By Patricia Belyea
PORTLAND OR For Bill Volckening, the have-to-have-quilt urge began when he was a college student in New York City. He attended a private showing of quilts for sale hosted by Shelly Zegart, delved into his living allowance, and bought a historic New York Beauty.
Now, almost 30 years later, Bill lives on the opposite coast in a house filled with quilts—some antique, some vintage, some by friends. Currently his collection numbers 450, with quilts from the 18th century to the 21st century.
Over the decades Bill has studied quilts, appraised quilts, loaned his quilts for shows, curated quilt exhibits, written quilt books, and spoken to quilt guilds. When Bill talks about anything quilt related, he grins from ear to ear. Here Bill holds up a 1984 quilt by Libby Lehman. Look at those smiling eyes!
In a loft space on the upper level of his home, Bill popped up three folding tables to display assorted quilts from his archives. The quilt shown below is his oldest belle—a 1760 quilt with an overall pattern of blue resist finished with separate binding material.
Close-ups of this remarkable album quilt (below) show the dense echo stitching on the white areas and the lack of stitching on the applique´ fabrics. Bill has discovered that there are two more, almost identical, versions of this quilt. His was made by Mary Couchman Small of West Virginia (1800-1863), the look-alikes by Mary’s daughters.
Bill has a special category for the quilt below. It's a "start the car" quilt. This bright composition from the 1860's was found at a Portland antique store. It was priced WAY below value—hence the grab!-pay!-go! approach. Check out the intriguing double lines of quilting.
Seeing a quilt in real life can be quite different than seeing the same quilt in a book. Look at the difference between this 1920’s vibrant velvet crazy quilt with layered fans compared to its reproduction on Robert Shaw’s book cover.
Here’s an example of the opposite. This graphic quilt made by Barbara McKie (below) is featured in her book Complete Guide to Quilting. With black and white elongated pyramids, the illustration that accompanies the instructions looks just like the quilt.
The applique´ quilt (top, below) is from the Big Island, with a big snowflake design in cheddar orange. A lesser known style of Hawaiian quilt is the scrap quilt made with garment scraps (bottom, below). Bill has collected 50 of these indigenous Hawaiian scrap quilts—no longer made as the shirt factories have shut down on the islands.
Below is a local quilt from the American Legion Auxiliary in Salem. Made in 1931, the names of officers and members are embroidered on white. A small yellow star beside a name indicates that the person was lost in the war.
So far Bill has collected 25 bicentennial quilts—all the rage in 1976. With the sestercentennial looming in 2026, Bill will be ready with reflections on quiltmaking from 50 years earlier. This small showing (below) includes a patriotic motif in felt, velvet and cotton; an updated crazy quilt; and a rendition of a traditional star pattern in polyester.
These days, big things are happening in Bill’s quilt life. Currently International Quilt Study Center in Lincoln, Nebraska is hanging a show called Off The Grid of Bill’s collection of 1970 quilts—many double-knit polyester. Coming full circle from the acquisition of his first quilt, Bill authored New York Beauty: Quilts from the Volckening Collection with QUILTmania of France in 2015. The 196-page hardcover tome includes photos of 70 remarkable quilts from the 1850s to today, with historic information and three projects to make.
Bill’s enthusiasm for all-things quilted radiates from his whole being. What a pleasure to spend some time in his glow!
To read Bill’s lively and non-stop Wonkyworld blog +click here
To listen to a podcast interview with Bill on Collecting Culture +click here
To visit Bill’s website +click here