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Coffee Table Books or Serious Reference Works? A Critical Analysis of the Quilt Documentation Project Books

Christine E Humphrey, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Over the last forty years, there has been a concerted effort to expand the serious study of quilts. State and county-wide quilt documentation projects are among the most noteworthy efforts undertaken during this period to expand data collection and the study of quilts and quiltmakers. Since 1983, documentation projects have published forty-two quilt books, a significant body of work. This research assessed the contributions of the quilt documentation project books to the study of quilt history and to women’s history in an effort to discern whether or not the books were serious reference works or merely coffee table books. Analysis of the organizational strategies, audiences, authorship, publishers, and purposes provided an overview of the books as a genre of quilt history, which revealed much about the practice of writing quilt history. Close analysis showed that practitioners of quilt studies blur the lines between academic and non-academic research. Enthusiasts, avocational scholars, and vocational scholars collaborated in the writing of the quilt documentation project books, and produced books of varying quality. Neither authorship type (vocational versus avocational scholar) nor publisher type (academic, trade, popular press, or self-publishing service) ensured the quality of the research and writing. Therefore, readers must assess the merits of each book individually. Close analysis of the content of the books revealed that the documentation project books contribute significantly to the county-wide and state-wide histories of quiltmaking. Authors used the publications as final products of the projects, to present the newly documented primary sources available on both quilts and their makers, and to create chronologies of quiltmaking. They identified local variations, local traditions, and the historical and cultural influences on quiltmaking. Authors illustrated the power of quilts within American tradition and memory as historical documents, as art, and as a legacy of quiltmakers by retelling the stories of the owners and the makers. Finally, they demonstrated how the study of quilts intersects with the study of women in the United States and the role that common household objects can play in creating records of and identities for women generally not remembered by history.

Subject Area

Modern literature|Womens studies|Textile Research

Recommended Citation

Humphrey, Christine E, "Coffee Table Books or Serious Reference Works? A Critical Analysis of the Quilt Documentation Project Books" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3718089.