VIRGINIA BEACH — This quilt has seen better days.
Among the colonial-era relics at the Thoroughgood House in Virginia Beach, an 18th-century bed cover is showing its age. So much so that’s it’s been selected by the Virginia Association of Museums as one of the state’s “Top 10 Endangered Artifacts.”
Making the list is not a proud distinction for the museum, a U.S.-registered landmark at 1636 Parish Road that predates the Revolutionary War, but the status will give community members a chance to provide needed funding to preserve the centuries-old fabric.
Annmarie Reiley-Kay, director of the History Museums division of the Virginia Beach Cultural Affairs Department, said it is unclear exactly who created the quilt, but there are clues to what kind of person would have made it.
A couple theories speculate on where it was made, Reiley-Kay said. The experts agree that the fabric itself — calamanco — is whole cloth, meaning it has not been cut or used in a patchwork way that is commonly thought of when speaking about quilts. Because the quilt is whole-cloth, that suggests it would have been made in England, she added. However, if it had been made in the United States, the cloth itself would have been imported from England.
“A bit of a quandary is then if it weren’t made here, professionally by a professional upholsterer, then we would have been made in New England, but it could have very well been custom designed from an upholstery company in England,” Reiley-Kay said.
Experts are divided on what kind of person could have created the artifact. Some suggest that because of the intricacies in the pattern, the average homemaker probably would not have the skill to create the Tree of Life designs. Others speculate that it’s totally possible someone would have been able to do this at home.
“Not to say that a woman couldn’t have done that of her own, but there are tells that they felt meant that it was done professionally — maybe a made-to-order kind of thing,” Reiley-Kay said. “Others have argued that they believe that that’s not the case, and it could have very well been done by the woman in the house.”
Residents can vote on their favorite of the top 10 artifacts selected by the Virginia Association of Museums, including the quilt, by visiting https://vamuseums-org.wishpond.com/virginia-s-top-10-endangered-artifacts-2022-3/. Voters have until Friday, and anyone interested in voting can cast a vote once per day.
The winner of the contest will receive $1,000 for conservation of the item. For the quilt, that would mean cleaning the fabric, humidifying it to revive the fibers and some structural support. Right now, the quilt has issues. It is dry, brittle and acidic throughout, with fading on both sides. There are small to medium holes and tears scattered throughout. The edges are worn and unraveling, and the corners are marked by tearing and loss.
“Part of (conservation) will actually help us to learn more about the piece, and how it was put together,” Reiley-Kay added. “And the conservation part will also allow us to be able to capture the pattern of this quilt. A lot of folks don’t think about it — and I don’t think that I had before this process — is the quilt pattern itself is unique, and how these things were made back then can be captured, saved and preserved.”
This deep indigo-glazed calamanco quilt, which features a “Tree of Life” pattern and elaborate trapunto work, is extremely rare, as no other similarly patterned quilt has been found. Trapunto, from the Italian “to quilt,” is a method of quilting that is also called “stuffed technique.” This creates an embossed finish on the quilt, and all of it was done by hand.
The quilt is the oldest quilt in the collection at the house, built in 1719, and likely could be the oldest known textile. To be selected for the endangered artifacts list, museum staff had to do research on the quilt and speak with a conservator about restoration before submitting it for the context.
“It’s been a great process,” Reiley-Kay said. “We’ve really been trying hard to to get this on the move. So it’s great that it’s getting at least some publicity so that people can learn more about it.”
Eliza Noe, email@example.com