Discovering the Collection

Discovering the Collection

In 1997, I was a master’s student at Indiana University. I had just completed and submitted my application for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s  doctorate program in Textiles, Clothing and Design. My goal was to study quilts with Professor Patricia Crews, a professor doing groundbreaking research in textile history. I wasn’t sure what career path that would lead to,  I was only thinking one step at a time. 

One afternoon I opened a letter from my mom and a newspaper article fell out. The headline read “1000 Quilts coming to the University of Nebraska.” I’ll never forget that moment. I recognized immediately that there would be amazing opportunities ahead. I was accepted into UNL’s program, moved to Lincoln, and began my incredible journey. A year later I was hired as the center’s first curator.

Quilts have taken me around the world—to artists’ studios and museums, to beautiful homes and incredible experiences. Quilts have led me to friendships I value and to people who have  inspired me both in my career and my personal life. And I have  gotten to know quilts . . . lots and lots of quilts! 

I hope you will enjoy this snapshot of my journey working alongside an amazing team of scholars, collectors, and volunteers to discover quilts and to be a part of building the largest, most in-depth international quilt collection in the world. I’m proud and humbled by the first 20 years’ work, and I can’t wait to see what the next 20 have in store.  

- Carolyn Ducey, Curator of Collections

Works in the Exhibition

Works in the Exhibition
Rising Sun variation

Rising Sun variation
Unidentified Maker
Circa 1915
Probably Gettysburg, PA
The Ardis and Robert James Collection 2006.043.0101

I had heard, many times, about the quilt room at the home of Ardis and Robert James, extraordinary philanthropists who helped launch the IQSCM by donating nearly a thousand quilts in 1997. The Jameses had expanded their home in Chappaqua, NY to build a storage room where they piled quilts high on four flat frames. I don’t remember the very first trip to their home, but each began the same way: with a welcome toast in the breezeway and a bull dog named Beauty snuffling in the corner.  

Bob wanted to know everything about everything and loved to go off on a tangent about quilts and their place in the art world. Ardis sat in her favorite spot—an old dental chair—with a jumble of newspapers, books, and letters strewn in front of her. She’d allow Bob to dominate the conversation for a while, and then, with a level look and piercing eyes, would open a paper-filled folder. The papers ranged from IQSCM press releases and articles that I’d collected and sent her (always edited and returned with comments) and an assortment of articles, catalogs, and notes she felt we needed to know. She was smart and funny and teased me often, knowing she could easily get me flustered. I was in awe of her and it showed.

After our discussions, Bob would ask Ardis what he should show us. We would head upstairs to the Quilt Storage room. There were always new quilts amid the favorites on the walls—Ardis continued collecting for 10 years after the initial 1997 gift. Those new quilts eventually made their way to the collection. In 2006, the Jameses gave 300 quilts purchased since 1997, and in 2009, asked us to pack up the last 60 or so that were the constant favorites in the house, in preparation for a move to a more accommodating apartment. Those meetings at their home are some of my favorite memories!  


Center Diamond

Center Diamond
Unidentified Maker
Circa 1900 
Probably made in Pennsylvania
The Jonathan Holstein Collection 2003.003.0100

I’ve never seen as many Amish quilts as the day in 2003 when Marin Hanson and I walked into Jonathan Holstein’s storage facility in Cazenovia, NY. Folded and stacked, quilts  lined shelf after shelf. The hundreds of Amish quilts comprised one of the genre’s most significant collections. I was intimidated: Holstein was a renowned curator, writer, and collector of all types of American quilts. I clearly remember thinking, “Wow, I’m meeting the guy who wrote the book on quilts!”

Jon, however, is always engaging and spirited, so I quickly learned that there was no need to be intimidated. He is funny and interested and easy to talk to (or listen to? Ha—just kidding Jon!) and soon became a dear friend. His curious nature continues to lead him to the discovery of unique quilts, as well as related items like paintings and tools that are some of the most interesting and compelling parts of the collection. 


Album Quilt

Album Quilt
Ladies of the Sewing Circle of the First Baptist Church
Dated 1846
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Byron and Sara Rhodes Dillow Collection 2008.040.0004

When I watched Sara Dillow, talking in an aside to her husband Byron, at an IQSC event in 2000, I thought to myself, “Sara, you don’t know it yet, but we are going to be the best of friends.” I knew that we both had a deep love for early fabrics and a desire to discover and preserve early historic quilts. Sara quickly recognized our mutual passion, and a few years later we began working together. Sara became our first Acquisitions Coordinator, and during her tenure, found many of the most significant, pre-1850s pieces in our collection. When the Dillow collection was given to the Museum in 2008, after the unexpected deaths of both Sara and Byron, the early American segment of the collection became one of our best. 

Sara also brought one of our first international collections to the IQSCM—the Kathryn Berenson Collection. The 30-plus French, Marseilles quilts were like nothing I’d ever seen. They opened my eyes to possibilities of other international collections. If pieces like these were yet to be found, what else did we have to discover? The French collection began a quest that took the IQSCM down a wholly new and remarkable path, leading us to develop an unparalleled international collection of both historic quilts and studio art quilts.

I treasure the Dillow collection and still miss my dear friend, Sara.


