Wednesday, May 11, 2011

the fabric of a maine island family

when the mayflower set sail from england she carried in her belly a person who helped sow the seed of a maine branch of the dyer family. having started out in plymouth, massachusetts, some dyer descendants decided to head north in the late 1700's, to vinalhaven island in maine. it was on vinalhaven in the early1800's that a talented and hard-working dyer housewife promptly began her endeavor - the stitching of an exquisite woolen quilt which has been passed down through the family for generations. in the near future it may become part of the permanent collection of the farnsworth museum—a museum celebrating maine's role in american art—in rockland, maine.

i have seen and touched this lovely antique quilt thanks to denny denham, and let me tell you, it's a beauty. denny's mother was a dyer, and it was her wish to have the quilt given to a maine museum where it could be properly cared for and preserved.

embroidered and pieced wool quilts are the rarest type of eighteenth and nineteenth century bed covering. the maker of the dyer family quilt created her design using multiple techniques - quilting, piecing, and embroidery. all the fabric was most likely produced in the home. the main fabric is a plain-woven light brown wool and the backing fabric is a plain-woven pale yellow.

the consistency of the wool embroidery yarn colors indicates an expert dyer. (no pun intended - could the family name possibly be an indication of a skill passed down through the generations?) the talented quilter needed colors for her quilt, so i like to envision her stepping outside her homestead on the island one fair day, and collecting the necessary plants which could easily have produced the variation of vibrant dye colors in the threads. that was how dye was produced in the old days.

most of the quilt's squares and triangles are made up of a floral design, but the four blocks across the top which cover the pillow area contain rather unusual motifs, distinctly maine motifs. cod fish (three fins across the top and two underneath the fish suggest cod) are stitched on two of the blocks. another one features a two-masted sailing ship. an american eagle decorates the fourth block. the quilter was obviously proud of her new england roots, and with her quilt she celebrated being part of a tightly-knit american fishing community.

if we take a close look, the dyer quilt unfolds a marvelous tale of maine island history. it allows us to peek into part of the daily routine of a maine family, and imagine a long faded way of life.

woman of the island, you do speak to us across the centuries. you tell us an eloquent story—a story of your life on an island in maine—not with pen and paper, but with a pleasing folk art design, patiently, lovingly, created with fabric, and a needle and thread.            

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