Each fall the Bennington Museum displays one of the most popular items in its collection: a quilt sewn during the Civil War by a Shaftsbury woman named Jane Stickle.
Antiques quilts are treasured as historical artifacts and family heirlooms, but the "Stickle quilt" has taken on a life of its own. "We get calls from people coming from Japan, coming from Denmark – and they’re coming to see this quilt," explains Callie Stewart, the Bennington Museum collections manager. She’s also the Stickle quilt’s care taker. "I’ve seen this once or twice – we have Kleenexes out here because women would come and just be in tears over it."
As quilts go, this one is deceptively unusual. It’s size is about six feet by six feet. There are 169 blocks and each is unique, no pattern or fabric is used twice. There’s also a note embroidered in the corner by Jane Stickle herself. "She actually signed it. It’s signed with the number of piece she put into it," explains Stewart. "So it says, ‘Pieces, 5,602.’ And then she also signed it, ‘In war time, 1863.’" That reference is, of course, to the Civil War. "And although it was not fought in Vermont, it profoundly affected Vermont. She would have known people and it would have affected her town and her community very deeply."
Jane Stickle finished the quilt in 1863, but how the quilt passed out of her hands isn’t entirely clear. The Bennington Museum bought it in the 1930s, without much fanfair. For decades the quilt had a life obscurity in the museum archive – nearly as obscure as Jane Stickle herself. "We really know very, little about her unfortunately," says Stewart. Census records show she was married to Walter Stickle in the 1850s. They lost their farm to bankruptcy, and in the 1890s Jane Stickle was impoverished, and a ward of the town. Stewart calls Stickle’s story a tragedy. "She created something so beautiful and was obviously very skilled," say s Stewart. "And yet, she was not significant of the time. She wasn’t important. Nobody wrote down what her feelings were. And if she wrote them down, nobody kept them."
Nearly 150 years after placing the last stitch in the quilt, Jane Stickle’s anonymous life has created a strong legacy. One admirer wrote a book about her effort to reproduce her own Stickle quilt, and it launched a small but devoted following of "Janiacs" — quilters who attempt to recreate the Stickle quilt, stitch by stitch.
"It’s absolutely fascinating to me that someone who was really nobody in her life, she wasn’t significant enough to leave any record of her life," says Stewart, "and yet here is her quilt in a local museum, and people are flocking all over the world to see it. It’s just an amazing turn of events I think."
Whether you’re a "Janiac" or more casually appreciative of historic treasures, your chance to see the Stickle quilt this year is closing: the quilt is on display through the end of October.