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How a quilt can become a living document of a family's story

Washington Historical Society

To some, a quilt is just like any other textile. It keeps you warm, or makes a nice decorative piece. But for some families, it's a multi-generational storytelling device.

About 35 years ago, Washington quilt historian Joan Ruppman received five unfinished quilts from her mother. Those projects were started by her grandmother. She finished one for her daughter and her husband when they were married, but the other four remained untouched.

"But one day, I thought, you know, you're not going to live forever, and you better get those quilts done, or they'll just end up going to Goodwill or going into the trash," she said.

She's now finished three additional quilts started by her grandmother, and is currently working on the final one. Ruppman believes the quilt was started in the 1930s. She's purchased historic fabrics to finish the borders and binding for the textile.

"There are 12 squares in this quilt, and I am now on square number 10," she said. "So the end is coming and then I'm going to move on to other quilts. I do have other family quilts that belong to other family members, and I enjoy learning about quilts as I go along."

More than 30 quilts are currently on display at the Washington Historical Society's building on the square. Melissa Heil of the historical society said many of those quilts have stories similar to Ruppman's.

"It's been fascinating to hear each person's story. They have a story that's associated with a quilt, you know, my grandma made this quilt and I can remember sitting under the sewing machine as she was putting it together," Heil said. "We have a quilt that is a family heirloom. And the woman who brought it in was telling us that it was in the only room in her house that wasn't destroyed by the Washington tornado. And so it's one of the few family heirlooms that she has left, which of course has elevated the value of this quilt to her."

Ruppman is hosting an old-fashioned "bed turning" at the Washington Historical Society on Thursday at 7 p.m. It's a callback to an old tradition where women would make quilts during the winter, and gather to show off their work when the weather warmed in the spring.

"Quilts are a work of art. I think anybody can appreciate that. I think anybody can come in and appreciate the story behind the quilt," said Heil.

Go to the Washington Historical Society's website for more information on the quilt exhibit and upcoming events.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.