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Quilt exhibit uncovers patterns of 19th-century life

A new exhibit of quilts featuring jewel-colored suit-lining scraps, calico letters and patterns from the Pan-American Exposition hides an old-fashioned ingredient the Buffalo History Museum will soon re-create: the communal sewing of the quilting bee.

The 19th-century tradition of sewing quilts while hanging out with friends will be part of the new show, “Quilts: Techniques & Styles,” which opened Friday and will continue through January 2017.

After the holidays, 15 local quilting guilds will take turns piecing together a quilt made of squares that represent their communities. Starting Jan. 7, people can come watch quilters in action from noon to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays at the Nottingham Terrace museum.

“They’ll share stories. They’ll share gossip. It’ll give them a chance to talk to each other, just like in the 19th century,” said Walt Mayer, director of museum collections. “It’s an activity you can step back from and you can slow your life down. Turn the media off and create something.”

It’s been 15 years since the last big exhibit of quilts from the museum’s 150-piece collection. During the new yearlong exhibit, 10 of the quilts on display will rotate every four months – in mid-April and mid-August. Another 20 will stay in a case, where they are folded into viewing drawers. Some quilted clothing, like a pony fur coat with quilted lining, also will stay out.

Mayer’s favorites included the brilliant circa-1890 quilt made by Henriette Schroeder Segebarth, the wife of a Dunkirk tailor, with scraps from suit linings.

The pattern of squares is offset with black velvet and looks vibrant and new, in service as a coverlet on the carved walnut bed in a room display. “She must have known that the black would just pop the colors,” said Mayer.

The complexity of quilts intrigues him.

“I, myself, could never make a quilt,” he said, thinking of a plain white one with a stitched pattern he likes.

“That took a tremendous amount of time,” he said. “Women didn’t have a lot of leisure time. A lot of this stuff may have been done at night, under poor lighting.”

On Saturday afternoon, Lorraine Markley wandered through the basement gallery with her husband, Robert. Here from Syracuse visiting their daughter for the holidays, they came because of a recommendation they heard at a party.

The quilts, with their fine detail, did not disappoint.

“The quilts tell a story,” Lorraine Markley said before peering at one in a drawer. It was an 1885 “crazy quilt” of fabric scraps. There was a bird and an embroidered butterfly. A face on a silken piece looked almost like a photograph.

“Look at how pretty it is,” she said. It was hard to pick out one she liked best.

One quilt had the name of its creator – Jane Waldron – spelled out in red calico. Two had features from the 1901 Pan-American Expo stitched in red, including a spaceship with wings from a ride called “A Trip to the Moon.”

In another case, wee dolls, looking like small zombies with their hickory-nut heads, sat around a miniature quilt made by Eliza Morgan Williams during an 1865 quilting party.

The quilts reminded Markley of the communal nature of the sewing art, and of her own knitting at concerts – and of the timelessness of each.

“It’s very therapeutic and stress-relieving,” she said. “It’s kind of like reading a good book, except you’re producing something.”