Book Chapters to date:

(1) New hardback version of the TQHF book is coming out in 2012 published by Voyageur Press, an Imprint of Quayside Press, and will carry three of my updated stories.

(2) “Mary Schafer”, The Honorees of the Quilters Hall of Fame, Supplement #2-edited by Rosalind W. Perry, published by The Quilters Hall of Fame June 2008.

(3) Introduction to “Shenandoah Valley Region,” Quilts of Virginia 1607-1899: The Birth of America Through the Eye of a Needle by Virginia Consortium of Quilters, Barbara Tricarico, Editor and Photographer, published by Schiffer Books (2006).

(4) My genealogical research “The Biedler Covered Bridge of New Market, Virginia,” appears in Covered Bridges of Virginia by Leola B. Pierce, published by Upstream Press (2002).

(5) “Barbara Brackman”, The Honorees of the Quilters Hall of Fame, edited by Merikay Waldvogel and Rosalind W. Perry, published by The Quilters Hall of Fame June 2004.

(6) “A Short History of The Quilters Hall of Fame” in Once upon a Quilt: A Scrapbook of Quilting Past and Present, edited by Margret Aldrich, published by Voyaguer Press (Oct 2003).

(7) “Stitches in Time”, in Quilts Are Forever: A Patchwork Collection of Inspirational Stories, edited by Kathy Lamancusa, published by Simon & Schuster (March 2002).

Articles by Karen B. Alexander

For Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims’ “The Quilt Show” on-line Quilting Pioneers series: http://www.thequiltshow.com/os/articles.php/cat_id/3

Jean Wells Keenan, August 24, 2009
Ruby Short McKim, July 27, 2009.
Merikay Waldvogel, June 07, 2009.
Bets Ramsey, May 11, 2009.
William R. Dunton, Mar 29, 2009.
Ruth Finley, Feb 26, 2009.
Florence Peto, Jan 27, 2009.

Pieces of Time: A Quilt and Textile History Magazine by the Iowa Illinois Quilt Study Group:

“Hazel McDowell Carter: Her Story,” Volume 3, No 1, April 2008.
“Cuesta Benberry: Her Story, Volume 3, No 1, April 2008.
“The Quilt Renaissance of Our Era,” Volume 3, No 1, April 2008.

The Quilters Hall of Fame newsletter:

“Remembering Cuesta Benberry,” No. 32, Fall 2007.
“A Tribute to Mary Schafer,” No. 31, Spring 2007.
“The 25th Anniversary of The Quilters Hall of Fame,” No. 25, Spring 2004.
The Grand Opening of The Quilters Hall of Fame,” No. 24, Fall 2003.
“Meet 2003 Honoree: Georgia Bonesteel,” No. 23, Spring 2003.
“Barbara Brackman’s Creative Career,” No. 20, Fall 2001.
“Brackman’s Induction brings ‘Material Pleasures’,” No. 20, Fall 2001.
“Meet 2001 Honoree: Barbara Brackman,” No. 19, Spring 2001.
“Evidence of Friendship: The Quilt Block Collection of Cuesta Benberry,” No. 15, Spring 1999.
“Cuesta Benberry’s Gift,” No. 12, Fall 1997.

Blanket Statements, Quarterly News Publication of the American Quilt Study Group (AQSG):

“Military Signature Quilt,” No. 65, Summer 2001.
“Grand Opening of The Quilters Hall of Fame,” No. 73, Summer 2003.

“Common Threads: Creating a Cloth for Empowerment — An International Symposium: The Role of Textile Collectives in Women’s Empowerment and Recent Research on African-American Quilters”, Review of March 1999 symposium organized at the Smithsonian Institution by Roland Freeman. Blanket Statements (AQSG), Summer 1999.

Other articles:

“2010 Lopez Island Signature Quilt,” The Lopez Island Historical Society & Museum newsletter, Fall 2010

“Quilt History Takes A Look At Itself,” The Quilting Quarterly - Journal of The National Quilting Association, Vol. 36, No. 2 #138 (Summer 2007).

