Long before she criss-crossed the nation urging the public to give women the right to vote, suffragist Susan B. Anthony became the master of a skill that is more associated with tradition than change.
In 1835 at the age of 15, Anthony completed a hand-stiched quilt that still exists, but is currently stored in a museum in Rochester, N.Y., because it is too fragile for public view.
But thanks to a group of 64 quilters, many of them from the Berkshires, a replica of that quilt is being constructed that will eventually be on display at the Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum on East Road.
The local quilters took 13 months to complete the quilt’s top layer, which has 180 squares, half of them with eight-point stars in a LeMoyne star pattern.
A second group of quilters in Overland Park, Kan., are scheduled to join the quilt’s top layer to the backing and batting (lining) before the completed piece is returned to Adams. The top layer hasn’t been shipped to Kansas yet, and it’s unclear when the entire project will be finished.
But for the local women who worked on the quilt, replicating what Susan B. Anthony had done over 150 years ago was a labor of love.
"It was a great project," said Gail Miller of Cheshire, who coordinated the initiative.
Carol Crossed of Rochester, N.Y., the president of the Birthplace Museum’s board of directors, came up with the idea of replicating Anthony’s quilt. Another group had done an earlier replication 20 years ago.
"That must have planted an early seed," she said.
The participants, who came from as far away as Schenectady, N.Y., and New Hampshire, were all volunteers, Miller said, who learned of the project through "word of mouth."
The group first met at the Ralph Froio Senior Center in Pittsfield to cut the fabric into 1,500 squares, diamonds, blocks and triangles, to create 6-inch blocks for the stars to go in.
Many of them had to learn how to hand-stitch the quilt the way Anthony did. The original was completed 15 years before the sewing machine was invented.
"Many of them did not how to do hand-piecing, which was important because the original quilt was done by hand," said Connie Logan, a quilt historian and juried quilter from Great Barrington, who oversaw the quilt’s technical assembly.
"It’s not surprising," Logan said. "It’s just a little running stitch. You just need to know the technique to cut out the pieces, and sew them accurately. Most of the ladies who worked on this quilt had worked on quilts before."
After the blocks were completed, the quilters brought each square from Pittsfield to St. Mary’s Church in Cheshire, where they were laid out so they could be placed in each of 18 rows. Miller said nine of the sewers put the pieces together, and Logan finished the job.
The replica quilt, like the original, is made of cotton. Two Berkshire quilt shops, Tala’s in North Adams and the Pumpkin Patch in Lee, assisted in the fabric selection and cutting.
The original quilt had 16 different fabric designs in uncoordinated prints, which Logan suggests were probably made from scraps, ones that Susan may have culled from her father’s cotton mill in Adams.
The star pattern is pieced together with predominately indigo and tan backing. The Anthonys were Quakers, and those colors were very popular in the Quaker community, Crossed said.
To obtain the exact shades of color, Crossed said the group used pantones, a standard set of colors for printing specified by a single number, and matched them to pictures of the original.
"It took a couple of trips to the museum," she said.
Although Anthony is better known for her work on behalf of women’s rights, Crossed said the composition of the original quilt shows that she had become a skilled quilter at a very young age. Anthony, who learned to read and write at the age of 3, began work on the original quilt when she was 11.
"My guess is that this would have been quite an enterprise for a young girl like Susan," Crossed said.
She said many people are surprised that the original quilt still exists.
Anthony’s family, which moved from Adams to Batten ville, N.Y., when Susan was 6, suffered devastating financial losses in the panic of 1837. Her father was a cotton manufacturer, and the family’s losses were so severe that they tried to sell everything they owned, including personal items, at auction. But their personal belongings were saved by Susan’s uncle, Joshua Read, who bought them at auction then returned them to the family.
"This quilt must have been purchased by her uncle, Joshua," Crossed said.
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