Quilt treasures of past preserved for the future

Jan Hirneisen owns an 1890 quilt made by her great-grandmother. The retired teacher became active in the art when her son went off to college and she wanted to make him something special. Once her hard work was done she decided there was no way he could take the quilt to the dorm. She has since made over 20 quilts and joined the Chambersburg Quilt Guild. The group is selling a book chronicling quilts of Franklin County.

The history of Franklin County is recorded in pieces of colorful fabric, stitched together by hand or machine, dating to founding times. The quilts tell the stories of families, passed down orally and sometimes in writing. The coverlets were used for warmth on a bed, to block the cold at doors or windows, or for show. The patterns and cloth used revealed creativity, utilitarianism, even clues to the year they were sewn.

Such information is fodder for avid quilters, who seek to understand quilts of old even as they work on contemporary ones for wedding gifts or newborn grandchildren.

One group of enthusiasts embarked on a project in 2004 to document the quilts in Franklin County. The response was so great that the Chambersburg Quilt Guild realized it had to do more, and therefore published a book displaying 200 examples of the finest quilts in this part of Pennsylvania. The pages of the hardcover book contain professional color photographs and any known history of quilts made from the late 1700s to 1950. It also tracks the quilting tradition in the ensuing years, and offers a guide to the care and preservation of the treasured pieces.

"This was something we did for the county," said Mim Huffman, Chambersburg, chairman of the documentation committee. "It was to recognize and preserve what we have, our legacy."

The Guild sponsored documentation sites across the county, including one at Church of the Brethren in Greencastle. Professional textile conservators were on hand to examine the quilts brought in by the current owners. Over 1,000 quilts were reviewed and one-fifth of them eventually chosen for the publication. Jan Hirneisen, Greencastle, brought in three quilts made by her great-grandmother. None made it into the book, but she received expert information about each of them. They were made by Suzanna Zartman in Lancaster County, likely in 1890. Two were done in the Irish Chain style and one with a star pattern. That one is in pristine condition because Hirneisen's mother stored it in a chest. The others, passed to her by her aunts, show fading. A fourth quilt did not make it to 2009. Someone in the extended family did not respect the value of an antique quilt and put it in the dog kennel.

Once the data had been collected, the Guild had to turn to the mechanics of producing a book. The members faced the task of layout.

"We were almost finished and weren't quite satisfied with how the quilts looked with two on a page," remembered Huffman. "So we bought more pages. Then we had to rearrange. That was a headache. But it was worth it."

The lengthy project is done and the book is now available for purchase. It is offered at below-production cost because of donations from businesses and foundations.

'Quilt Treasures of Yesteryear' is for sale at Willowtree Gifts and Flower Shop, 111 E. Baltimore St. in Greencastle. The other county locations are: Waynesboro - Renfrew Museum; Chambersburg - Council for the Arts, Franklin County Visitors Bureau, Grove Family Library, Sew'n Place, The Gift Enclosure; Newburg - Esh's Store; Mercersburg - Fendrick Library, and Spring Run - Path Valley Family Restaurant.

Orders may also be sent to Miriam M. Huffman, 1412 Spring Side Court, Chambersburg PA 17202-4715. The price is $34.95. If arrangements cannot be made for pick up, include $5.95 for shipping.

Among the featured quilts is a Sunburst, owned by the Allison-Antrim Museum. It was donated by Teresa Phillippy Brenton, made by her great-grandmother Mrs. Sowers in 1860. The Civil War became part of the history of the quilt. When Confederate troops occupied the area, the Sowers family, like many others, hid valuables in the cloth, from which a dark spot remains.

Other quilts belong to Renfrew Museum, Conococheague Institute Museum in Welsh Run, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Franklin County churches. Most remain privately owned, in the homes of the descendants of the makers. The documentation of all 1,050 quilts is stored at the Kittochtinny Historical Society in Chambersburg, and can be accessed by students and historians.

Chambersburg Quilt Guild

The guild organized in 1982 after someone posted an invitation on a grocery store bulletin board about meeting to discuss common interests in quilts. It has grown to 150 members who meet the second Saturday of each month. They range from beginners to experts, and Hirneisen, who has been quilting for over two decades, says she continues to learn new techniques.

The club brings in nationally-known quilters as guest speakers, hosts special events and trunk shows, and plans two retreats each year. They also take bus trips to regional quilt shows. The members participate in service projects such as making baby quilts for unwed mothers and doll quilts for a toy drive. They raffle and auction quilts and donate half the proceeds to charitable organizations.

More information may be found at

Morgan Anderson has studied quilts in the county for over 35 years as a collector and antique dealer. In a narrative in 'Quilt Treasures of Yesteryear' he wrote, "To my mind, the years between 1870 and 1920 produced the best and most interesting Franklin County quilts. They are equal to any produced in Lancaster, Berks, Lebanon or York counties in their colors, patterns and quilting. While quilts from these eastern counties are better known to the public, Franklin County's creations should finally be recognized as deserving of the same rank."

Now they are.