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Quilt helps illuminate life in 1857 Salt Lake

THE SALT LAKE CITY 14TH WARD ALBUM QUILT, 1857, by Carol Holindrake Nielson, University of Utah Press, 241 pages, $24.95, softbound.

This heavily illustrated volume concentrates its attention on 63 Mormon frontier women who sewed an album quilt in 1857.

Most of those women were not well enough known to have their histories passed down through the generations — but Carol Holindrake Nielson, a Utah resident and descendant of one of the women, has completed deep research into their project.

The result is "The Salt Lake City 14th Ward Album Quilt, 1957," a fragmentary, documentary social history of great interest.

The author became quite unexpectedly the "heir" of the quilt described here when her mother-in-law passed it on on Thanksgiving Day, 1996. Describing the day, Nielson writes, "Despite its age, it was still vibrant. Each unique block more beautifully crafted than the next was signed like an autograph book with the maker's name — many of which I immediately recognized: Woodruff, Taylor, Pratt, Richards, Morley. These were names right out of the Latter-day Saint history books. I was as dumbfounded by the treasure as by the fact that the quilt was cut right in half — right down the middle of signatures, mottos, motifs, and art. My words came instinctively, 'Only a man could do that.' It is a phrase that I heard spontaneously and repeatedly from every woman to whom I told the story or showed the quilt!"

After some preliminary research, Nielson found Shirley Knibbe Mumford, who had the other half of the quilt. Richard Stephen Horne, son of Mary Isabella Hales Horne, was the culprit who cut the quilt in half. Mary Horne was the great-great-great-grandmother of Shirley Knibbe Mumford and Carol Holindrake Nielson's husband, Dan.

The Nielsons and the Mumfords gathered at the Mumfords' Sandy home to take pictures, tell stories and fawn over the quilt. Afterward, the author determined to research the posterity of the women who sewed the quilt. Quickly, she discovered that the LDS 14th Ward was a "skewed sampling of the pioneer population" because a large portion of its members were leaders of the LDS Church. Because many of those leaders practiced polygamy, the descendants of the Relief Society women went beyond mother, daughter, aunt, niece or sister-in-law — to sister wives as well.

The author speculates that the quilt was made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Nielson found an entry in Wilford Woodruff's diary saying he had visited the group of women who gathered each Wednesday afternoon in the Woodruff home. As Woodruff recorded, "Mrs. Phoebe Woodruff is President and Mrs. Pratt Secretary. They clothe all the poor in the ward and during the last quarter they made a donation to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund of $126. I wish all go and do like wise."

Unfortunately, there are no extant records of the 14th Ward or its Relief Society explaining the motivation for the quilt. Nevertheless, it's known that album quilts were a 19th century "fad." As Nielson writes, "They showcased the many styles and talents of the multiple women who sewed the individual blocks. Not only was each block unique, each was signed by the maker so that the assembled quilt could be 'read' like the pages of a family album. Besides her name, a quilter often wrote the words of a motto or a scripture to personalize her work."

The participants also saved their best, most precious fabrics to be used in album quilts.

Using as many journals and documents she could find, Nielson tells the sometimes incomplete stories of the women who made the quilt. Photos of individual blocks from the quilt illustrate the many differences in approach. While answering myriad questions about family history, this book is a fascinating textile history of early Mormonism. It is also a pioneering approach.