Series of quilts chronicle garden’s beauty – from flowers to felines
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
The goal was grand: Capture the colors of Longwood Gardens in a quilt.
First suggested in 1996, the project failed to leave the drawing board more than once. But that was before the right, scrappy group of material girls surfaced in March 2008, courtesy of a request emailed to the garden’s volunteers.
Less than five years later, a series of quilts, exquisitely crafted fabric tableaus that depict seasons or themes at Longwood – Christmas, light, sounds, and pollination – have a permanent home at the Brandywine Valley Tourism Information Center, across from Longwood Gardens.
On Wednesday, several dozen of the 50-plus volunteers convened at the recently-renovated center to view the display, which the public will also get to admire. Blair Mahoney, executive director of the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau, explained that the bureau began leasing the building from Longwood Gardens in 1989 as a tourist information center.
Mahoney said that the center’s visitor traffic and proximity to Longwood made it an ideal permanent display spot. And, fortunately, Longwood, which bought the fabric and owns the finished products, agreed.
This past year the building, a former Quaker meetinghouse that once served as a hub for abolitionists, was renovated. It now also houses the agency’s administrative staff, some of whom got a recent bonus: a quilt adorning their office wall.
“I absolutely love looking at it,” said Nina Kelly, the bureau’s director of communications. “The workmanship is incredible.”
Elaborating on the quilts’ history, Kathy Silvon of Avondale, said Dave Thompson, Longwood’s former continuing education coordinator, was involved in scheduling a course entitled “Designing the Horticultural Quilt” in 1996. But the dozen or so students didn’t produce one. A second course was scheduled, but the instructor moved so it was canceled, Silvon said.
More than 10 years later, Thompson was serving as Longwood’s volunteer coordinator when he came in contact with Nancy Hiss, a Pocopson resident who had become a Longwood volunteer earlier in the year to assist with sewing projects. With Hiss on board and many eager to help harness her energy, Thompson reintroduced the quilt idea, a conversation that led to the email, Silvon said.
About 50 people showed up at the first meeting in March 2008; a design team of about a dozen formed that included Hiss, who became team leader. Silvon said the group decided that the first quilt would be the Christmas one, a decision that imposed a Nov. 27 deadline, the date for Longwood’s holiday display.
Hiss said the assignments were done in stages by different people, depending on their expertise. “Some people were good at appliqueing, some were better at piecing,” Hiss said. To keep the process moving forward, all the volunteers had to meet specifications, juggle time constraints as well as fabric, and remain flexible.
Sometimes the intended design or technique didn’t pan out exactly as planned, Hiss said, adding that people were told: “If it doesn’t work, improvise.”
One design element that was not negotiable: Every quilt had to have a cat. “There are lots of cats at Longwood,” Hiss said. “They had to be on the quilts.”
Silvon said she used a botanical book to make full-size color mock-ups of the flowers on one quilt. “I wanted to make sure they were recognizable,” she said, pointing to a quilt with morning glories, coneflowers, sunflowers, water lilies and more. “It devoured my life for four months, but I loved it.”
Ann Randolph of Malvern said she enjoyed the attention to detail. Several quilts feature hand-embroidery and appliques and three-dimensional elements such as wisteria flowers and pinecones. “It was time-consuming but it’s so creative,” she said.
Ruth Anne McLaren of Wilmington said the project worked well because of the skills of the participants. “You’ve got to know your stuff,” she said. “But I think that was a good thing.”
As the process unfolded, the volunteers, who logged an estimated 5,000 hours, said the rewards of participating kept growing. Several quilts were entered in shows and won awards, said Ellen McMillen of Lionville.
McMillen said she became involved in the project at the urging of Jean Fox, another volunteer. McMillen said her first view of a finished quilt hanging at Longwood took her breath away. “I was just astounded,” she said. “It was a great feeling.”
Asked if they would do the same thing over again, most said yes with no hesitation. That response delighted Mahoney, who has commissioned a new project: a quilt with an Underground Railroad theme, highlighting the history of the building when it was Longwood Progressive Meeting.
Founded in 1963, the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau is an independent nonprofit that serves as the official tourism promotion agency for Chester County. The tourist center, open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., can now add quilt-viewing to its offerings, which include brochures, menus, maps and tips on local attractions. For more information, visit www.BrandywineValley.com.