What Stories Does a Quilt Tell Us | The Big Question
We ask quilt restorer Betsey Telford-Goodwin … what stories does a quilt tell us?
In the late 1970s, Betsey Telford-Goodwin was introduced by a friend to the world of quilts. Her adoration for them was immediate. “They’re tactile, they’re art, they’re colorful, they’re warm—they epitomize everything I love,” Goodwin says. Today, the Boston native and owner of Rocky Mountain Quilts in York village, Maine, may just be the country’s preeminent textile restorer. Her niche: restoring antique quilts using original fabrics of the same age or older, which she’s spent nearly 30 years collecting. Amid a large collection of quilts dating back to the 17th century, we sat down with Goodwin at her shop.
“I was adopted by a wonderful family in Chestnut Hill. But after starting my textile business, I was drawn to track down my roots, and in 1994 I found my biological mother. When we met, I didn’t know anything about my background, but it turns out that I come from a family of artists. My biological grandfather also ran textile mills in New England. He manufactured some of the fabric I’m now looking for. After we met, my biological mother mailed me a quilt. It was the first one she’d ever made, and afterwards, one of my half-sisters said, ‘I couldn’t figure why Mom was making a quilt. Then you found us. Now I know why she was making it.’”
“I believe that a quilt carries its history. I’ve actually not bought a quilt because of the negative vibes I picked up from it. These feelings can come to me by holding the quilt or just looking at it. At one point I had to dump a slave quilt I’d bought. It’s worth a fortune now, but it was from a beaten, abused woman, and it just put me into tears. Later, someone told me that when you wash a quilt, you take your positive energy and put it into it by washing out the negative energy. So almost all of the quilts in my shop are hand-washed by me. If there’s negative energy, it’s gone. I’ve washed thousands of them. I’ve ruined my hands and back, but they have to be washed.”
“I got started in this business because I knew a woman who wanted to decorate her home with quilts. I was living in Colorado at the time, and I told her, ‘I can find you lots of quilts.’ Most of them were early 20th century, but because this was 26 years ago, so many of the women who made them were still living. So I’d go to their homes, and after they realized they could trust me, I’d sit at their kitchen tables and find out how they’d made them and why they’d made them. I listened to their stories—the tears that went into them, the lives. A lot of these women had lived through the Dust Bowl, so they had these amazing histories. These quilts were their expression of what they’d experienced.”
“In the 18th, 19th, and into the 20th century, women made quilts in part because they couldn’t own their own businesses and run around the country. They were expected to get married, have children, and everything was based around what they did at home. And the ones who went to school as young girls were taught needlework. It was a mark of excellence, and quilts were an art statement—women could do whatever design they wanted. It was an expression of who they were, what they loved, the colors they loved. And they were special gifts. They were wedding presents, or if someone moved far away and wouldn’t see her family again, she might be given a quilt. I’d say potentially half the quilts in my shop were never used. They were too special.”
“I always tell people, ‘Just because it’s old doesn’t make it wonderful.’ A family heirloom, however, is special and irreplaceable.”
“The joke used to be that dogs, cats, and errant bedsprings kept me in the restoration business. Now it’s washing machines, dogs, and just improper use. Think of a quilt as a sandwich: top, middle, bottom. The middle part is usually cotton, and when it gets wet in a washing machine, it doesn’t move at the same speed or direction as the top and bottom layers. This pulling action weakens the threads and causes wear and holes. I gave my daughter a quilt to take to college, and by the time she finished school it was just a rag. Here’s her mother a textile restorer, and she’d thrown it in a washing machine!”
For more information on quilts, contact Betsey Telford-Goodwin at Betsey@rmquilts.com.
Rocky Mountain Quilts
130 York Street; York, ME 03909; 207-363-6800