Folks in New York will be all wrapped up in quilts this week. Quilt collectors, dealers, makers, historians, museum curators and curious observers will gather at Pier 92 on Manhattan's West Side for the Museum of American Folk Art's Great American Quilt Festival Wednesday through Sunday. Lectures and workshops will cover quilt history, connoisseurship and conservation techniques, and also provide hands-on sewing opportunities. Exhibitions will examine the rich cultural heritage of African-American quilts and star pattern quilts by Lakota Indians. Also being uncovered: the intimate collecting lives of celebrities including boxer Muhammad Ali, singer Andy Williams and former Miss America Phyllis George Brown, whose quilts will be on view.
The emerging study of old quilts "is one of the greatest grass-roots movements in decorative arts," said Shelly Zegart, founder of the Kentucky Quilt Project and curator of the festival's exhibit of "Star Coverage: Celebrities and Their Quilts." (For festival tickets and information, call  595-9533.) Resurgent interest in American quilts, both old and new, was fueled by the Bicentennial, Ms. Zegart noted. Since then, quilts have been the focus of museum exhibitions nationwide, reached new auction heights ($264,000 for a Civil War-era pictorial album quilt sold in 1991 at Sotheby's in New York), figured prominently at antiques shows coast to coast, spawned an excess of modern reproductions, and given rise to publications devoted to quilts and quilt-making.
Recent scholarship is putting new wrinkles on the way we look at these quintessential examples of American folk art. The earliest research identified the myriad patterns, such as "Feathered Star," "Fruit Baskets," "Drunkard's Path" and "Tithing Reel." Regional stylistic differences became apparent, enabling collectors and dealers to identify blue and white New England quilts, "Mariner's Compass" patterns made in shore regions, "star" pattern quilts from Lancaster, Pa., and Baltimore's renowned pictorial album quilts. When quilts were hung in a 1971 exhibition at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, they were studied, like paintings, for their surface, pattern, color and form. Scholars now are looking at quilts more as cultural artifacts.
Since Ms. Zegart launched the Kentucky Quilt Project in 1981, over 150,000 early American quilts from 40 states have been documented, identifying makers, dates and some times their original recipients. She's even reunited some quilts with descendants of their earliest owners. (Ms. Zegart can be contacted at 12-Z River Hill Road, Louisville, Ky. 40207 and at  897-7566.)
While most collectors still focus on vintage quilts' aesthetic appeal, some, like New York's WOR-AM radio personality Joan Hamburg, also are attracted by their history. "I'm basically a storyteller, so I look for stories attached to quilts such as how someone's Aunt Ada made it and used it," she said. Ms. Hamburg lent her circa-1940 red and white "Boston Commons" pattern quilt to the celebrity exhibit. "It was found in Iowa and meant for someone's wedding, but no one knows if the wedding ever took place. I felt sorry for this quilt, so I bought it," she explained.
Ms. Hamburg started collecting old quilts in the early 1970s in Vermont, where they were abundant and inexpensive. "You could buy them for nothing then, well under $100," Ms. Hamburg, a consumer reporter, recalled. Before prices exploded in the 1980s, she draped her antique quilts over beds, tables and banisters, and used others as picnic blankets. Realizing that some couldn't take the wear and tear, she started storing her fragile quilts, carefully labeled to preserve their histories.
Some quilts in the exhibit, like television talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael's autograph-crazy quilt (a popular, late 19th-century form) display their history right up front. Ms. Raphael's randomly pieced quilt, made by Sallie Yost between 1884 and 1893, came with an album of autographed letters from the famous people who donated pieces of their clothing to sew together. The satin, silk and velvet quilt is a veritable gallery of talk-show guests of yesteryear, including Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, President Ulysses S. Grant, children's writer and illustrator Kate Greenaway, inventor Thomas Edison, Mrs. Tom Thumb and writer Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson's letter to Ms. Yost, written from Samoa, reveals that he cut apart his only sash in order to send her a piece of fabric.
Cash and stamina