Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My new "day job" 3

The 600+ panels in the International Honor Quilt collection were supposedly catalogued in 1994, but don't try to take that to the bank.  The database is supposed to include information on the panel, the woman or group honored in the panel, the maker of the panel and biographical information about her, the maker's statement (about why she chose the honoree, how she made the panel, or whatever else she wanted to say), technical information on the panel's condition, measurements, materials and techniques, and a detailed description of the panel.

Materials, techniques and description are my responsibility, while the other fields are being checked and corrected by others on the project staff.  In my three fields, we're finding that some panels have no information at all, while others have been incorrectly described.

For instance, 18 of the first 54 we've gone through had no information on materials, techniques and description!  That's a lot of blank spaces in the data base.

But even the ones that have been filled in by past cataloguers need to be carefully checked for accuracy.  The previous cataloguers sometimes confuse hand and machine stitching and use catchall terms such as "hand sewn" instead of distinguishing between hand piecing, hand applique and hand embroidery.  Considering that this project is officially about "quilts," it's discouraging that they have not carefully distinguished between quilting and other forms of stitching.

One of the cataloguers seemed enamored of the term "partial machine construction," which means nothing to me.  "Top stitching" is frequently used as a descriptor, except sometimes it means machine applique, other times it means quilting, still other times it means embroidery.

the cataloguer thought this beautiful padded satin stitch was machine embroidered

The previous cataloguers also didn't pay much attention to how the edges of the panels were finished -- traditional quilt binding, facing, knife-edge finish, fabric from the front or back of the panel folded over the edge and stitched down on the other side, or whatever.  In many cases there was no description at all of the edge, and in others it wasn't accurate.

In addition, we've decided that consistency in the descriptions is a virtue, so I'm rewriting them to always begin with the "border," which almost always contains the name and location of the honoree, then describe the interior triangle, then the edge finish, finally the reverse.

So I inspect each panel, compare it to what the cataloguer wrote, poke and prod the work to determine what techniques were used, occasionally feel the goods with my ungloved hand to identify the material, and write my own notes.  Then at home I type it all into the database; it usually takes me a bit longer to type up the notes than it did to inspect the panels.

The curators had acquired several pairs of those baggy, limp white cotton gloves to protect the quilts, but I said we needed Machingers to make it easier to work, so as of yesterday we're the proud owners of four pairs!  I have a long embroidery needle that I use to poke at the work and lift an edge or pull a seam open to see how it was stitched, a ruler to measure the borders and a magnifying loupe to get a better look at the stitches if necessary.  And we had to get a metric tape measure to do all the dimensions in centimeters (we argued for quite a while about whether to stick with inches, but couldn't agree on whether to say 1.125 or 1 1/8 and whether those three decimal places were misleadingly "accurate").

I had to gingerly poke at this one to determine that the tiny orange stitches are made with a punch needle, not french knots

But enough about research methods; more in subsequent posts about what I'm finding as I inspect the panels.


  1. Your descriptions of the 1994 database are making my librarian soul ache.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  2. Kathy, you are learning that there are museum standards, but they are not always "lived up to."
    It's hard work, but a fascinating look you'll never get out front in the museum.

  3. What you are doing is truly a labor of love....

  4. Oh THANK YOU! They deserve to be described correctly. Even just so that the unknowledgeable can understand what they are looking at. In April I went to NYC, and went to an exhibit at the Folk Museum special show. One of the items was specifically and several times described as a 'hand crocheted dress' when it was absolutely nothing of the sort. I crochet and that wasn't it. It was machine made lace yardage that did not even resemble crochet in the least. So. Accuracy. It's important. And I was kinda irritated. I mean, I would expect that from a county museum with no budget and an emphasis on things other than fiber items. But NYC? A Folk art museum show showcasing textiles? Really?