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Threads of history

For quilt collector, every piece tells a story - some known, some imagined. Now collection is at Bullock Museum

Denise Gamino

Joyce Gross, one of America's most prominent quilt collectors, was always on the lookout for a good quilt.

She bought one from a family at the beach who was using it for a picnic. She found another one stashed behind the toilet tank at an estate sale. She hunted at flea markets and Salvation Army thrift stores as easily as in the homes of America's best quilters.

Gross spent almost 40 years amassing a bountiful and fascinating assortment of quilts dating to the mid-1800s that she kept in her Marin County home near San Francisco. Her collection was enriched by documents she sought and found — everything from patterns to quilters' scrapbooks to written correspondence between prize-winning quilters.

And last year she sold her breathtaking collection to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas, which hopes researchers use the quilts to explore social, cultural and textile history.

Today, the quilts get what UT officials call a "coming out party." An exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, open today through Jan. 3, displays 28 of the 200 or so quilts the university bought from Gross, along with highlights of the memorabilia.

The quilts are stunning. Walking through the exhibit feels like being inside a kaleidoscope.

"We fully expect quilt enthusiasts to be crying," said Dave Denney, director of public programming for the museum.

Gross has her own expectation. She is now in her 80s and living in a Northern California retirement center. She hopes the new exhibit will bring, as she puts it, a "quilt miracle." A visitor could walk into the exhibit, she believes, and recognize one of the quilts and have information about who made it.

The identities of the makers of many quilts collected by Gross are lost to history, including three of the most colorful quilts that go on display today.

The three quilts apparently were made in Texas in the 1930s or 1940s from mail-order kits popular in that period. Gross bought the trio of quilts, along with two others, in 2002 from a woman who had inherited them from a relative in Texas but had no details about their history.

One is a dazzling grid of 30 blue-and-white snowflakes. One shows dogwood blossoms, with yellow and gold centers made of French knots, splashed against a mint green background. And one, which made Gross gasp when she saw it, has orange borders that frame garlands of morning glories. Gross calls it a "show stopper."

"I had to have it," she wrote in her files. "It seems obvious all of the quilts were made by the same person. And though I don't have her name or anything beyond she lived in Texas, is it possible that someone seeing the quilt will recognize it and remember the quilt maker? I believe in quilt miracles, so I believe!"

"A Legacy of Quilts" at the Bullock museum includes only quilts sewn by hand and many that won national quilt contests. Several Victorian-era quilts of bright silk and velvet, including the one Gross rescued from the estate sale bathroom, are the most vibrant on display. One of the oldest is an 1847 Baltimore album quilt with seven names written in ink on the blocks. Genealogical research found in Gross's files show the names belong not to the quilters, but to children under the age of 13 at the time the quilt was made. They might belong to the children of the quilters.

A notable display is the historic Royal Hawaiian Flag quilt made in honor of Hawaii before statehood, circa 1890-1910.

One quilt is an exquisite red-and-white patchwork silhouette of a woman sitting at a spinning wheel. It was made by the late Emma Andres of Prescott, Ariz., who began quilting in the 1930s while working in her father's cigar store. After her father died, Andres converted the cigar factory into a "Happiness Museum" to display her quilts and other keepsakes.

Several quilts employ a technique called trapunto, which combines stuffed fabric and cording to create three-dimensional motifs.

Also included are masterpiece quilts by Pine Eisfeller, including two exquisitely pieced quilts with intricate floral motifs that were named two of the 20th century's top 100 American quilts. Eisfeller, an Army wife who lived in Hawaii, New York and other states, won three top prizes in the 1942 Woman's Day magazine National Needlework Contest. She became an expert on Hawaiian quilts, which often have a solid-color piece of fabric cut into one large snowflake-like design that is then appliquéd to a plain background. She sold her quilt tops to other Army wives for $10 in the 1930s.

Eisfeller, who died in 1990, has been called "a wonder woman with a needle." The exhibit includes one of her quilts made in 1940 with solid white cloth and white thread, a style known as whitework. Expert quilters undertake these white-on-white quilts to show their perfect stitches, many no bigger than the point of a pen.

The white quilt, called "White Magic," was rescued by Gross in the 1980s after she discovered that Eisfeller was living nearby in California. Gross went to visit Eisfeller and found her magnificent whitework quilt crumpled on the sofa with a black cat named Smokey curled upon it.

Gross is a quilt activist who also raised a family in Mill Valley, Calif. She is as fascinated by the lives of quilters as she is by what they made. She conducted quilt tours and workshops, including the Point Bonita Retreat for quilters that continues today.

She is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on 20th-century American quilting.

Her connections to the two UT graduates who co-founded the world's largest quilt show and market, the annual International Quilt Festival in Houston, helped steer Gross toward the Center for American History at UT. The Texas quilt team, Karey Patterson Bresenhan and Nancy O'Bryant Puentes, serve on the history center's board of directors and have known Gross for years.

The Joyce Gross collection at UT runs more than 500 linear feet. Gross told UT officials that "anything that has to do with quilts, I collect."

"And she wasn't kidding," said Kate Adams, curator of the exhibit and former associate director of the Center for American History, who traveled last year to Gross' home as the inveterate collector pulled quilt after quilt from more and more closets in her home.

Gross became interested in quilts in 1969 and had tried to stop collecting them at the turn of this century. But when a friend called her one morning in 2002 to tell her about the woman from Texas with vintage quilts to sell, her resistance melted.

"When we turned over a blue-and-white snowflake quilt I became tempted," she wrote. "We continued to turn quilts.

"There were five quilts in the group, but it was the very last quilt that made me gasp! This was the one that spoke to me! The three shades of orange flowers and border with the quilting in black embroidery was a show stopper! I had to have it."

And so she did.

dgamino@statesman.com; 445-3675

'A Legacy of Quilts'

What: 28 quilts and memorabilia from the Joyce Gross Collection owned by the University of Texas

Where: Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 N. Congress Ave.

When: Today through Jan. 3. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Closed holidays.

Cost: Adults, $7. Seniors, military and college students, $6. Youth 5-18, $4. Ages 4 and younger, free.

Contact: 936-8746; www.thestoryoftexas.com