Unraveling the mystery of the antique quilt

New exhibit at the MV Museum uncovers stories of seamstresses of the past.

Sierra Adams inside the "Mystery Quilt" exhibit at the Martha's Vineyard Museum. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Viney

A group of high schoolers have taken a bit of Vineyard history as a starting point to shed some light on some of our early Vineyard residents. As part of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s education program, the members of two high school organizations, The Women’s Information Organization (WINFO) and the History Club, were given the task of researching the story behind an 1890s quilt. The quilt, donated to the museum by Patricia Kirwin, was a 19th century group sewing project, as evidenced by the names of a dozen different women who signed individual triangular pieces of fabric that were sewn into the quilt in question. So who were these women, and why did they make the quilt?

MVRHS senior Mercedes Giambattista was hopeful about what the artifact might reveal. “I saw the names on it, and that’s what really piqued my interest,” she said, at the unveiling of the quilt exhibit last Wednesday. “One of my theories was that they might have been a secret society,” though no evidence for that conclusion was found. Instead, Ms. Giambattista has deduced a somewhat tamer motive for the century-old sewing project: “I think the women were part of a quilting group. They probably used the project to get together to socialize and gossip.”

While that explanation may not have quite the element of drama Ms. Giambattista anticipated, the young women involved in the curatorial project have managed to unearth a good deal of information about the quilt participants. Through close examination, very thorough research, and interviews with experts, five high schoolers, including Ms. Giambattista, Samantha Potter, Sabrina Carlos, Gabi Carlos, and Nicole Bourgault, have pieced together an illuminating narrative — similar to the way the early seamstresses worked as a group to piece together the decorative quilt.

The “Mystery Quilt” exhibit occupies the museum’s Spotlight Gallery, a small space devoted to rotating exhibits. The antique quilt is featured prominently on one wall, along with blown-up photos of the panels that include the quilters’ names. Short bios of the women can be found on the adjacent wall, where visitors are invited to peek under little scraps of quilting fabric to learn more about the historical participants. The amateur genealogists tracked down as much as they could by going through old records and the Dukes County Census. In some cases, very little could be gleaned about the individuals.

However, two of the women — mother and daughter Mary Olive Hammett and Daisy Hammett — are brought to life through photos and more extensive bios. Kim Manter Cottril, great-great-grandniece of Mary Olive and member of the Martha’s Vineyard Modern Quilt Guild, supplied the photos and helped with the research and installation. “It was a terrific multigenerational collaboration of women,” says the museum’s education director, Ann DuCharme.

As part of the research, the five young women involved contacted the Martha’s Vineyard Modern Quilt Guild, which supplied an example of a contemporary quilt and samples of fabrics in traditional patterns, along with information about quilting and the possible techniques of the mystery quilters. WINFO member Nicole Bourgault, who attended a quilting session, has now become interested in the art. “It just resonated with me,” she says of the research project. “It was cool that they did this in the 1890s, and this kind of stuff really does live forever.”

Ms. Bourgault found some similarity in the modern quilting guild and what she imagines the 19th century group would have been like: “All of the women were really helpful. They didn’t know me, but they welcomed me in. I hope that’s what it was like back then. Some of the original quilters were from Edgartown, some from Chilmark, but they all came together to work on this.”

The researchers speculate that the quilters may have been part of a church group and that the project was possibly a fundraising effort. The quilt donor had no information about the artifact’s background.

MVRHS senior Samantha Potter, the sole representative of the History Club, found the project fulfilling: “It was so great to take those 12 names and create the story out of so little. It was nice to rescue the women from history.”

The research project was part of the museum’s ongoing initiative to involve students from all of the Vineyard schools (and the Senior Centers) in the Island’s history. The quilt exhibit is the third Spotlight Gallery show this year that was developed by MVRHS students.

The next Spotlight exhibit, “Teeth,” will focus on scrimshaw carvings. Alongside the museum’s collection of archival pieces and an old whale jaw, students will be showing off their own work — whale teeth and faux scrimshaw made from pottery. “‘Teeth’ is a great example of the student-driven, student-based work we are encouraging,” says the museum’s education director, Ann DuCharme. “The program is designed to have them do the work.”

The “Mystery Quilt” exhibit will continue through May 13 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. “Teeth” will be on display from May 15 to June 10.