It takes a village to make quilts like these

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Carol Sorgen

The history of American quilting is nearly as old as the history of the United States itself. Quilting originated in the Colonial era when women of a community would come together to make quilts by hand.

Though modern technology has given individual quilters the option of sewing by machine, the tradition of hand-sewing quilts in quilting circles — groups of people (usually women) working together on a quilt — remains strong. An exhibit of such quilts, "Stitches In Time/Threads Of Change: An Exhibition of Maryland Community Quilts," is currently on view at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum.

The exhibit, which runs through March, displays 16 present-day works from quilters who have developed their style from this quintessentially American art. Among the quilters from across the state featured in the exhibit are the Furnace Town Quilters of the Eastern Shore, Faithful Quilters of Columbia, Enon Baptist Church Quilters of Baltimore and the Glyndon Quilters.

Art form continues to thrive

The quilts illustrate diverse themes and applications, techniques and purposes. They also reflect the vibrancy, relevancy and power of the art form that has both survived and progressed in Maryland, according to museum director Steven Lee.

"These quilts show that this art form is alive and well in Maryland," said Lee. He also noted that the quilts on display aren’t just for keeping someone warm, but also to document the history of a community — be it a church, a school, a women’s shelter, or a nature preserve.

The exhibit was created after Lee sent out a call to arts organizations throughout the state for quilts to display. The exhibit’s quilts were selected from a variety of entries Lee received, from elementary school students, to college art majors, to older adults and quilting masters.

Lee particularly wanted to show the diversity of Maryland’s population in his selections. The subject matters are as diverse as the artists who created them, he said, and include such themes as friendship, wildlife preservation, domestic violence, abortion and racial oppression.

None of the quilts was created by an individual artist. Most of the quilts were pieced together with one quilter sending her finished block to another and so on until the quilt was completed — a process known as a round robin quilt.

Honoring Benjamin Banneker

Taking center stage in the exhibit is the "Banneker Historical Quilt," completed in 2010 and constructed by the Banneker Quilting Circle in Oella over the course of five years.

The objective of the quilting circle, made up of designer Barbara Pietiella and seven other quilters, was to “depict the life and times of Benjamin Banneker by the expression of various symbols on either side of the family tree.” The tree traces the three generations of Banneker’s family.

Benjamin Banneker was born a free African-American in 1731 and became a mathematician and amateur astronomer. He died in 1806. He is said to have been one of the first surveyors of Washington, DC, and also published numerous almanacs, all the while overcoming racial discrimination.

The Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, at 300 Oella Avenue at Frederick Road (near Ellicott City), was founded on the homestead of the Banneker family. Once known as "Stout," the original 100-acre lot was purchased in 1737 by Benjamin’s father in exchange for 7,000 pounds of tobacco.

Here the Bannekers farmed tobacco, wheat, corn crops, a fruit orchard, apiary, and a small vegetable garden. Much of the vegetables, poultry, fruit and honey produced were sold to the Ellicotts to supply their General Store in the old mill town now known as Ellicott City.

The Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is by donation. For more information about the Banneker Museum, call (410) 887-1081.