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Exhibit turns up a mate for rare Civil War quilt

A Civil War quilt from the Mystic Seaport Museum (above) is on display in Lowell with another made by the same group of Maine women. A Civil War quilt from the Mystic Seaport Museum (above) is on display in Lowell with another made by the same group of Maine women. (Wendy Maeda/ Globe Staff)
By Wendy Killeen
Globe Correspondent / July 10, 2011

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For Pamela Weeks, it was like “winning the lottery in quilt history.’’

But, she said, “It’s not like going out and buying a lottery ticket; it’s doing all the work behind it.’’

For years, Weeks, of Durham, N.H., has researched so-called potholder quilts - named for the technique used to create them - which led to her guest-curating an exhibit, “One Foot Square, Quilted & Bound,’’ at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell.

The first stroke of luck was that three of the quilts gathered for the exhibit were made for soldiers during the Civil War. Fewer than 20 such quilts, 11 of which are potholders, are known to exist around the country, Weeks said.

But the big surprise came after the exhibit opened. Weeks discovered that a Connecticut museum had a Civil War quilt that matched one in the exhibit, both having been made in 1865 by the same group of women in Portland, Maine.

In unusually quick fashion for museums, the quilt found in Connecticut was brought to Lowell, where it is now on display with its “sister’’ quilt.

“It’s a very huge deal to have one quilt like that, and a second is astonishing,’’ said Stephanie Hatch of Boxford, a collector, researcher, and expert on quilts. “It’s a significant exhibit.’’

Connie Barlow, executive director of the New England Quilt Museum, said, “There is a lot of scholarly research being done in the field of quilted textiles, and I’m not sure it’s something even people who are quilt lovers are aware of. It’s just major to find two quilts made by the same group of women located widely apart.’’

“Civil War quilts will continually be a focus, as this is the 150th anniversary of the [start of the] Civil War,’’ Hatch said. “As a result of this exhibit, someone will come forward and say ‘I have one.’ ’’

According to a scholarly paper written by Virginia Gunn, which Weeks called the “seminal piece’’ on Civil War quilts, about 250,000 quilts were made for soldiers and fewer than 20 are known to still exist. Most were worn out, thrown out, or burned for sanitary reasons.

The “sister’’ quilts in the Lowell exhibit, one of which is on loan from Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, Maine, and the other from Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, were made by the Portland Ladies Soldiers Society.

Weeks first knew of the quilt in Kennebunk. In the tradition of inscribed quilts, which have names, dates, and other text written on them with quill pens, it includes about 20 signatures. It also is distinctive in its brown and red colors, and military, patriotic, and nautical motifs.

When she sent out a postcard announcing the potholder quilt exhibition in Lowell, Weeks got a call from an acquaintance at the museum in Connecticut saying she thought it had a potholder quilt, but it hadn’t been displayed in 10 or so years.

Weeks took a trip to Connecticut. “They roll out this quilt and it’s brown and red and with many of the same military and patriotic symbols,’’ she said. “I about fainted because I am looking at the rarest of the rare, a Civil War quilt made by the same group of people as the quilt in my exhibition. It’s goosebump time.’’

She said the quilts are priceless because they are so rare.

“They are not beautiful quilts. They are utilitarian,’’ Weeks said. “What is special about them is they are inscribed; it’s the writing on them that probably saved them.’’

Upon further research, she found that four women from the Munjoy Hill neighborhood of Portland signed both quilts and three of the women were related.

“It’s a big detective project. I love it,’’ said Weeks, whose work researching quilts involves a lot of genealogy. “Every day, I spend a couple of hours chipping away at these mysteries.

“For me, a museum exhibit is about the stories,’’ she said. “And the stories of these two quilts are just so compelling.’’

Weeks’s book, “Quilts for Union Soldiers: Civil War and Now,’’ which is scheduled for publication in January, will have an added chapter on the “sister’’ quilts.

“To have it come together the way it did and in this year, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, is very exciting,’’ Barlow said of the exhibit.

The quilts will eventually be returned to their museums. But Barlow said ‘they’ll go home with more prestige and appreciation in their own neighborhoods.’’

“One Foot Square, Quilted & Bound,’’ at the New England Quilt Museum, 18 Shattuck St., Lowell, through Sunday. Call 978-452-4207 or visit www.newenglandquiltmuseum.org.