It's often a yarn and it comes in bits and pieces, but the fact is that the story behind a specimen of antique textile adds to its appeal and value.
"I never buy a piece at a farm sale or from a dealer without trying to find out how it was used, who made it and if it was gift for a special occasion," says Pennsylvania collector Patricia T. Herr.
Ms. Herr, a Lancaster veterinarian and textile historian, says documentation adds an important dimension to collecting.
She demonstrates this in an essay on "Iwwerich Un Ender," dialect for those small pieced, appliqued and quilted objects in Pennsylvania German households. Ms. Herr's is one of a group of papers presented at a quilt symposium in June 1990 at Franklin and Marshall College and published by the Oral Traditions Project of the Union County Historical Society in Lewisburg, Pa., under the title "Bits and Pieces, Textile Traditions."
Ms. Herr illustrates calico animals, stars, balls, bags, cushions, potholders, doll quilts, sewing pockets and petticoats -- and she reports on their original use.
Many pieced balls that are sold as pincushions, she says, have no evidence of being used for pins and needles. Her research shows they were sometimes made in pairs as ornaments or tokens of friendship and were hung in the cupboard or on either side of the mantel shelf for display. Star and pyramidal shaped pincushions were popular among the Amish in the late 19th and early 20th century and were sometimes actually used for the pins which secured their clothes.
Patchwork bags, on the other hand, were made for useful purposes. The earliest documented bag Ms. Herr found is a nine-patch pattern 21 inches square, with two hanging loops of linen tape, dated May 22, 1836. Another slightly larger one made of red, blue and green calico around 1922 by Barbara D. Haldeman, a Mennonite in Dauphin County, opens on the side and has three loops across the top for hanging, instead of the customary two. Mrs. Haldeman told Ms. Herr she made the bag to hang in the outhouse to hold paper. Another similar bag has a note attached indicating it was made by Mrs. Amos N. Musser (Kate) in the 1920s, "to hold the Sears Roebuck catalog for use in the outhouse."
Ms. Herr reports another such bag in place at a Lancaster County farm sale in 1980. "It was on the right side within reach of the seat." She goes on to quote another octogenarian's recollections. "The bag held paper. We used catalogs," said her informer. "It was softer and thinner than newspaper and it was so interesting to read those catalogs."
Disseminating the meaning of everyday objects has been the business of the Oral Traditions Project since its beginnings in 1973. Jeannette Lasansky, a tireless researcher, has spearheaded the project and trained a large group of volunteers in gathering information, using tape recorders and cameras. Today there are more than 350 90-minute tapes in the Union County Historical Society. Moreover, the Oral History Project has published 14 books and inspired countless exhibitions on such subjects as salt-fired stoneware, red earthenware pottery, basket making, blacksmithing, tinsmithing, quilt making, coverlet weaving, holiday traditions and decorations and the preparation of the dowry.
The most recent book, "Bits and Pieces, Textiles Traditions," covers a broad spectrum of topics by 12 authorities who explain the connection between dress fabrics and period quilts, and inventory the tools in the sewing box. Two explore quilts made for men's and women's dowries and others show the influence of fairs and contests on what people made for themselves and for others. Still others trace the Pennsylvania German textile traditions as they appear down the great wagon road from Philadelphia to North Carolina and in areas of Germanic settlement in South Carolina.
A collection of decorative potholders can still be put together for less than $50 each, but for a group of handmade stuffed animals the price jumps to several hundred: $500 to $600 for the best ones, which are considered sculptural folk art. A decorative pair of pieced or appliqued pillowcases can be just as costly and a pair that match a quilt are very rare and command a premium.
Doll quilts that were $35 in the 1970s when few recognized their decorative appeal now sell for hundreds of dollars. Framed or mounted doll quilts have been elevated to graphic wall decoration.
Sewing pockets do not come from a Germanic tradition, but were adopted from the English. Sewing pockets, often found in pairs to be tied around the waist, can sell for four-figure prices if they are pieced, stuffed or quilted, though generally Pennsylvania German ones are less costly than those decorated with fine 18th-century crewel work in the English tradition.
Still, these small objects are less costly than fine samplers. And there is always the chance of finding them in a box in the attic, at a farm sale or tucked behind the mass-produced collectibles at a flea market.
"Bits and Pieces" can be ordered from the Union Historical Society, Courthouse, South Second Street, Lewisburg, Pa. 17837. Send $22 plus $2.50 for mailing and handling.