How to contact Betsey Telford-Goodwin's Rocky Mountain Quilts:
Telephone - for orders or questions - 1-207-363-6800
FedEx - 130 York Street York, Maine 03909
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Recognizing Heirloom Masterpieces
Betsey Telford of York has earned a reputation as one of the nation's top experts on antique quilts and their restoration. By Christine R. Parrish.
Reprinted by permission from the March 2003 issue of Down East Magazine. Copyright 2003 by Down East Enterprise, Inc., Camden, Maine. All rights reserved. Visit www.downeast.com.
Betsey Telford shoos her chocolate-brown poodle out of the way and bustles down the enclosed breezeway into the kitchen of her eighteenth-century house to make a pot of tea. She pats the cat curled on top of the refrigerator, pushes aside a scattering of bills on the farm-kitchen table to make room for a wedge of cheddar and a box of crackers, and settles in for a cuppa and a comfortable chat.
"Is the tea alright?" she asks, fussing. Then she is on her feet again, looking in the refrigerator. "If you don't like cheddar, there's something else here. You want that?"
The ambience of the old farmhouse, the well-loved kitchen table, and Telford herself seem as down to earth and as cozy as a handmade quilt.
But it is all a bit misleading.
Because Betsey Telford, proprietor of Rocky Mountain Quilts in York, went from knowing virtually nothing about antique quilts fifteen years ago to being one of a handful of top antique quilt dealers in the country today. These are the elite at the top of the heap — dealers who can look at an antique quilt and tell when it was made, how it was made, what it is made of, and sometimes where it was made and who made it.
The small timber-frame barn at the other end of the breezeway, which serves as the retail shop for Rocky Mountain Quilts, is stocked with hundreds of quilts folded on the carpet, packed on shelves reaching up to the eaves, and neatly draped over tiered display racks. Log Cabin quilts, Barn Raising quilts, Lone Star, Broken Star, and Feather Star quilts, Flying Geese and Turkey Track quilts, Rose of Sharon and Wedding Ring quilts, and dozens of other designs create a kaleidoscope of color, texture, and pattern.
Telford buys and sells top-quality American quilts from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early-twentieth centuries. Ideally, she looks for quilts that were considered too precious to use and were carefully stowed away in trunks for decades, or even centuries, and are still in pristine condition today. She also looks for superior needlework and appealing designs and color combinations. To find them, she places ads, stalks flea markets and auctions, and pays freelance "pickers" who scout the countryside for quilts based on her specifications. Still, on the average, she buys only one out of every fifty antique quilts she sees. And some of those, according to Telford, are fine art on the same scale as museum-quality paintings.
Telford pulls out a Victorian crazy quilt, circa 1885, and drapes it on a display rack. Made of a bold array of silks and silk velvets randomly stitched together without a pattern, the quilt resembles stained glass at first glance. "This is from the heyday of Victorian crazy quilts," says Telford. "On a scale of one to ten in quality, I'd call this a fifteen."
Not only is the quilt in such good condition that it looks almost new, but the needlework is first rate. On closer inspection, it has enough fine embroidery work to drive a quilt maker mad. Within one square foot there is an intricately embroidered peacock, a bouquet of violets, a Chinese urn filled with flowers, two butterflies, and a woman sitting in a chair. The edge of each small piece of fabric is also embroidered with henscratch and other decorative stitches.
"There's everything in here from kitty-cats to cartoons. Here's two sets of American flags," says Telford, pointing them out. "When they finished embellishing, they just kept going. That was the Victorian way. Most crazy quilts have about a hundred decorative stitches, but this particular quilt has hundreds of different kinds of stitches in addition to the embroidered images."
She drapes a mid-nineteenth-century Presidential Wreath quilt over the crazy quilt. While the white background with its appliqué of circling green vines and bold red flowers seems simple in comparison, closer inspection reveals that the fabric is quilted to within an inch of its life. Make that an eighth of an inch; the quilt stitches are so close that, after the first washing, the quilting created a stippled effect like puckers in seersucker cloth.
While stippling is desirable on this particular quilt, Telford points out that washing antique quilts should be undertaken with care. "I wash quilts by hand in the bathtub," she says. Telford advises antique quilt owners to get advice from a reputable quilt dealer or conservator about how to clean a specific quilt: "Cotton quilts should never be put in a washing machine or dry cleaned."
Pulling out one quilt after another, Telford keeps up a running commentary on the history of American quilts. She points out a running backstitch that looks like machine stitching but is actually hand stitching done on a quilt that predates the sewing machine, which became available to the general public in 1858. On another, she points out Turkey Red calico fabric from the eighteenth century, a rich color made from natural dyes in an eighteen- to twenty-one-step dying process.
It quickly becomes apparent that, when it comes to antique quilts, it would be very hard to ask Betsey Telford a question she would be unable to answer.
I didn't know much about quilts when I started, but I've always loved old things," Telford says. "And I'm a textile junkie, anyway. Luck just brought them together."
Shortly after she and her husband moved from New England to Colorado in 1987, an acquaintance in Massachusetts called and asked Telford if she would look around for a half-dozen antique quilts to use as decoration in a home design project.