“The McNallie Signature Quilt,” – History Column for The Island’s Weekly, August 2004, San Juan Islands, Washington.

“Hidden in Plainview?” Connected Threads, newsletter of the Northwest Quilters Connection, January 1999.

“A Shenandoah Valley Quilt Adventure” Vintage Quilt and Textile Society newsletter, April/May 1999.

“Documenting Our Lives on Fabric and Paper,” The Flying Needle, August 1986, Vol. XV, Council of American Embroiderers.

“Reflections Update,” The Flying Needle, August 1985, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Council of American Embroiderers.

“Personal Documentation,” The Third—and last—Free Open Chain edited by Robbie Fanning, Menlo Park, CA (1983).

“Fiber—Color—Children,” The Second Open Chain edited by Robbie Fanning, Menlo Park, CA (1983).

Articles Edited:

“Unique and Diverse Strippy Quilts in the United States,” by Hazel Carter, AQSG’s Blanket Statements, Issue 87 (Spring 2007)

Newsletters edited:

History of the Biedler/Beidler/Beydler Families of Virginia, 1994-1998, researched, wrote and did all photography and layout. ISSN#1083-4591.

Blanchard’s Bulletin Board, company newsletters of Blanchard & Co., New Orleans. I founded this newsletter for James U. Blanchard, III in 1985.

Threads of Thought, the newsletter of the Richmond Quilter’s Guild of Virginia 1982-1983.

Exhibits curated or co-curated:

I facilitated in the coordination of most of the exhibits that were hung at The Quilters Hall of Fame from 2004 - 2008. However, I usually worked with a guest curator whom we had invited to present the exhibit. Below are the exhibits I have actually curated or co-curated myself.

“Quilts from the Collection of Karen Alexander,” Lopez Island Library, Dec 2010-Jan 2011, Lopez Island, Washington.

“Crib and Doll Quilts from the Collection of Karen Alexander,” Lopez Island Library, Dec 2008-Jan 2009, Lopez Island, Washington.

“Quilts Are Forever: Winifred (Wini) Alexander Reflected in Her Quilts and Embellished Clothing,” Jan 18-March 12, 2006. LaConner Quilt & Textile Museum, LaConner, Washington.

“Virginia Avery: A Flair For Life!” Karen B. Alexander and Ann Calland, Curators July 13-16, 2006, Forest Gallery, Marion, Indiana.

“All That Jazz: The Influence of Virginia Avery” – Karen B. Alexander and Ann Calland curators. July 5-Oct 17, 2006 at The Quilters Hall of Fame.

“Pioneer Influences” TQHF GRAND OPENING Exhibit – Karen B. Alexander and Hazel Carter, Curators. July-Oct-24, 2004 at The Quilters Hall of Fame.

“Today’s Honorees: Collectors and Designers” — Karen B. Alexander and Hazel Carter, curators. July 15-18, 2004, Forest Gallery, Marion, Indiana.

My Blogs reflect my most detailed research to date:

Quilt History Reports http://karenquilt.blogspot.com/
The Quilters Hall of Fame Blog http://thequiltershalloffame.blogspot.com/
The Enchanted Quilters of Lopez Island http://enchantedquiltersoflopezisland.blogspot.com/

Lectures given to various guilds and historical societies:

“What Can Doll Quilts Teach Us About Quilt History?”
“Documenting the Family Quilt”
“Documenting Our Lives as Quilters”
“A Mini-Course on the Evolution of Quilt History”
“Quilt Scene Investigators” in conjunction with Anne Dawson.
“Quilts As Carriers of Family Heritage” Heritage Week Fairfax County Schools, Virginia, February 2003.

Thank you very much, Karen, for sharing yourself with us, and for the insights we have gained because of your efforts in this field. Continued success to you.


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© 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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