WATERLOO -- A quilt speaks volumes.
With each careful stitch, the quilter pieces together a story, and the thread connects each quilter to another across generations, genders and borders.
Visitors to the Grout Museum's new exhibit, "Stitched by the Greatest Generation: WWII-Era Quilts," are often drawn to a simple quilt emblazoned with applique letters and the date "1945." The language is Polish and the message reads "Thank you Russian Army for the liberation of Auschwitz 1945."
"Although I haven't had it authenticated, the fabrics look suspiciously like the fabrics of clothing worn by the victims in concentration camps. I purchased it from someone who comes from a predominantly Polish area of Pittsburgh. Auschwitz was liberated by the Russian army in January 1945," said Sue Reich of Washington Depot, Conn.
She said the piece is constructed like a quilt, but suspects it was used as a banner.
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The quilt historian, author of five quilt books, quilter, collector and appraiser loaned the extensive collection to the Grout, part of her research into World War II quilts. The exhibit is in timing with the opening of the Grout's expansion, the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum.
Reich will be guest lecturer at the Fourth Annual Log Cabin Fever Quilting Get-Away at the Grout Friday through next Sunday. Her dinner lecture and gallery talk is at 6 p.m. Friday, and a breakfast lecture is Saturday at 9 a.m. She will appraise quilts from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday. There is a fee.
"These quilts need to be seen. It's a homefront story in so many ways … their ability to cope with having their loved ones fighting overseas. You can see that in quilts in this collection … Victory quilts, fundraiser quilts, memory quilts. There's one quilt constructed from military patches," said curator Robin Venter.
Reich has discovered that many quilts made by the greatest generation have been tucked away in trunks and in attics. "They're just beginning to come out and into the marketplace. My research has lead me to quilts that were made from parachute silk and Blue Star and Gold Star flags. I was surprised that so many have survived so we can see them. Quilts made in a time of war were not necessarily ones people wanted out because they evoked sad feelings about loss, but you get into very shaky territory when you try to project yourself into the mind of the quilter," said the quilt expert, who also is an emergency room nurse.
A quilter since childhood, Reich is an American Quilters Society certified appraiser. Her interest in quilt history began while working on the 12-year Connecticut Quilt Search Project and studying quilts from the 1750s and later.
Quilters often are uncertain about a quilt's value, particularly if it is newly made.
"Making a quilt is actually quite an expensive process. You may be paying $8 to $10 a yard for good-quality fabric, and there's all the handwork and time involved. It's hard for a quilter to put a price tag on it. When I appraise a quilt, I look at the size and quality of material, the workmanship, the handwork. An embellished or appliqueed quilt will have more value than a pieced quilt. If it's hand-painted or Batik, that increases the value. There's the cost of replacement, and then I add the subjective value for the creative process," Reich explained.
Reich's work as a quilt historian helps in appraising older or antique quilts. Among one of the most remarkable quilts she's seen dates to 1876, the United States' Centennial, that was made from Centennial fabric purchased in Philadelphia. "It was pretty valuable, even though it wasn't in pristine condition."