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Oldest handmade quilt ever verified as made in Cazenovia donated to library

Cazenovia Public Library Director Betsy Kennedy, left, and Jonathan Holstein, a former library board member, independent curator and art dealer, pose with a newly acquired library museum piece: a hand-stitched quilt made in Cazenovia sometime in the 1830s or 1840s.

Cazenovia Public Library Director Betsy Kennedy, left, and Jonathan Holstein, a former library board member, independent curator and art dealer, pose with a newly acquired library museum piece: a hand-stitched quilt made in Cazenovia sometime in the 1830s or 1840s. Photo by Jason Emerson.

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Holstein points to the quilt’s stitching, which is done in the shapes of hearts and flowers. Also visible is the name stencil in the corner.

— Sometime during the 1830s or 1840s, a Cazenovia teenager named Helen Sherman handmade a 10-foot-by-10-foot bed quilt using all-natural dyes for the coloring and embroidered the stitching on the back in patterns of heart-shaped flowers. The front pattern includes numerous star shapes called a “mariner’s compass” in a “log cabin” pattern in what would have been an incredibly difficult and demanding pattern, taking months if not years to make.

Two weeks ago, that quilt — the oldest ever recorded and verified as being made in Cazenovia — returned home as a donation to the library by the descendants of the original quilter.

“A quilt like this would have taken a very long time to make; it’s very detailed, a very demanding pattern,” said Jonathan Holstein, a former library board member, independent curator and art dealer. “It is the first early quilt we’ve found with an unimpeachable Cazenovia connection, and that’s why we’re delighted to have it. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen. It was a very generous contribution.”

The quilt was a gift from Elizabeth “Betty” Church, 92, who currently lives in Florida. Her mother was Helen Billings Church, who grew up in Cazenovia and died in Maryland in 1968, which was when Betty Church acquired the family heirloom.

According to Ruth Jackl, Betty Church’s niece, the family believes the quilt was made by her great-grandmother, Edna Emmaratte Benedict Billings, who was born in 1854 in Delphi, N.Y., to George W. Benedict and Helen Sherman Benedict. George and Helen Benedict are buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Cazenovia.

“We (my family and I) are thrilled to find a home for the quilt and near where it was originally made is even better,” Jackl wrote in a letter to Holstein enclosed with the donation.

One reason the family believed Edna Benedict Billings made the quilt is because it has a stencil on one underside corner which reads, “E.E. Benedict,” which was a typical owner’s mark at the time.

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