I started working at the Phillips Library in December, 2006. In 2007, the New England Quilt Museum announced a juried exhibition that would honor the City of Lowell, Massachusetts and commemorate the museum’s 20th anniversary. Entitled, Lowell Inside and Out, the exhibition would display quilts inspired by Lowell, its historic buildings, its canals, and its textile history.
Although I had shown many of my quilts in local quilt shows, I had never displayed one in a museum before and the possibility intrigued me. It was even more interesting because the first quilt I ever made was displayed in a quilt show held at the Lowell Boot Mills. My first quilt was a replica of an antique quilt that I could not afford; it was created using brown calicoes with a barn-raising log cabin pattern on the front and a nine-patch design on the back. Since I had the sewing skills I bought fabric and completed my first quilt in 1979. Thirty-four years later, I am still quilting and have definitely spent more money on fabric than that original quilt would have cost me!
I decided I wanted to use the same log cabin/nine patch design for the quilt entry, but knew I needed a connection to Lowell that would make the quilt unique enough to qualify for entry into the exhibition. I became a patron of the Phillips Library collection, researching the city of Lowell with relish. I discovered that the motto for the city seal was Art is the Handmaid of Human Good, which immediately became the name of the quilt. Counted cross-stitch borders for the top and the bottom of the quilt were created to incorporate the motto into the quilt. Additional fabric, yarn, buttons, and thread were all purchased from Lowell stores; beaded knitting and needle felting were incorporated into the quilt to honor the Lowell woolen mills.
Many years ago, I had read Call the Darkness Light by Nancy Zaroulis and became very interested in the Lowell mill girls, which led me in the second direction of my research. The library collection holds Harriet Jane Hansen Robinson’s book, Loom and Spindle, or Life Among the Early Mill Girls…, which provided more information about the mill girl system. Additional research identified Lucy Larcom’s connection to the textile mills. Robinson’s book also led me to passages from The Lowell Offering, in which Larcom published many of her early works. Lucy’s mother ran a boarding house in Lowell, at which Lucy worked, until she was old enough to work in the mills. Her interest in writing was fostered by the literary evenings among friends. Eventually, The Lowell Offering published Lucy’s writings; later on, she wrote several books, which are included in the library collection.
Text on the quilt was transferred from copies made of statements from The Lowell Offering and Larcom’s A New England Girlhood (1889). Looking at the quilt, text in the left center section, from A New England Girlhood, reads: …when I heard that there were artists, I wished I could some time be one. Text in the right center section, from the same source, reads: Well, I would find out what this Myself was good for, and what she should be!
The text on the left side panel was taken from The Patchwork Quilt by Annette (Harriet Jane Farley), The Lowell Offering, Volume 5, September, 1845. A partial transcription of this panel is shown below.
Yes, there is the Patchwork Quilt looking to the uninterested observer like a miscellaneous collection of odd bits and ends of calico, but to me it is a precious reliquary of past treasures; a storehouse of valuables, almost destitute of intrinsic worth…
The right panel discusses Larcom’s experience of learning how to quilt, taken from A New England Girlhood, in which she writes about the joy of …assorting those little figured bits of cotton cloth…they reminded me of the person who wore them.
When complete, the quilt honored many layers of textile history in Lowell and also made an interesting connection to PEM’s mission to create experiences that transform people’s lives. The experience of creating a quilt for a juried exhibition and having it accepted into another museum I respect, did in fact transform my life.