Threads of History

posted in: Art | 0

Housed in Harrisonburg, the Virginia Quilt Museum draws people from near and far to admire the handiwork of quilting.

STORY | CAROLINE ALKIRE
PHOTO | MARK OWEN

 

Well, I just got this new phone,” Josephine Millett says.  “But I only leave it on when I’m expecting a call.”

The phone flashes to life, and Millett pulls up the photo album. Various pictures of quilts, fabrics and her husband flash by as she quickly scrolls deeper into her album to find the picture she’s looking for.

“This is it, my favorite one; the Grandmother’s Flower Garden.”

A bright, intricate quilt with green, pink, blue and purple flower-like circles lay across a four-poster bed. The quilt pictured echoes the pattern of a similar quilt made from Indian cottons that hang tapestry-style on the wall directly behind Millett, 78, who’s sitting on a bench in the middle of the Virginia Quilt Museum’s most recent exhibit, donated by Jinny Beyer.

Built in 1865, the Warren-Sipe House — as it was known before becoming the VQM — was home to Col. Edward T.H. Warren and a Virginia delegate, George E. Sipe. The home was also used as a Civil War hospital, the original office of Harrisonburg Fire and Rescue, a center for the Department of Parks and Recreation Center, a temporary Harrisonburg Court House and headquarters for the Harrisonburg Rockingham Historical Society. Finally, in 1995, the Warren-Sipe house became the Virginia Quilt Museum.

In August, the VQM celebrated its 20th anniversary. While many of the volunteers invested in the museum have come and gone, a small handful of loyal quilters have stayed with the museum from its beginnings; Millett is one of them.

She’s been coming to the VQM religiously, on the second Thursday of every month, for 17 years.

Millett never thought she would become so immersed in the culture of quilting. From the time she began sewing her own clothes at age 13 to the day her Raffle Quilt for the Virginia Quilt Museum raised $5,000, her journey with quilting has kept her focused and inspired throughout retirement.

Her name is engraved on a plaque at the top of the stairs at the VQM because of a generous donation, allowing her to become part of the 1856 Society and the Shenandoah Valley Quilter’s Guild, the Top of Virginia Quilting Guild and the Applique Society, Millett spends large portions of her days holed up in her sunny sewing room working on quilts. She also teaches applique, a template-free sewing technique used to create ornate designs, at various other quilting guilds in Virginia. It was, however, at one of her own quilt guild meetings that she signed up to volunteer at the VQM, thanks to her longtime friend and fellow quilter, Kathleen Ackerson.

In 1994, Ackerson wandered into Millett’s sewing gift shop — an old schoolhouse Millett and her husband had bought and transformed into a gift shop when they moved to the Shenandoah Valley in 1991 — looking for advice. This was the pair’s first meeting, and on that day, their unexpected friendship began.

Millett’s well-developed quilting skills impressed Ackerson, and in an attempt to learn more about quilting, they both started taking classes together and soon formed an inseparable bond.

Ackerson accompanies Millett to the VQM every second Thursday of the month; usually driving the pair in her Volkswagen Passat. And it was Ackerson who urged Millett to get on the board at the VQM once she decided to step down from her own board position. Millett was soon running the VQM gift shop and continues to raise money for the museum, which she tucks into envelopes that she proudly brings in once a month.

“Jo,” Ackerson’s endearing nickname for Millett, rolls easily off her tongue, “has done wonders for the retail of the VQM’s gift shop. She’s highly respected for her quilting skills, as well as her business retail skills.”

Millett works the gift shop cash register with ease, quick to offer Ackerson aid around the exhibit if need be. As she converses with a couple of Georgian quilters visiting the museum, her hands move across the fabric of the project she brought to work on while manning the shop.

“My favorite part about working in the museum is talking to visitors and learning about the projects they’re working on, all the while sharing my own quilting stories,” Millett said.

Millett’s quilting experiences expand outside of the museum, and through her own personal endeavors, she’s touched the hearts of many humans and even animals.

When a friend of Millett’s was diagnosed with cancer, she quickly sent her a brightly colored lap quilt to keep her warm during chemotherapy treatments. Millett attended the same friend’s memorial service sometime later, and was surprised to find out her friend’s dog wouldn’t leave the quilt.

“The dog was grieving, too, and the quilt still had my friend’s scent on it,” remembers Millett. “It was one of the most tender experiences I’ve had with my quilting.”

Her honors and experiences in the world of quilting run deep. She’s had the special task of making two quilts for the VQM to be raffled off annually to raise money for the museum, and she stands proudly as the Valley’s champion of the 20 Dollars for 20 Years fundraising campaign. Her quilts hang on the walls of the birthing ward at the local hospital, and she donates her lap quilts to the Winchester Hospital for chemotherapy and hospice patients. She reaches out to neighbors and friends, and shows her support in a heartfelt and personal manner: handmade quilts.

“Quilting is what brought me and Josephine together,” says Ackerson. “I never expected to find such a kindred spirit so close to home, but Jo is as big as life. She’s a truly great person to be around.”