The Ravalli County Museum opened the new ‘The Art and History of Quilts’ exhibit with a traditional revolving bed last week.

Executive director Michelle Nowling said the new exhibit is beautiful, has been on the program since 2020, and will run until Apple Day, October 1.

“It was entirely organized by Heritage Quilters, a mini-group of the Bitterroot Quilters Guild,” she said. “They study old quilts, accept blocks, create new things from old blocks, and do all kinds of really fun crafts.”

The Bitterroot Quilters Guild collected 50 quilts for display from guild members, friends and the museum’s collection.

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“They pulled together all the stories about each quilt,” Nowling said. “They do all the leg work and we can accommodate him. We’ve helped hang quilts, created all the labels, and filled in a few pieces for our collections. They did a great job, it turned out so beautiful.

The Bitterroot Quilters Guild also offered instructions on how to care for an antique quilt and keep it beautiful. They have developed a brochure in the exhibit for visitors to take care of antique quilts. For orphan quilt squares where there isn’t enough for a quilt, they can be made into a table runner or wall hanging.

Nearly 60 community members attended the launch of the exhibit which began with a bed change. A bed bumper is a traditional way for a woman to show off her duvets to friends and family.

“She would gather her friends and family, provide refreshments,” Nowling said. “It’s called a bed flip because you’re layering all the quilts you want to show. You lay them flat on a bed on top of each other.

The top quilt is shown and its story told then it is folded to the end of the bed or folded and pushed aside for the next quilt and its story. Everyone can gather around the bed and see the details.

“That’s what the ladies did,” Nowling said. “We put the bed on stage so they could talk about it and then fold them up. It was really fun and we had a good crowd with good questions. It was fun to see people enjoying the quilts.

Although the museum asks people not to touch the quilts on display, there are a few practical things – quilting terms with samples, personal quilt stories, and designing a quilt.

The Glossary of Quilting Terms is for people who are unfamiliar with quilting. In front of each page or term, an example to touch allows you to better understand the different kinds of quilts and the different materials used.

The Station to Write Your Quilt Story is for pondering, writing, and sharing.

“What is your background with quilts? How have quilts affected your life? Nowling asked. “They can take it with them or hang it on our board for other visitors to see their story.”

A design station provides interaction for community members of all ages to color, quilt, and show off their artistic side.

“The quilts are very artistic and very personal,” Nowling said.

She is a quilter who grew up with her mother and grandmother. She has a few favorites in the show.

“I love the iris quilt on the north wall,” she said. “I am very attached to the Dresden Plate pattern and there are several Dresden Plate quilts in there. There are so many fun quilts out there. I love traditional quilts, Civil War quilts, patterns and reproduction fabrics. I am very traditional.

The Ravalli County Museum has a display of tools in the next room, for people who aren’t interested in quilting.

“For those who think they don’t like duvets, I would ask them if they’ve ever slept under a duvet,” Nowling said. “Have you ever used one to keep yourself warm?” If so, quilts are part of your life even if you don’t recognize them as a passion. I think most people know what a quilt is, even if they don’t sew. If not, they should come and learn.

She said quilts have been around for millennia and quilting is an iconic American art form that began in Europe.

“That’s where those skills come from,” Nowling said. “American quilt making is unique, they took it and ran with it. It was a way for women to express themselves and their artistic nature. Quilts were used to tell stories. I think of the Underground Railroad where quilts were often a symbol of safe houses, often a map for people who couldn’t read.

The social aspects of quilting are also historic as they brought women together for “quilt bees”.

“They were sharing fabric, sharing patterns, coming together to work,” Nowling said.

She said quilts were used to preserve family memories, especially as people moved west.

“Friends and family would get together and make a quilt that people could take with them,” Nowling said. “It was a keepsake, they could say, ‘this was from grandma’s dress’ or ‘it was grandpa’s shirt.’ It was a way of keeping stories alive before there were photo albums.

In the Bitterroot Valley, the history of quilting is strong. There are currently over 40 members in the Bitterroot Quilters Guild who have mini-groups that come together to make special quilts. The Quilts for Kids group makes quilts for children and donates them to SAFE and the police department. The Comforter Group makes quilts for the hospital and hospice. There is an Art Quilter group that makes more artistic and modern quilts and wall hangings.

“There’s the Heritage Quilters and a few other mini-groups,” Nowling said. “It’s a way for you to find yours, so to speak, and learn new skills. I joined a year ago and have already learned new skills. They are wonderful people.

The Bitterroot Quilters Guild meets at 6:30 p.m. at Daly Leach Chapel on the fourth Wednesday of each month except July. They have a booth at the Ravalli County Fair to raise money for scholarships.

Enjoy “The Art and History of Quilts” at the Ravalli County Museum, 205 Bedford St. in Hamilton. For more information, visit

“We want people to come see the quilts, come back and bring their visitors,” Nowling said.


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