Piecing History Together at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts & Fiber Arts

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IMG_8973It was 1988 when a group of ladies from Ozaukee County, who were quilters and lovers of quilts, had an idea:  they wanted to capture the stories behind the quilts so that they wouldn’t be lost to the ages.  It was an incredibly ambitious idea.

They began by travelling Wisconsin, working with historical societies, churches and individuals to document quilts – taking photos, measurements and recording the history of each one.  The project grew, and it wasn’t long before the group new they would need a home for their project; a place where they could go even beyond the quilts and embrace other textile history and fiber arts.

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They found a farm  in Cedarburg.  Not just any farm, mind you, but an almost unchanged, Civil War Era farm with a stone house, milk house, wagon shed, chicken coop, corn crib, outhouse, barn and silo, summer kitchen, smokehouse and a small stone building that had once housed a blacksmith shop – all on 2.2 acres and in excellent condition!  Other developers had wanted to tear down all of the outbuildings and build more houses, but the owners didn’t want that.  Here was a chance to not only preserve history in quilts and textiles, but preserve a prime example of rural Wisconsin and Cedarburg history, as well.  Finally, all of the pieces were coming together and, like a quilt, they stitched them up nicely.


The barn, as it looked prior to the remodel.

They purchased the farm in Cedarburg in 2001, started a fundraising campaign, and opened their doors in 2011 – on time and on budget, no less. Now, the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts has documented over 8,000 quilts and counting, built a world-class museum, restored (and continue to restore) a 19th Century Cedarburg Farm (which received Landmark Designation from the City of Cedarburg in 2004), holds classes for children and adults and has become a place of pilgrimage for quilters and quilt fanciers across the United States.    If that doesn’t impress you, this should:  they did it, and continue to do it, all with a group of very dedicated volunteers.

The Museum already houses two very important and valuable collections:  the Joe and Mary Koval Collection, which consists of 27 vintage quilts and a large collection of 18th and 19th century fabrics, valued at $500,000, and the James A. Taylor Coverlet Collection, which consists of 35 hand-woven, 19th Century coverlets.  They also have one very special quilt that honors those who donated to the museum: the Mariner’s Compass Quilt, created by the museum’s volunteers, contains the names of donors – including Marion Wolfe, a founding member and generous donor who passed away in 2007 – and is the largest donor quilt in the world.


“Modern Perspectives” Exhibit

Exhibits from around the country, as well as from their own collection, are showcased at the Museum.  Right now and through April 6th, Modern Perspectives, a collection of modern quilts and textile art, is on display.  This exhibit takes traditional art forms, such as quilting and felting, and turns them on their ear with unique use of negative space, twists on traditional design and innovative use of materials.


There are  a wonderful variety of programs for all ages at the Museum.  On unnamedSaturday, February 8th, from 11:30-1:30, they’re hosting a Book Talk & Luncheon with Nancy Zieman, of “Nancy’s Notions” fame, and host of the popular public television show, “Sewing with Nancy.”  Ms. Zieman recently published her memoir, Seams Unlikely, which tells the inspiring tale of how she overcame many hurdles, including a nerve disorder that left her face partially paralyzed at age six, and a series of operations in her teen years, and how the 4-H program taught her to sew and gave her the confidence to teach her first sewing classes in high school.

Registration is open now for University Days, which will be held on Friday and Saturday, May 16 & 17.  Registrants will be able to sample up to four classes, including quilting, knitting, weaving, dyeing, felting and sewing, and  attend keynote lectures from Bruce Seeds, a professionalarchitect who turned his sites into art quilts, and Isabella Hoffman, author of two Willow Nook Machine Felting books.  Participants are also invited to a performance featuring Lil Rev and his “Scraps of Quilting” musical review on Friday evening at 7 p.m.

There are also ongoing programs for children at the museum.  On Sunday, February 16th from 12:30-3:30, the Museum has their Family Fun Day.  This month’s theme is On the Edge, and works in conjunction with the Modern Perspectives exhibit.  Kids 5 and up can drop in and participate in a variety of non-traditional fiber art activities.  The fee is $2 for Family Members and $6 for non-members.  Adults should accompany their children for this program.

You can learn more about the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts & Fiber Arts by visiting www.wiquiltmuseum.com, or visiting the museum and gift shop at N50 W5050 Portland Rd. in Cedarburg.  The museum is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10-4, and on Sundays from noon-4, or by appointment on Mondays and Tuesdays.

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Mary Boyle is a lifelong resident of Oz, and currently resides in Port Washington with her husband and her two children, collectively known as "the bubbies."