History Musuem at the Castle, Appleton, object #2005.005.001

Community building. A twenty-first century catch-phrase, for sure. Networking. Social climbing. Marketing. What do these have to do with crafting? If we could ask Theresa Scheffler, maker of this ca. 1900 redwork quilt, we might hear some surprising answers.

Understanding the motivation behind why crafters craft is what the Handmade Meaning exhibition is all about. Considering the meaning makers stitched, painted, or sculpted into their works is the conversation.

Theresa’s quilt, today owned by the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton but too fragile to loan out for this upcoming exhibit, expands the crafting conversation. Each square is essentially an ad or promotion for an Appleton business. 72 of them. Red floss is stitched onto white cotton squares. Each square includes an image and often a humorous line. One lists the telephone number of the business: “Phone 66.” A square for the local paper, the Evening Crescent, reads “10 cents a week”  and goes further to note the paper offers “Six Day Want Ads 25 cents.”

Why would one young woman in 1900 be so interested in local businesses to spend countless hours selecting patterns, making up funny quips and stitching them into life? Many redwork quilts were intended as fundraisers, auctioned off for a good cause. But there is no record to indicate that Theresa’s quilt was meant to be sold, or was sold.

Clues to Theresa’s meaning may be evident in her life. Her young adult years were messy and unstable. Her mother dies or moves away. Her father changes his name (to something less Prussian sounding) and marries again. Theresa works as a teacher around the time she makes the quilt. In 1909 she marries James Wagg, who followed his father as the superintendent of the Fox River Paper Company Mill, a prestigious position in the community. They live in a big house on the main drag just a few blocks from the business district. Local newspaper society columns are filled with reports of their social activities. And Theresa becomes an important figure in the Masonic temple. Maybe Theresa’s early interest in local businesses was a way of making community connections. Of networking. Of exposing her skills to prospective husbands. Of  elevating her status in the community. Of using her marketing skills in a socially acceptable way for a woman of her time. What seems clear by her example is that no crafter spends the many hours required to make a work of this extent without meaning something by it. It requires energy, fortitude. And a great deal of creative expression.

Anyone can try out this form of creative expression in our Community Embroidery Project developed by Andrea Miller. Choose a pattern from the templates offered, or free-form stitch one from your own mind or a business on your street. Do it to share your crafting skills with others.  Do it to make a mark on Wisconsin. Do it to connect to a prospective employer. Do it for all your own reasons. To mean what you intend. Your square will be stitched together with others to form a network of meanings. Together they will represent our crafting community in the twenty-first century.

– Susan Bostian Young