Hourglass quilt

Hourglass Quilt
Unidentified Maker
Circa 1790
Probably made in Purmerand, the Netherlands
Gift of the Ardis and Robert James Foundation 2012.006.0001

Double X

Double X
Mary Ghormley (Lincoln, Nebraska)
The Mary Ghormley Doll Quilt Collection 2008.034.0166

Throughout the 20 years I’ve worked here, I have been inspired repeatedly by the individuals who volunteer. We say it often, but it’s true—we really can’t do it without them. The volunteers have worked thousands of hours vacuuming and refolding quilts, leading tours, accessioning quilts, and taking photographs. They’ve also performed less glamorous tasks like washing tables, moving chairs, and peeling vinyl. Really, they graciously do whatever we ask of them.  

Our volunteers have a passion for quilts and a dedication to service that is epitomized by the life and work of Mary Ghormley. Mary, a collector, historian, and maker, was a founding member of the Lincoln Quilters Guild, and one of the members of the Wednesday Girls, a group committed to documenting Nebraska quilts during the 1980s in an effort to save the state’s quilt history. Mary volunteered at the center, and later the museum, every Friday afternoon for more than a dozen years. She showed off the collection to visitors when all we had was the small storage room in the Home Economics Building. Then, she greeted visitors in the Mary Ghormley Reading Room in our museum, where her doll quilts were featured. She rarely missed a day until well after age 90, when her health required she give up volunteering.

The many volunteers that work regularly here at the museum have taught me the strength and grace that results from committing time and energy to a passion greater than one’s self. Their passion keeps them young and their interest in learning keeps them vital and involved. They are my dear friends and my mentors, and have shown me how I want to act when I grow up! They are the best, and I’ve been honored to work side by side with this group of amazing individuals. 


four patch

Four Patch
Mary Ghormley (Lincoln, Nebraska)
Gift of the Lois Gottsch Family 2011.012.0021

log cabin

Log Cabin
Mary Ghormley (Lincoln, Nebraska)
The Mary Ghormley Doll Quilt Collection 2008.034.0214

The Red Quilt

Yvonne Wells (Tuscaloosa, Alabama)
The Red Quilt
Circa 1990
Robert & Helen Cargo Collection of African American Quilts 2000.004.0137

I find Yvonne Wells’ quilts to be some of the most compelling in our collection. Her pieces resonate with meaning—whether it is a piece that puts racial injustice, her religious belief, or her wonderful sense of humor front and center. When meeting Wells, I was impressed with her deep sense of confidence. She trusts her artistic vision, saying, “What my head sees, my heart feels, my hand creates.”

The simplicity of the design of The Red Quilt is so audacious—a simple horizontal line implied by the triangles pointing up and down. Yvonne gave me confidence to pursue quilting again. I’d given up, recognizing I didn’t have the patience to make a consistent seam or perfect points. Yvonne simply fulfills her vision, without concern for what is considered right or wrong. She inspires me.



Ruth Eissfeldt (Essen, Germany)
Circa 2001
The Ardis and Robert James Collection 2006.043.0010

For many years I attended the opening of Quilt National, a juried biennial exhibition of contemporary quilt art, with Ardis and Robert James. As sponsors, they were given a sneak peek a few hours ahead of the crowd. It was always fascinating to watch Ardis as she walked the gallery. During a walk-through in 2001, Ardis stopped in front of Atlantis by German artist Ruth Eissfeldt. She looked for a moment and turned to Bob and said, “This one.” They purchased it immediately.  

Atlantis is strikingly simple—a square composed of green rectangles surrounded by a blue ground and accented with curvilinear quilting. I love its simplicity. Then you read the title and immediately see how Eisffeldt has stylized an image of the fictional island of Atlantis surrounded by the sea. The various shades of green hint at the land, while the undulating, random quilting lines give the impression of waves. Atlantis works on so many levels—the simple shapes that lead my imagination to far-away islands, ancient civilizations, and the burning question: Could Atlantis be real?

Summer Rain

Radka Donnell (Cambridge, Massachusetts)
Summer Rain
No date 
Gift of Judith Trager 2007.033.0001

When the forsythia bushes begin to explode in yellow blossoms in the spring, my heart sings! It’s a sure sign that winter is ending and summer, my favorite season, is imminent. I look forward to hot days, when thunder clouds build tall against the deep blue Nebraska sky, sparking thunderstorms that crash quickly and intensely, and then blow off to the east. Summer Rain transports me to those moments when I look at it. I can see the dark sky, hear the rumble of thunder, and smell the fresh scent of a summer rain.


Indigenous Opulence

Adele Phillips (Beaver Crossing, Nebraska)
Indigenous Opulence
Gift of the artist. 2017.065.0001

I grew up in Nebraska and love the wide open farmland on the eastern end of the state where I spent summers with my grandmother. I remember playing with milkweed, watching the hot summer winds toss the weightless seeds down the dry road that lead up the hill to the house. 

I met Adele Phillips in 2017, when she delivered her donated piece Indigenous Opulence to the IQSCM. She described the laborious task of gathering, cleaning, and removing the delicate floss from the milkweed pods, as well as the difficulty inherent in positioning the floating floss as she sewed the quilt. She persisted, transforming the common plant, often viewed often as a weed, into an ethereal quilt that celebrates the Nebraska prairie.

I was moved by Adele’s vision. Indigenous Opulence connects me again to my Nebraska roots.

Works in the Exhibition
Event Date
Friday, November 2, 2018 to Sunday, March 3, 2019