Thursday, November 16, 2017

Past Perfect: Elly Sienkiewicz

Odense Album, designed by Elly Sienkiewicz
70″ x 70″, 1989-1990.

Few people have had as much influence on quiltmakers and quilt style as Eleanor P. Hamilton Sienkiewicz.  Ever.

Elly at one of the Applique Academy sessions

When Elly published her first book Spoken Without a Word in 1983 much writing about quilts used words such as "lost art" with implications that masterpiece applique was a thing of the past.

 Album Quilt block made in Baltimore for Bernard Nadal, 1847.
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Contemporary quilters were too modern, too busy....too inept ? to maintain the standards of mid-19th-century artists.

Album quilt dated 1975

None of it was true. All that was needed were good patterns, good fabric and good instruction in handwork. Elly provided all three. Plus a lot of enthusiasm.

Elly's patterns are little works of art in themselves.

Elly started her career in quilts with a mail-order
fabric company that (despite its name) specialized
in solid color cottons---an elusive item in the 1980s.

Want to learn hand applique or improve your
techniques? Buy this book.

Detail from Odense Album

Elly's influence has been an ever-widening circle. 
She's taught many who have become skilled applique teachers
themselves. I found this block by a student of a student.

Recent block by Tresa Jones of Seneca, Kansas.

Although she has retired, thirty-five years later Elly's influence continues.

Elly graduated from Wellesley College and the University of Pennsylvania with majors in history, art and education. She taught school, married Stan Sienkiewicz and raised three children in Washington, D.C.

As far as I know she has published 29 books. She has always had a lot to say and is a joy to listen to.

Through Tufts of 'Broidered Flowers, 2005-2009
 by Elly Sienkiewicz & Susan Kurth

Baltimore Album Quilt made for Joshua Young, 1840s,
Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia

Everyone knows her best as a fabulous applique teacher and pattern designer but she is also a quilt historian. Living in Washington gave her an opportunity to study the unique album quilts made in Baltimore in the 1850s and '50s. She has always been curious about pattern sources and how these quilts came to be made in such great numbers.

Her books index the traditional patterns as well
as update the look.

One of her accomplishments is a paper she gave about Baltimore Album Quilts at the American Quilt Study Group's 1989 seminar, demolishing the popular and profitable theory that one woman named Mary Evans stitched the quilts. "The Marketing of Mary Evans” argued against the one-woman/one-style concept in several ways.

From an Elly quilt

My favorite argument was her personal sewing experience in re-making the historical blocks. She said she spent about 50 hours on a typical block. A friend counted her hours in making a 72-inch elaborate appliqued quilt, demonstrating that a professional seamstress needs a year or more of forty-hour weeks to make one classic BAQ of 104 square inches. No one person could have made the dozens and dozens of BAQ's.

Happiness is the Journey, 2007
By Elly Sienkiewicz Applique’ Academy and others; 
machine quilted by Susan Mallett with Sue Nichols

Elly's quilts are usually group
projects with her designs and supervision
(because no one person can make all the quilts she has planned.)

The theory today that similar blocks were sold by several designers as unstitched kits and patterns owes a lot to Elly's willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom in the antique world at the time.

Odense Album was designed by Elly and
stitched by a group of her students and friends.
The pattern is in The Best of Baltimore Beauties Part II

Elly's most recent book is Spoken Without a Word — 30th Anniversary Revised Edition, a 2014
re-do of her first book, the 1983 Spoken Without a Word. The new edition incorporates the text of the original but this version is illustrated in full color. Included are the Lexicon of Symbols, Antebellum Patterns, Baltimore Album History and her Revivalist Baltimore Album Quilt Gallery.
The 1983 edition was black and white and featured
short essays on Victorian symbolism in the BAQs.

See a preview of the recent book here:

From the recent book

Read "The Marketing of Mary Evans,” Uncoverings 1989, Volume 10 of the Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group, Edited by Laurel Horton.

Karen Pessia, My Baltimore Journey
from the 30th Anniversary edition of
Spoken Without a Word


  1. Elly is indeed a treasure! I remember her fabulous paper on the "Marketing of Mary Evans" and the reactions from the audience. It remains one of my favorite AQSG papers. Thanks for sharing.

  2. We were just talking about this very subject a couple of Saturdays ago at my applique group. So interesting!

  3. Thank you for this concise, comprehensive tribute. (What do professional quilters do in retirement?)

  4. They make quilts they want to make instead of quilts for deadlines!

  5. Just beautiful. If I see a quilt like this in a show I can spend ages looking at all the workings. I do have a thing for old sailing ships - so does my daughter, although I draw the line at getting a huge tattoo of HMS Victory on my torso! I'd rather see it worked in fabric.
    Thank you for showing them. Another "one day I must do" type of quilt.

  6. What a lovely and well-deserved tribute to Elly! Thank you, Barbara. Elly has truly inspired many.

  7. I love Ms Elly's work (that of those who make her quilts also!), have a couple of her books, but never started any blocks. I like hand sewing, but those tiny parts and sharp corners intimidate me. I'll have to take a deep breath, plunge in and start though, I won't learn and improve by drooling over photos of these quilts. I'll keep any eye out for the Applique 12 Easy Ways book.

    What is the correct pronunciation of Ms Elly's last name? I don't think I've managed to say it twice the same way in my own head, let alone out loud... :-)

  8. I have always heard it as sin KAY vitch

  9. I learned to applique and not get stressed over it from Elly's Applique 12 Easy ways book. Great eye candy in this post!

  10. Does anyone know when she first started showing her work? I have a paper to write on an artist from the 1950’s, 60’s or the 70’s. I need to know what show would have been the one to establish her and her work as a leader in her field. Thanks