Lowell and the New England Quilting Museum

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Lowell is a city to the north west of Boston which birthed the American Industrial Revolution. As you walk around, you can still see the mills and textile factories that housed the first ‘power looms’ in America that automated large parts of the weaving process and manufactured the coarse cottons that take their name from the city.

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After the Great Depression and decline of the textile industry, Lowell became something of an economic wasteland. However, now, Lowell has been transformed a National Historical Park, which is a slightly confusing name because the Park part refers to part of the city itself. A huge amount of effort has been made to preserve the history and make for an interesting and informative visit.

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Sadly, the American Textile History museum has now shut due to financial issues but they are in the processes of rehoming their collections so hopefully this snapshot of history won’t be lost to enthusiasts and researchers forever. There is still the Boott Cotton Mills Museum where you can learn a little more about the lives of the ‘Mill Girls’ and see some working looms in action.

The real reason I had trekked out to Lowell though, which is an easy but fairly long journey from Boston, was to see the New England Quilt Museum. I always think of America as the home of the quilt. Whether that is quite justified, I’m not sure, as there are historical examples from all over the world but there are few places I can think of where quilting enjoys so much modern popularity.

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I think the quality of the quilts really speak for themselves but the exhibitions are absolutely incredible. The exhibitions change regularly and I was fortunate enough to visit during one from Texas all about butterflies. This isn’t just some tatty patchwork, these quilts are more akin to Renaissance art.

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Jane Kakaley, Bellevue, WA, Dreaming of Being a Butterfly?, 2013

Where possible, I’ve tried to find the maker’s websites or information, but if anyone has any links they would like added, please let me know.

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Judith Roderick, Placitas, NM, Butterfly Quilt Amish Style, 2013
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Sara Sharp, Austin TX, Amazing Symmetry of Butterflies, 2013

There was a second exhibition, slightly less glamorous, on Presidential memorial quilts. A fun way to learn a little about American presidential history I think and many of the quilts had some cute design features, like including a jellybean-patterned fabric, which was apparently Reagan’s favourite sweet.

There is a core exhibition of quilts as well, which contains some amazing crazy quilts.

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Maker Unknown, Crazy Quilt with Cleveland-Thurman Ribbon c 1890

The shop is a treasure trove, as to be expected, with some amazing remnants bags and donated odds and ends that every quilter needs. It would have been impossible to leave without those Batiks and I think ‘The Crazy Quilt Workbook’ might be the silliest, fun book I’ve read in a while.  It reminds me of Alden Amos’s Big Book Of Handspinning, just perhaps slightly less grumpy in tone.

If you are visiting the Quilt Museum, make sure you check out the wonderful Brush Art Gallery which is only a few minutes walk away. They have exhibitions and events and are home to some incredibly talented artists across a range of disciplines.

Cynthia Hughes is a weaver and dyer whose work is best described as drool-worthy. She sells her own hand-dyed yarns, a huge range of woven scarves and shawls and even some knitting kits. I could have quite happily bought the whole store but managed to restrain myself to several skeins. If you love colour, check out Priti Lathia’s store next door as well; her prints are great fun but she does some gorgeous painted ceramics too.

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It is lovely to see such a celebration of artisans and their work that is chronically undervalued and the city’s acknowledgement of how it was built on skills and work that doesn’t really exist today. Lowell is a great place for a lazy stroll around, even just to look at many of the buildings and I think the slogan found on the city’s seal may appeal to many of you, ‘Art is the Handmaid of Human Good’.

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