“Are you nuts?”
Among lots of thank yous and compliments, that’s the most common question Barbara Brackman gets in regard to her Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns book. I suppose that’s a fair question considering all the research and organization that went into compiling over 4,000 quilt block patterns. Read our Q&A with her to hear about how it all came together, plus some insight on using BlockBase+, Barbara’s online lectures, cocktail parties, and Cary Grant.
When and how did your interest in quilt blocks come about?
Barbara: I’ve always loved pattern. When I was enrolled in an art history class at the University of Kansas I came across Carrie Hall’s 800+ quilt blocks that she donated to the museum there in the 1930s. I was hooked.
Carrie Hall’s blocks at the Spencer Museum of Art
How did you go from casually collecting a few patterns to creating a full Encyclopedia? What was that like?
Barbara: I’m just one of those OCD collector types. After looking at Hall’s blocks I thought I’d make a block in every quilt pattern, but first I made an index card. Pretty soon I had thousands of index cards. And I wasn’t getting any sewing done. But I am a better indexer than a stitcher so that has worked out fine.
Looking back, would you change anything?
Barbara: In life? I probably should have listened to my sister when she told me not to get a dachshund as they are impossible to house break but other than that: No.
Photoshopping is another hobby. Me and the late, lamented, un-housebroken dachshund Dorothy Barker. Photoshopped into a portrait of Ottoline Morrell.
Hahahaha! I actually meant, would you change anything about the book!
Barbara: Oh you mean about the book. Very little, I love the color and the improved organization. I would have added new patterns up to the last second. But that might have caused a riot in the pattern-drawing department. We could put a sticky note on every copy shipped with new/old patterns like this square inside a triangle pattern. Just found it last week: “No name: From a quilt about 1910.” But the sticky note concept might cause a riot in the shipping department. So we’ll just say things are perfect as they are.
For those who don’t know, give a brief explanation of the Encyclopedia and who it’s written for.
Barbara: The Encyclopedia is a visual index to quilt patterns, organized by pattern design, which gives you the published name with the source for the earliest publication. In the back is an alphabetic index to the pattern names.
There are really four audiences.
1) The quilt collector or curator who wants to know the name of a pattern and its source.
2) The quiltmaker who wants visual ideas.
3) The pattern designer looking for a theme in pattern names, like blocks named for states or cities.
4) And people who love pattern and enjoy leafing through it. My painter friend Marty Olson often finds ideas to create background pattern for his paintings.
What’s the most common question or remark you get about the Encyclopedia?
Barbara: “Are you nuts?” Answer: Yes. But I have redirected my obsessions into a product that benefits society. And it all keeps me entertained.
In your own words, please explain BlockBase+ and how the two products complement each other.
Barbara: BlockBase is a digitized version of the book index—again organized visually with published names and published source. I use them together all the time. The one thing BlockBase does that the book cannot is draw the pattern for you. Having grown up with books I often begin my pattern search with the book Encyclopedia; I am more comfortable leafing through pages than scrolling on the screen. If I am doing a Block of the Month on a theme like the Yankee Notions quilt we did on my Civil War Quilts blog in 2020 I can read through the alphabetic name index quickly looking for words like New England or Northern and see what catches my eye. Then I use the number or name to find the entry in BlockBase and have it draw the pattern for me. As I use the computer more and more I am getting comfortable with scrolling digitally. The program is great if you know the name or a part of the name and can type it in the search box.
Now, switching gears to some fun questions… If you could author a book or create a product of ANY KIND, what would it be and why?
Barbara: I wish I were a computer programmer and could develop an app in which your phone looks at a quilt block and directs you to the correct number in the Encyclopedia. My entomologist friends tell me you can do that with an insect—an app tells you what kind of a moth you’re looking at. Why not quilt patterns?
What has kept you busy this year? Have you developed any new hobbies?
Barbara: Revising the Encyclopedia has kept me busy during the year of staying at home. I haven’t minded the isolation too much because I do enjoy sitting at the computer and looking through quilt photos and poking around in long-ago women’s lives through genealogical sources on the web. Some of my digital penpals and I have worked all year on an applique sampler based on the work of an 18th-century artist named Mary Delany. Living in the past is a great escape. And I blog a lot.
My new hobby is Online Meetings. I’ve learned to use Zoom and Facebook to connect with friends I used to see once a year. Now we meet weekly for a glass of wine and quilt history gossip. It’s wonderful to have that connectedness. I’ve also realized that with online meeting skills I can go back to giving programs for quilts and museums—something I have sorely missed. Friends and I have developed a Facebook page advertising our digital lectures. Ask to join Quilt & Textile History Programs here.
Favorite movie, favorite show, favorite quilt – go!
Barbara: My favorite movie is His Girl Friday for the snappy, cynical dialog and I adore Cary Grant. I fall over in laughter everytime I see him say: “That’s the last time I hire anyone with a disease.” He plays such a terrible person with such aplomb.
Favorite quilt: Just looking at this log cabin yesterday. In the collection of the New England Quilt Museum. Perfect.
Favorite TV show: I loved the PBS/British series Victoria. Period dramas are my favorite—the clothes, the sets, the view of historic villains. And Rufus Sewelll as Lord M.
Doing anything exciting now or have anything fun coming up?
Barbara: Well, a little goes a long way these days. My extended family (most of whom I am not related to) is going to meet for an online cocktail party before our lonely Thanksgiving dinners (ours here ending with frozen pumpkin cheesecake from Trader Joe’s.)
If you’d like to hear more, check out the video, “The History Behind Barbara Brackman’s Encyclopedia Book” on YouTube!