What do the statistics tell us about New Mexican quilt tops? My rural quilt documentation project photographed and recorded data on 352 quiltmakers and 848 quilts, made between 1900 and 1996, in eight counties, equally divided between northern and southern New Mexico.
Because of a shelf-like geologic formation, La Bajada, just south of Santa Fe, has been divided into the arriba (upper), and abajo (lower) portions since the earliest Spanish explorations. This escarpment was so daunting for early travelers that it effectively contributed to the isolation of the northern counties. The European settlement of the high plateau came early, primarily because Oñate's settlers (1598) were welcomed by the northern Pueblo of San Juan, and decided to establish their colony and church at nearby San Gabriel. In 1610, the colony was moved by Oñate's successor, Pedro de Peralta, to a more auspicious location 24 miles away, named Santa Fe. Even today, the predominantly Spanish, older style counties (Taos, Mora and Rio Arriba), lie north of La Bajada. San Miguel county, although east of La Bajada, is included in the northern counties. The southern counties represented in the survey are Torrance, Grant, Catron and Socorro.
Driving south, La Bajada becomes more than a steep hill; it is the division from sagebrush and trees to sagebrush and sandy dirt. The elevation drops to only a mile above sea level, the roads are flat and straight, and the mountain ranges are far in the distance. Yucca and cholla cactus begin to appear, and the sagebrush is gradually replaced by mesquite and salt cedar. One can trace the course of the Rio Grande in the distance because of the line of green vegetation and giant cottonwood trees, but there are no more tall pines until one climbs back into the mountain ranges of the far south and west.
Is there any clear indication of a difference in approach to patchwork between the Hispanic and "Anglo" cultures? ("Anglo" is the local term for anyone who is not of Spanish or Native American heritage.) Among the Hispanics, there is more individuality and less concern to make repetitive, identical patchwork blocks. The Anglos generally prefer the more familiar (to them) formalized styles of quilt design. Prior to 1930, when Anglos were still scarce in the northern part of the state, the survey found 11 quilts made in the familiar repeated block motifs of the eastern United States. Ten of those 11 blocks were from the southern counties, by then predominantly Anglo, and one was from the north, made by an Anglo settler. Today, cultural exchange is erasing these differences.
How many quilts have been forgotten, lost, strayed, or dumped? Viola Silva, after she had produced between one and two hundred old-way quilts for family use, said she could begin to relax and make only about twenty quilts annually, to replace those that had been lost or torn beyond repair. These were mostly bedroll quilts, used before the harvesting of San Luis Valley potatoes was mechanized in the 1970's. Before that, to harvest only 1000 acres of potatoes, required 10 days and 100 men. If every man used a bedroll of five quilts, a total of 500 quilts was necessary for the job.
Quilts are lost or destroyed in other circumstances, and it becomes difficult to draw valid numerical conclusions based solely on the quilts that have survived or are too new to be abandoned. Nevertheless, we can get a feeling for the place quilts held, and continue to hold, in each family.
Statistically speaking, 101 quilts made between 1931 and 1950 have survived. Of these, 61 are done in traditional block designs, not hit or miss. From the north, the Strawberry Block design can be dated to this period because it is one of Ruby McKim's patchwork patterns published in the Kansas City Star, between 1929 and 1931. This design also appears in a Taos quilt made by Mariann Brehl, the Austrian wife of a German-born doctor.
Other block designs from the northern counties are: one each of Four Doves in the Window, Courthouse Steps, Star and Diamonds, Lightning, Expanded Nine Patch, Pinwheel, Ohio Star, Philadelphia Square, Sunbonnet Sue, Nine Patch, Butterfly, Single Wedding Ring, Mexican Rose, Bowtie, and Fan; three Double Wedding Ring, two Grandmother's Flower Garden, and two embroidered block quilts. Only two of these, Sunbonnet Sue and Butterfly, are the more time-consuming appliqué.
Sunbonnet Sue, (northern),
by Miviana Tapia Ribera, (48"x59"), 1993
Sunbonnet Sue, (southern),
by Viola Bradberry, (61"x74"), 1930
In the south, there are three appliquéed Butterflies and five Sunbonnet Sues. In spite of Sue's popularity, her male counterpart, Overall Sam, seems never to have made the hit parade in any region of New Mexico. Maybe he wasn't appropriate. As Pearl Spurgeon of Glenwood said in 1950 when she gave her Dutch Girls and One Boy quilt to a friend, "It's my Mormon quilt." In the south there are also: three Nine Patch, two Trip Around the World, six appliquéed flower designs, four Double Wedding Ring, five Grandmother's Flower Garden, four Lone Star, two Fans, one Rail Fence, one Box in a Box and one embroidered block quilt.
Can we draw any conclusions from these numbers? Is it even reasonable to assume that these surviving quilts can give us an accurate picture of the quiltmaking scene? Several answers come to mind. Pretty block patterns travel quickly from neighbor to neighbor and across the two halves of the state. The owners were prouder and the families took better care of the "fancy" quilts than of the utility quilts. Over half of the quilts dated between 1931 and 1950 were "fancies" (61 out of 101). Some patterns such as Grandmother's Flower Garden and Nine Patch, both one-template designs, have always been more popular than others, perhaps because they are more forgiving of random color selection. People with fewer resources take more liberties with their designs.
