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The Clarke Family Quilt Collection [click here to see samples]

The Clarke Family quilt collection, given to Michigan State University Museum in 1986 by Dr. Harriet A. Clarke and her brother, George M. Clarke, includes forty-five quilts and quilt tops completed between 1926 and 1946 by Bozena Vilhemina Clarke, her daughter Laura May Clarke, and daughter-in-law Emilie Ann Clarke. The collection also included numerous hand-made templates and patterns, unique hand-colored graphs of planned quilts, newspaper and magazine clippings, and personal inventory notes written by the quilters. Because the Clarke quilt collection represents virtually the entire output of quilts by one family over a 20-year period and the supplemental materials reflect the entire quiltmaking process from inception to completion, it offers a unique glimpse into the quilting lives of one family. The collection also provides an excellent study example for understanding quilting activity in Detroit during this period and the relationship of the Clarke family quilters to the regional and national rejuvenation of interest in quiltmaking and home arts of the 1920s to the 1940s.

It is generally known that quilting and domestic arts enjoyed a resurgence of activity, acceptance, and popularity during the Great Depression and the 1940s. Detroit and other cities across the United States burgeoned with domestic arts activities including the development of affiliated groups, shows, and newspaper columns devoted to quilts. With the resurgence of interest in quilting, many new pattern and fabric companies came into being to take advantage of the new market of consumers eager to join the fad of producing and decorating their homes with quilts. These companies hired quilt designers to produce patterns and palettes that would reflect a "modern" look to the traditional craft. Though the patterns were often based on traditional patterns, one can see a distinct shift in the look of quilts from this period. Designers chose to use a new palette of clear, solid pastel colors, and small figured print fabrics, newly available through advances in the textile industry. They favored appliqué patterns with a central medallion, often in a floral motif. The resulting quilts are homogeneous in style and palette and clearly indicative of the period. The Clarke collection is a textbook collection of these "Depression Era" style quilts. Because the quilts in the collection were largely unused, they are in excellent condition; the lovely pastel colors and figurative prints popular during the Depression era are still bright and vivid.

Before the 1920s, quilters used handmade patterns almost exclusively in their quiltmaking. Patterns cut from scrap paper or tin were passed down and shared among friends. After 1930, commercial quilting patterns became widely available to cater to the new market of home arts consumers. Quilt patterns found in the scrapbooks of the Clarke family included those designed and marketed by Anne Orr, McCalls Pattern Company, Mountain Mist Batting Company, and those published by The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press. The Clarke quilters used all of these patterns in addition to those that they designed themselves.

Quilting in the Clarke family reflected the fabric and pattern of family life. Bozena Clarke made several quilts for each of her grandchildren and quilts were made for special occasions -- weddings, births, and graduations.

Activity followed the seasons of the year; Bozena saved the quilting for periods when Laura was available to help, and pieced blocks by herself during quiet times at the family cottage. Many of the quilts were made collaboratively by the three women, using scraps of fabric saved from the tailoring of the family's clothing. Although the Clarkes also purchased fabrics especially for quilts, during the Depression, they also used every scrap of fabric to advantage, as did many homemakers of the period.

The Clarke family quilts had been carefully stored and used through the years by Dr. Harriet Clarke, granddaughter of Bozena V. Clarke. Dr. Clarke greatly valued the collection of quilts, patterns, templates and paper materials as documents of her own family's history and creative process. She learned of the Michigan Quilt Project through her chapter of the Embroiderers Guild of America and, with her brother George, gave the collection to the Michigan State University Museum as a way of preserving her family's artistic legacy and making it available for future generations to enjoy. Of her donation she says:

Quilts are very lovely things and it [the quilt project] made me feel like I didn't want her family quilts to be distributed here and there....I couldn't bear to part with them myself. I didn't want to sell them or anything like that and... I felt so good about having all those quilts stay together, that they wouldn't get separated and washed and become unknown,...that there was a lot of diligent and loving work that went into them, and that they were family treasures.

Dr. Clarke, though not a quilter, is an accomplished needleworker in her own right. She applies the same creative skills and impulses to embroidery, needlepoint, cutwork, and other needle arts that her forebears used in their quilts. Before she donated the collection, Dr. Clarke prepared a cross-stitched label in colors complimenting the quilts' fabrics detailing the maker, dates and history of the quilt. These labels were stitched to the back of each quilt, forever linking them to their history.

Dr. Harriet Clarke and her mother, Dr. Emilie Ann Clarke, were among a handful of women in their medical studies and both women also found meaning in leading an artist life. Dr. Clarke’s support for the MSU Museum quilt collections has endured for many years and her pledged gift in her estate will continue to support the quilt-related activities for years to come.

-- by Lynne Swanson [excerpt from Marsha MacDowell, ed., Great . Concord, California: C&T Publishing. Additional notes by Mary Worrall, 2016.


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