It sounded fun, so she started going to antique stores to hunt for quilts. Luckily, her husband tagged along. As the son of an Oklahoma farm woman, he had watched his mother turn old clothes into quilts and sell them when he was a boy. He told his wife to look at the stitching from the front and the back to discern the quality of the craftsmanship and to pay attention to the variations in color palette and artistic design from one quilt to the next.
"Not all old quilts are valuable," notes Telford. Some are in bad condition, some are poorly made, and some are well crafted but lack artistry. She sometimes finds quilts with superb craftsmanship but ghastly color combinations. "Red, orange, black, blue, and green. There are some ugly quilts that are really well made. Women couldn't always afford to buy fabric and so they used whatever clothing scraps they had."
After looking at dozens of quilts and buying a handful to send back east, the antique-quilt bug had bitten. Telford soon found herself researching quilts and fabrics in libraries, talking to quilt makers, and buying more quilts. Just like that, Rocky Mountain Quilts was born.
The hunt led her to women who made quilts in the Depression Era when flour, sugar, animal feed, corn, and other basic necessities were sold in cotton cloth sacks made of colorful prints. Since a single cotton feed sack was never big enough to make a garment and, since each company had its own fabric designs, this created an incentive for brand loyalty.
"I call the feed sacks the original baseball cards," says Telford. "Women sent their husbands to the market and told them which brand of sugar or flour to buy so there would be enough matching fabric to make a skirt."
And, of course, the women also made quilts. Depression Era feed-sack quilts can often be told by the vibrant colors, the fabric designs, and the coarseness of the cotton.
Out of respect for the women she met who had made the quilts fifty or sixty years earlier, Telford wrote down all the information she could get on every quilt she bought — where and when it was made, who made it, and what it was made of. Her thoroughness paid off in two ways: The documentation gave the quilts a pedigree of authenticity and she educated herself about late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century quilts and fabrics.
When someone asked Rocky Mountain Quilts to restore a damaged quilt that was a family heirloom, the company fell into the quilt-restoration business. Telford was an experienced seamstress, but she knew nothing about quilt restoration. She took the job anyway, then taught herself how to do it.
She wanted to keep the antique integrity of the quilt intact by using period fabrics that were as old or older than the quilt under restoration. Following proper curatorial technique, Telford did not remove any damaged fabric from the quilt, but covered it with old fabric in good condition. Then, she replaced the quilt stitching.
Word quickly spread about the quality of her work and custom restoration orders came flooding in. By 1989, two years after Rocky Mountain Quilts opened its doors, Betsey Telford had hired twenty-two employees in Colorado and trained them in restoration work.
"Eighty percent of our restoration work is for families who have a quilt that is an heirloom and it's going to end up at a yard sale or in a dog's bed if it falls into rags. The restoration can take the quilt back to where it was originally so it can be saved for another hundred years." And according to a local client who had a quilt restored by Rocky Mountain Quilts, it is almost impossible to tell the restored sections of the quilt from the original.
Once the restoration division settled in, Telford focused on the other part of the business: buying original antique quilts that were still in fabulous shape, adding to her stock of antique fabrics used in restoration, and selling quilts.
In 1990, she started attending major antiques shows in Boston, New York, and Houston to sell quilts. Soon, the Rocky Mountain Quilt name started to be recognized. An invitation to lecture on early American quilts and to sell in a top-rated Tokyo antique show in 1992 launched the company into the international arena. Invitations from Europe followed.
Over the past decade, Telford's husband died, leaving her desperately homesick for New England. Six years ago, she bought a place in York and packed up and headed for Maine. Now, settled into her partially restored farmhouse with her dog and two cats, life is anything but quiet. Her quilt restoration business, still based in Colorado, is thriving. So is the retail shop in the barn in York.
And the hunt for antique quilts never stops.
"I love the hunt," admits Telford. "But I love the education part of the business, too, whether it's working with major collectors or with people who have never bought an antique quilt before."
She encourages novice antique quilt buyers to think about whether they want to hang a quilt on the wall or use it on a bed, since some quilts wear much better than others. Silk, for example, is too fragile for daily use. After examining the condition and quality of the quilt, buyers should see the quilt spread out flat if they plan to use it on a bed and held up if they plan to hang it, since the character of a quilt can change depending on how it is displayed. And, Telford stresses, novice collectors should always buy from a reputable quilt dealer who guarantees the authenticity and condition of the quilt in writing.
"But the quilt should make you smile, too," she adds. "When you find the pattern and color combination that makes you happy, that's where you should start."
Then Telford is on her feet again. She has to pack quilts for an antique show at the New York Armory. And, unlike the anonymous women who constructed fine quilts in farmhouse kitchens and Victorian parlors centuries ago, when Betsey Telford walks out on the showroom floor, everyone who is anyone in the world of antique quilts already knows her by name.
Rocky Mountain Quilts is located at 130 York Street, York, Maine 03909. 207-363-6800.
www.rockymountainquilts.com. Open seven days a week May through December, otherwise Thursdays through Saturdays and by appointment.