YORK VILLAGE, Maine - When Betsey Telford decided to relocate her life and business from Colorado to New England, her kids campaigned for Cape Cod. But her childhood camp memories brought her to Maine, and eventually to York Village, a fitting locale for an antique quilt business.
Settled in 1624, York is a magnet for early-history buffs who come to see its rich collection of Colonial-era architecture, tour its house museums and cemeteries, and use the Old York Historical Society's research library.
I stumbled upon Betsey Telford's Rocky Mountain Quilts while wandering around York Village, ogling the houses and gardens. Her 1748 gold Colonial sits on the northern edge of the downtown. "My home predates the Revolutionary War. That blows my mind," Telford says.
Inside her post-and-beam barn, which houses her shop, the quilts aren't much younger. Carefully folded and layered upon shelves or displayed on rods is an array of patterns and color, about 450 quilts dating from the 1780s to the 1940s.
Only serious seekers get to view them unfolded. Telford doesn't allow visitors to photograph them. But for collectors of antique textiles, the shop is one of the country's best, and Telford is a renowned specialist.
"Quilts are the most underpriced art form in America today," Telford says. They are art with benefits. "They bring warmth to a room; it's a comfort level you can't get from an oil painting, no matter how major. They're acoustically fabulous: Hang them in a hall, and they'll absorb the sounds of walking." And, she adds, "They're great to cuddle up under in the winter."
Telford, who grew up in Chestnut Hill, didn't grow up with quilts, but did grow up with antiques. "I've always had a passion for textiles. I've always been a fabric junkie," she says. In 1986, she began buying and selling quilts. She built her encyclopedic knowledge from "living and breathing quilts. I read incessantly, and I have 5,000-8,000 quilts in my database."
As an expert restorer, she's seen quilts inside and out. When a customer makes an appointment and brings a quilt in for an appraisal, Telford can provide detailed information about its approximate age, pattern, and how it was made.
For instance, a customer might look at the tight, precise stitching on a quilt and assume it is machine made, but Telford educates them otherwise. "One hundred and fifty years ago, we put things together never to come apart again, to last forever," she says.
Often, she says, people coming in for an appraisal "don't have a clue about the value, and I tell them they have a $6,000 quilt and they freak," she says. Some are saddened to learn that a family heirloom has little retail value.
When potential buyers enter the shop, Telford asks questions about whether they intend to use the quilt on a bed or a wall, their price range (quilts begin around $600), and the colors they prefer. "Head, heart, wallet, that's what I need to know to make them happy," she says.
Telford's quilts range in size from tiny doll quilts, perhaps 6-by-8 inches, to ones that fit queen-size beds. Blue-and-white quilts are the most popular, but African-American pieces are on the rise since the recent museum exhibitions of quilts created by a group of women who live in the isolated Alabama hamlet of Gee's Bend. "I've been selling African-American pieces for 20 years," she says. Currently, she has a dozen such quilts in the shop.
Since she guarantees the authenticity of all her quilts, part of Telford's job is sleuthing, using clues within a quilt to figure out its background. She has an African-American bassinet quilt that she determined was made by a house slave for a mistress who lost a child. The clues included the quality of the fabrics used and the design. "It's a miniature quilt, a mourning quilt, an African-American quilt, a pre-Civil War quilt; it's a red-white-and-green quilt; it encompasses many different levels," she says.
Telford sees part of her job as educating serious buyers to help them find the best quilt they can afford. She advises potential buyers to "love it, make sure it's real, and that it's guaranteed." Most of all, "you have to be happy to live with it."
Telford not only lives with hers, she also uses them throughout her house. "I have an 1845 quilt hanging over our bed, and we sleep under an 1830 quilt." And one lone quilt hangs in the barn-door window, luring in curious passersby.
Hilary Nangle, a freelance writer in Waldoboro, Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.