BENNINGTON -- There's not a whole lot known about Jane Stickle, a Vermont resident who lived during the Civil War. From clues we know she was likely educated and fairly wealthy. But the most remarkable thing she's known for is what is likely the last remaining quilt she sewed.
"The problem with women's history in the 1800s to mid-1800s is that they don't really leave many records. So when you're trying to research something like the quilt you're looking at census records, public records, hoping that maybe you'll find a passing reference to them," Callie Stewart, the museum collections manager, said. "But there's just not an awful lot out there ... trying to trace the information back is very difficult because it just doesn't survive. We're lucky that one quilt survived, presumably she made many others but they've certainly been lost. They're quilts, they get used, they get worn out and you throw them away."
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Jane Stickle quilt's creation. The quilt, which makes an appearance at the Bennington Museum every year, is comprised of 169 five-inch blocks and is known far and wide as a textile marvel. It is on display with a watercolor painting of flowers she also made, which makes its first public appearance in over a decade.
The museum was able to learn a lot more about Stickle and the quilt when they hired Pam Weeks, author and curator of the New England Quilt Museum, to research and write an academic piece on Stickle.
"Sewing in general was something that women were absolutely expected to know (but sewing something this elaborate in particular takes a little bit more than common sewing skills one of the interesting things we found out when Pam Weeks wrote the article was that when Jane's father died in his will he left money for her and her brother to be educated. And it's evident from this quilt that she certainly had some education The knowledge of geometry and being able to do something like this is very complicated."
Another detail of the quilt which makes it stand out from other textiles of its time is Stickle's signature sewn into the bottom right hand corner of the quilt.
"This is very unusual because most quilts at this time are unsigned," Stewart said. "So to actually have her name on the quilt means she took a great deal of pride of this."
Based on the evidence, it is likely that the quilt was awarded a prize at the 1863 Bennington County Fair.
"I was looking through Bennington Banner's last year looking for something completely different and I happened upon 1863. I saw the Bennington County Fair and looked at it and saw that ‘Mrs. Stickle was awarded a $2 prize for the best pieced quilt.' Given that this was made in 1863 and it's a pretty incredible quilt this is probably the quilt that won that $2 prize."
Two dollars in 1863 is roughly equivalent to $40 today.
The quilt is normally kept rolled up with acid-free paper and stored in a muslin case at the museum to avoid damage from sunlight and air pollutants. This type of damage is permanent and cannot be repaired. But due to popular demand the quilt makes a public appearance at least once a year.
"The quilt comes out every year; it has a very dedicated following. When I say dedicated I mean, rabid. If we didn't bring it out one year they would probably have my head on a post out in front of the museum," Stewart said.
The quilt will be on display starting Aug. 30 and will be available for viewing through Oct. 14. Other quilt-related events at the museum include quilting workshops with Brenda Papadakis on Oct. 5 and 6, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Papadakis is the author of "Dear Jane," a book which collects the 225 patterns from the quilt.
"The fact that it's embroidered in war time is significant because there's of course a lot of interest in the Civil War, but also just to have that human connection with an object is pretty unusual," Stewart said. "The war was affecting her very much and it was affecting her as she was making this quilt. It connects us to women in the time of the Civil War in a way that many artifacts really don't."
Andrew Roiter can be reached at email@example.com, follow him on Twitter @Banner_arts.