What about color? In all decades of quiltmaking there seem to be no regional favorites, just personal preferences. Wildly mixed colors predominate because, at heart, these are scrap quilts. This is a land where the older women in the more conservative north still wear house dresses topped with a cardigan to keep off the chill. Pant suits appear when a younger family member has moved to the city, and buys for mother and grandmother. Blue jeans are the practical result of long hours outside helping with the ranch chores. If these styles seem old-fashioned, remember that the philosophy of everyday clothing, like that for quilt fabrics, is recycle, reuse, and hand-me-down.
With color, however, the farther north one goes, the stronger the dark and light contrasts become. For instance, in Taos County, the appliquéed figures of Tulips and Sunbonnet Sue are attached with a contrasting bold black blanket stitch. Dark quilts are tied with white, pink or yellow string, or all three. If environment does influence crafts people, then the white snow needs to be remembered against the dark presence of the mountains.
The statistics also show us, that like the rest of the United States, the Bicentennial brought a tremendous upsurge in quiltmaking in New Mexico. The whole nation was looking to the past and taking pride in pioneer activities. Beginning in 1931, and continuing to 1970, the recorded production of all quilts in the survey averaged 54 per decade. In the decade from 1971 to 1980, it jumped to 119 and has been climbing ever since.
Numbers are important because they lend credence to preconceived notions. In traveling through New Mexico, I had a feeling of differences, but until all of the data was recorded and compared, I could not substantiate those suspicions. What has become clear, is that an Anglo/Eastern U.S. tradition dictated rules for quilts that are absent in the quilts made by Hispanic people. Their quilts appear more unfettered, experimental, and pragmatic. With time, these distinctions have begun to fade.
BACK IT UP
The backings on the quilts are almost as varied as the tops, and statistics indicate a clear difference between backings designed in the predominantly Hispanic north and Anglo south. Fifteen percent of the northern county quilts are reversible; one percent of southern county quilts are. Eleven percent of northern county quilts are backed with large patches of sacking, etc.; this is true for only two percent of southern backings. When it comes to whole-cloth backing, either a sheet or minimally seamed yardage, the numbers reverse to seventy percent in the south, and only forty-five percent in the north. Several factors are reflected in these numbers. One is the homogeneity that mass communication has brought to quiltmaking; newer techniques are popular throughout the state. "This Lone Star I made in 1990 was my first use of strip piecing and using a rotary cutter [seen on TV]. Now that's all I use," says Lee Pearce of Silver City. Another factor is the love for pattern and color in the north which makes a tied quilt all the more cheerful, but would almost obliterate fine quilting stitches, the preferred fastening of southern quilters.
Lone Star, by Lee Pearce, (78"x90"), 1990
The newer the quilt the more likely it is to have a whole-cloth backing. Living along the railroad brought goods practically to one's doorstep. Today that convenience has extended to almost anyone with an automobile, but hitching up a horse and wagon, and devoting an entire day or more to a trip to town, was another story. The need and desire to use what was at hand saved both time and money. "These colors aren't just right, but, you know, if you got it cut you got to sew it up."
A thrifty housewife, the home economist bulletins tell us, was much to be admired. In 1921, the United States Department of Agriculture described farm women as one who "delighted in finding ways and means by which to make her surroundings yield up to her and her family the best things of life."
Mail order was especially popular before World War II, when many roads in New Mexico were unpaved. Not until the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, was an effort made to create a federal highway system that would permit the delivery of mail by truck rather than railroad. An envelope of iron-on transfer embroidery patterns could be ordered from The Pictorial Review Company in New York City for 15, 19, or 20 cents. The national newspaper, Grit, had a weekly pattern column. This is where Tillie Velasquez of Costilla, in the 1950's, ordered transfer patterns for all 48 state flowers. She completed the quilt in Costilla in 1984.
State Flower, by Tillie Velasquez, (64"x101"), 1984 and a detail
Another feature that shows a north/south distinction is fiber content of fabrics used for quilt tops and backs. Wool comprises 2% of the total fabric yardage, or 17 quilts out of 848; 15 of these were made in the north. Was there a preference among sheep owners for wool? It is more likely the need for extra warmth and durability where winters are long and harsh.
Let's look at the figures for denim, which accounts for 20 quilts; 17 were made in the north. The north was more isolated; the people were poorer in terms of cash; it was and is a more recycle-oriented economy. Mixed fiber quilts tell a similar story. They represent 69 quilts; 51 were made in the north. Polyester, frowned on in quilt literature, tells the same story. Polyester accounts for 62 quilts; 52 of these are northern.
The remaining quilts, eighty percent, are made of cotton. Cotton is and always was the most popular and most common fiber for quiltmaking throughout New Mexico.
Is it possible to distinguish a Hispanic-made quilt from an Anglo quilt? It is about as certain as dating an undated quilt from clues in the fabric. Before the resurgence of quilt interest and publications at the time of the National Bicentennial, distinctions were more clear. Generally, a Hispanic quilt freely interprets the one-patch concept so long as the "square" fits. Other tops are appliqués in original interpretations of flowers and butterflies. There is much more originality in the use of scraps of cloth because the pattern is determined only by the maker. Also, since these quilts will be tied, all weights of fabric can be used together. The backing on the quilt is pieced. The filling is anything other than a standard manufactured batting.
Butterfly, (Hispanic, Peñasco),
by Fidelia Vigil, (64"x80"), 1950
Butterfly, (Anglo, Silver City),
by Alta Cloudt, (78"x96"), 1965
An Anglo-made quilt is more likely to be divided into repetitive patterned patchwork blocks. The fabrics are light weight, the filling is carded cotton or a commercial batting, and the quilt is quilted more often than tied.
Both cultures do agree on one thing. If a sewing machine is available it is used.