By Dawn Watson
In 1976, Americans were going gaga for anything celebrating the c¬ountry’s bicentennial. History was big that year.
Instead of painting something red, white and blue, as seemed to be the case everywhere else across the nation, some of the members of the Ladies Auxiliary of Water Mill decided to do something different to mark the occasion. They wanted to make a quilt.
Setting out to commemorate and chronicle history in their own way, the Water Mill-area residents—including Doris Foster, Helen Jones, Mary Maran, Marge Burnett, Kay McKeever, Joyce McKay, Kathy McLaughlan, D. Rishel, Elizabeth Forney, Donna Liehr, Barton McQuire, Sandy Raynor, Dot Halsey, Irene Muller, Willy McKay, Marlene Haresign¬ and Marilyn Burden—began to sew. Each was tasked to create a square that would pay honor to the community and local traditions, which would then be joined together to make a 20-piece work of living history that would then be raffled off to raise funds for the restoration of the Water Mill Museum.
The decorative work included a representation of the museum, the Penny Candy Shop, the blacksmith shop, a duck, flying geese, seagulls, a sailboat, beach scenes, farm scenes, a windmill, a basket of strawberries, a map of the area, and even Water Mill’s ZIP code—11976—stitched up in the patriotic colors of the U.S. flag.
The group effort was so successful that it became a tradition. In succeeding years, the quilters would get together to join their efforts and to add in several of their own works. Thus, the annual Quilt Show and Sale was born at the Water Mill Museum.
Ms. Burden, who is now the curator of the yearly fundraising exhibit, said that knew how to sew but didn’t have any experience quilting when she was asked to join her fellow Auxiliary members in the project back in 1976.
“Not to worry,” her friends said.
They’d teach her the basics, which they did. The Mill Pond-area resident has been quilting ever since.
For her very first effort, Ms. Burden ended up producing two squares of appliqued scenes on fabric. One was of a farmer, chugging along on a tractor in a field. The other was the façade of the Penny Candy Shop, which, though shuttered, still stands today across from the windmill on Montauk Highway.
The novice quilter stitched up the shop square for a friend who had run out of time, she says. But the farmer image, which she’s reproduced a few times over the years, was all hers.
It’s simple but immediately recognizable as a man tending his crops. Viewed from behind and sitting on a red seat, which is attached to two oversized black tires, he’s wearing a pair of denim dungarees, a red-and-white-checked shirt, a red bandana and what appears to be a straw hat. The field rows alternate between thinner strips of brown fabric and slightly thicker green cloth, dotted with delicate yellow shapes.
Ms. Burden, who remembers cutting up one of her husband’s shirts to use for the fabric in the farmer’s hat, says that she chose the basic visual because it conveyed the area’s past.
“I felt that I should do something that depicted Long Island. And at the time, and before then, it was the potato industry,” she said during a tour of the museum and the annual Quilt Show exhibit last Wednesday.
The Bicentennial quilt that started it all, which was repurchased by the museum from the original raffle winner, is now in permanent residence on the second floor of the 17th century water-powered grist mill. It hangs next to the old Water Mill schoolhouse bell and an historic ballot box used for Water Mill District #4 school elections.
Quilts are significant to the space, says miller (and designated keeper of the quilts) Joani Wilson. After all, the early American craft began to take shape in the same Colonial times as when the mill was in working order.
“They are both early American traditions,” she says. “The age of quilting and the age of grist milling are about the same.”
And even though the decorative art of stitching together layers of padding and fabric is very old—actually dating back thousands of years, some say to ancient Egypt—it’s still just as relevant today as when it was first practiced, says Sag Harbor resident Carlie Feldman, who has been participating in the Quilt Show since the early 1990s. Dispelling the notion that quilting is a dated pastime, she adds that there are presently active quilting groups on both the South and North Forks.
“It is absolutely not a dying art,” says Ms. Feldman.
In fact, quilting is a perfect therapeutic tool for in today’s stressful times, she says.
“I have friends who ask me how I can possibly have the patience to do it,” she reports. “But the truth is, it’s a great means of escape, especially in today’s sometimes troubled world. Quilting has enriched my life beyond belief. I’d recommend it to anybody.”
The annual Quilt Show and Sale, which contains 180 select works this year, is currently on view at the Water Mill Museum through September 13. A quilt raffle drawing is planned for October 10. To learn more, visit www.watermillmuseum.org.