When Ellen Holen started stitching her sons’ old neckties into a colorful silk quilt some seven decades ago on a central Nebraskan farm, she was probably just being practical, not trying to create a work of art. After all, it was during the Great Depression and she had 10 children — they couldn’t afford to waste much.
If she were alive today, Ellen would probably be startled to see her quilt on display in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery as part of the traveling exhibit Going West! Quilts and Community, which features rare quilts pieced together by pioneering women on the American prairie during the 19th and early 20th century.
The Holen Boys Ties Quilt is just one of 50 such quilts on display, but it was the star of the show last Friday afternoon when nearly 100 Holens from four generations gathered at the museum as part of a family reunion.
Ellen’s only surviving child, 92-year-old Rachael Bard, was among the group. She remembered her mother working on the quilt — the first and only one she ever made — after all the kids were in bed, "so she wouldn’t be bothered, I guess."
Why ties? Rachael guessed the answer was pretty simple. "I had eight brothers, so there were a lot of ties," she said.
The quilt was lost in the shuffle when the family moved houses and spent many years moldering in a basement trunk. After Ellen’s death, her children rediscovered it, smelly but still beautiful. They cleaned it up and put the finishing touches on it – appropriately, her sons completed the step called "tying" the quilt – before donating it to The Nebraska Prairie Museum of the Phelps County Historical Society.
That museum was one of several small Western historical society museums that lent quilts to the Renwick for the current exhibit. When the Holen family learned two years ago that their piece of family history would be included, they decided to organize their next family reunion around the quilt exhibit.
"I’m very proud," Rachael reflected, as a younger family member pushed her wheelchair around the gallery. "The only thing is, I wish my mother could have seen it."
Going West! Quilts and Community will be up through January 21. More information available on the museum's Web site.
Photo courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum, "The Holen Boys Ties Quilt" by Ellen Holan (ca. 1935), lent by the Nebraska Prairie Museum of the Phelps Historical Society