If you look closely, you can see the unfolding story of a well-to-do St. Paul, Minn., family stitched into the pieces of an elaborate Victorian crazy quilt, which dates to the 1890s.
It tells of the experiences of their lives -- their travels and interests, pastimes and pleasures -- and the important events, such as presidential campaigns and world fairs, taking place in that era.
It also testifies to what women in those days did in creative and practical ways to occupy their time.
The Victorian quilt, which belonged to Kate Schmalenberg of Bemidji, was featured earlier this week on “Antiques Roadshow,” aired on Prairie Public TV.
A year ago, Schmalenberg had donated the quilt to the North Dakota Museum of Art, but “borrowed” it back last summer when she decided to apply for tickets to the "Antiques Roadshow" at Bonanzaville in West Fargo.
The quilt had been in her family “forever,” handed down from a great-aunt, her grandmother’s sister-in-law, who lived in St. Paul, she said. “She was from kind of a wealthy family.”
She suspects that her great-aunt, as a young girl, had had a hand in making it, but is unsure who crafted it, or if more than one woman stitched pieces into it, possibly, over time.
The “newest” date on a piece in the quilt is dated 1895, commemorating the Continental Congress. Another piece touts the U.S. presidential ticket of “Benjamin Harrison of Indiana” and his running mate “Levi Morton of New York.”
Other pieces reflect symbols of attractions, such as the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., and the Columbian Exhibition 1893 in Chicago, an event commemorating Columbus’ discovery of America, and an emblem of the “Sioux City Palace 1890.”
Schmalenberg feels strongly that the unusual quilt should be used for education and shared with others, which is why she donated it to the North Dakota Museum of Art on the UND campus.
It will be displayed there until the end of February, said Laurel Reuter, the museum’s director.
The quilt “is like a big history lesson,” said Laurel Reuter, museum director, as she pointed out its features.
In the 1880s and and ‘90s, fine silks and velvets became available to more women, who had their clothing made by seamstresses, she said, and pieces left over from gowns and other formal wear are represented in the quilt.
This quilt “has a focused point-of-view and is related to our culture,” Reuter said. “It tells the story of a time, place and class of women -- affluent America in the late 19th century.”
Typical for that era are “romantic, printed images of couples -- Greek gods intertwined -- or portraits of ladies,” she said.
'Antiques Roadshow' appearance
About a year ago, Schmalenberg applied for tickets to attend "Antiques Roadshow" at Bonanzaville in West Fargo. The tickets are awarded through a lottery system, but “we didn’t get tickets,” she said.
Not long after, though, she received word of the show’s “Knock Our Socks Off” contest, inviting viewers to send in examples of an extraordinary object and background information.
“They said, ‘Send us a picture of something and tell us what you know about it,’ ” she recalled.
She thought of the quilt and figured she’d send that, since the show was going to be held so close to her home, then, in Fisher, Minn.
Her submission earned her an invitation to the event in June at Bonanzaville.
“It was kind of fun,” she said. “I remember going to the textiles area where Steven (Porterfield, the show’s textiles expert) looked at it and looked at it, and then said, ‘Do you want to be on the show?’ ”
She agreed, and later was ushered into a “green room” to have her hair and makeup done in preparation for filming.
“It was hilarious,” she said. “It was so fun.”
The quilt, which measures 65-by-66 inches and consists of 16 13-inch-square pieced blocks, is bordered by 1-inch-wide red ribbon. It came to Schmalenberg through her mother, who died a few years ago.
“My parents were great collectors,” she said. “But what does a person do with this?”
The Victorian crazy quilt was something “that nobody wanted,” she said. Her great-aunt and -uncle had no children and “my boys don’t want this stuff.”
So it remained stored and unused, she said. “It was probably stuck in a drawer forever.”
But hidden away as it was -- protected from destructive sunlight -- resulted in an unusual level of preservation.
“Steven said there was no damage and the colors were as vibrant as the day it was made,” Schmalenberg said.
Porterfield, an authority on vintage fabrics and an antiques store owner in Midlands, Texas, opened her eyes to many aspects of the quilt and the story it told that she had never known.
“He was a wealth of knowledge,” Schmalenberg said. “He said these quilts were made from the 1860s to 1890s. It was so fascinating to talk to him.”
Porterfield pointed out that the pieces of fine silk and velvet bespoke of expensive ball gowns. The silk squares used to bundle cigars together that gentlemen would buy and the women of the family would keep to stitch into quilts -- or, if they had a sufficient amount, would use to make smoking jackets for the men.
These people “never threw a scratch of fabric away,” Schmalenberg said. “They didn’t use material like this unless it was for a gown -- it wouldn’t be for an everyday dress -- it was expensive material, beautiful material. So scraps from the gown would have been a memory piece.”
Silk lapel ribbons that promoted presidential candidates -- later replaced by metal pins -- are stitched into the random, scattered pattern.
The quilt also reveals tourist sites and other places her great aunt and uncle visited in the region -- such as Bar Harbor (restaurant) and the Brainerd, Minn., area -- as evidenced by fabric pieces with images and wording, Schmalenber said. “It’s a chronicle of their travels in the Midwest.”
Characteristic of a crazy quilt, is its fabric pieces are placed haphazardly, she said. “They don’t go in one direction, so when you’re in bed, some things face you and others don’t.”
Normally, quilts brought to "Antiques Roadshow" are valued around $400 to $500, she said, but this one has been appraised for $3,000 to $5,000.
When collecting quilts for the museum, “we look for content or a specific point-of-view,” Reuter said. “Fine craft is important but only when it underpins a strong theme or point of view.”
This quilt is a classic example of the Victorian crazy quilt that became popular in the late 19th century; it reflects Queen Victoria’s love of rich, dark colors, she said.
“There’s all sorts of different stitches,” inspired by the English tradition of fine needlework, Reuter said.
The quilt “is an encyclopedia of stitching,” Schmalenberg said. “The embroidery is unbelievable.”
Quilting enthusiasts and others marvel at the extraordinary stitches in the antique quilt, she said. “They’ll say things like, ‘How did they do that type of stitch?’ ”
“It has handpainted designs on it, too -- Steve pointed that out,” she said.
Over the years, Schmalenberg, too, has been captivated by the quilt.
“You get mesmerized by it,” she said. “Sometimes, I would take it out and look at it for an hour. There are so many different things to look at.”
She is “thrilled” that others, besides her family, are going to see the quilt, she said.
“It’s exquisitely made and in perfect condition.”