A furniture store, a trip to Cuba, a legend regarding four wolves — how does one tell and preserve the stories and history of a family aside from the oral tradition? For decades and even centuries, the answer for many households was through the assemblage of quilts.
The Bennett family has donated two uniquely well-preserved examples of the medium to the East Hampton Historical Society, and they will be included in an exhibition of recent acquisitions planned for late spring and early summer of next year.
For almost as long as there has been fabric, creative sewers have taken the scraps to tell stories with them in colorful patterns, fine needlework, and fanciful evocations of the natural world. Quilting is one of the most sophisticated folk art mediums we have.
Although surviving examples of the craft date back to Mongolia in the first century B.C. or first century A.D. and were commonly used in the Middle Ages to provide a protective layer between armor and skin, quilting really ascended in popularity in the 19th century when mechanical weaving processes allowed fabric produced commercially to be affordable for most households. Women who had previously been consumed with weaving could now focus on other sewing projects, including needlework and quilting.
East Hampton was no exception. Joanna S. Rose, who presented a huge and well-received show of her collection of red-and-white quilts at the Park Avenue Armory in New York in 2011, noted at the time that quilts were so prevalent that for years antiques dealers in East Hampton would wrap furniture in them as protection during delivery.
Kathleen McNally was the Bennett family descendant who decided to donate the quilts — one referred to as the “wolf quilt” for its panel of four wolves, and a crazy quilt that includes a lot of embroidery — after consulting with a cousin who lives in Huntington. She had received them from her mother and put them away for safekeeping, but began wondering what would happen to them if something happened to her.
The family knew the wolf quilt was something special from their own perspective, but its more general appeal became apparent when it was included in a 1992 catalog and a 1993 show called “New York Beauties: Quilts From the Empire State,” put together by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City.
The cataloguing information refers to it as a sampler, and it was credited to Mary-Ann Bennett, who lived from 1851 to 1904 in East Hampton. The quilt itself was dated to the late 19th century and made of pieced and appliqued cotton. It is considered a quilt top because it was never attached to batting or a backing. In fact, it appears that even the panels were not finished. It is short one row and one column.
According to Richard Barons, the executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society, the wolf quilt is “one of the most imaginative, brilliantly colored and conceived applique quilts I have seen. It is in the top 100 of quilts made in New York, and there were a lot of bed covers made in New York.” While every panel might have been based on a known pattern, “she added more and changed it. There is an amazing imagination and freedom that bursts from that quilt. The quilt just bursts.”
In the folk art museum’s catalog, Ms. McNally’s mother, Olga Bennett Collins, described the quilt as “a picture history of her [grandmother’s] life here on Long Island and her family. A family of fishermen, farmers, and just plain, good folks,” who could be traced back to the time of the granting of Gardiner’s Island by England.
According to Ms. Collins, the initials appliqued throughout the panels represent the names of her grandmother’s children — Ms. Collins’s father, aunts, and uncles. She said she believed the cutout handprint was based on her grandmother’s hand. “The remaining appliqued blocks pertain to the area and manner in which her life was spent. The squirrel and the acorn are indicative of the surrounding oak trees in the area. The blocks with horses and horseshoes indicate their mode of travel — horse and buggy. The quail and the birds represent the wildlife of the area.”
The panel that earned the wolf quilt its moniker illustrates four wolves and represents a bounty paid to an ancestor, Edward Bennett (who also fought in the Revolutionary War), for killing four wolves. The bounty is in the early town trustee records, according to both Ms. Collins and Ms. McNally, and was also included in Jeannette Edwards Rattray’s book “East Hampton History and Genealogy.”
Ms. McNally’s daughter Diane McNally is currently clerk of the town trustees. She has three other daughters: Patti Daniels, Dot Field, and Colleen Stonemetz. Although Ms. McNally now lives in Vermont, all of her daughters still live in East Hampton Town.
Ms. McNally said she gave the quilt to the historical society “for safekeeping and for people to see.” Wrapping it up in a closet for all these years has kept it looking remarkably vibrant, but she felt that locking it away was not doing anyone much good.
Mr. Barons said the sturdy flannel fabrics that were staples of the households of farmers and fishermen helped in the quilts’ preservation, particularly in the case of the crazy quilt — they were usually constructed of more delicate silks and satins in the Victorian era. Even so, Mr. Barons said, he did not plan to exhibit it for more than a month’s time and only in Clinton Academy, which has UV shades to block out harmful light.
When the quilts are not on view, the historical society has them rolled up in acid-free paper and covered with acetate because folding would weaken the fabric. The quilts will be part of an eventual online database of the historical society’s entire collection.
“When I first took it [to the historical society], I didn’t know for certain that they would want it . . . maybe it isn’t a wonderful thing, maybe it was just important to me,” Ms. McNally, who recently took up quilting herself, recalled. “Then, when I showed it them, they said it was a great find. So I’m glad I did.” She said she looks forward to its exhibition and to the publication of the note cards, which is planned for the end of the year.
“I feel all of my mother’s sisters would feel the same” about the donation and why it was important for the community, which will now share in this wonderful snapshot of a bygone era.
See below for more images.
The "wolf quilt" in its entirety. Durell Godrey, photos.
Another detail with the wolves.
Mary-Ann Bennett's handprint.
The Bennett's crazy quilt.
A detail from the crazy quilt.
B is for Bennett?