Trish West knelt down and ran her fingers gently over the quilt that was on display in front of her at the Kentucky Highlands Museum.
To actually touch the 177-year-old piece of fabric is a privilege not granted to many.
But West had earned it, seeing how the quilt was made by one of her ancestors.
“You just touched a family member!” West’s husband, Don, enthused.
The quilt in question was the Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell Graveyard Quilt Top, made in the 1830s by Mitchell to commemorate her lost son. In muted shades of brown, it depicts the path to the cemetery where he was buried, the fence surrounding its stones and her son’s casket.
Mitchell stitched the quilt after moving to Lewis County from Ohio to help her remember the location of her son’s grave.
West, of Dublin, Ohio, is Mitchell’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter. It was her mother, Jo Ann Biggs West, who donated the top to the Highlands in about 1990. It is the museum’s second-oldest textile display.
West said her mother inherited the quilt when her sister, Rebecca Biggs Forsythe, died and left the house and all the antiques in it to her.
She said her mother would occasionally take the quilt top out and show it, and upon laying eyes for the first time in years on Saturday, West remarked: “It’s bigger than I remember it.”
West said she found out the quilt top was showing at the Highlands through email conversations with Nancy K. Osborne, Kentucky Heritage Quilt Society District 10 (FIVCO) leader. It was placed on display earlier this month for the quilt society’s Quilters Day Out. Because it’s so old and fragile, the top is placed on display only rarely and only for special occasions.
The quilt top at the Highlands is actually one of two made by Mitchell. According to Osborne, Mitchell was never satisfied with it and considered it a practice piece. The second one she completed and it was the pride of the family. In 1959, her granddaughter, Nina Mitchell Biggs, author of a book on the history of Greenup County, donated it to the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, where it’s recognized as a national treasure.
By the time West’s mother donated the quilt top to the museum, its connection with the one in Frankfort had become obscured. But that after a California quilt historian doing research in Kentucky discovered it, recognized it as a historical treasure and rescued it from obscurity by writing a book about it.
The historian and author, Linda Otto Lipsett, discovered the quilt through Greenup County librarian Dorothy Griffith, who was on the Highlands board of directors at the time, Osborne said.
According to Osborne, the story behind the Mitchell quilt top came from the family’s bible, although no one had ever been able to locate it. Through her conversations with West, she said she was thrilled to learn she had it in her possession. She didn’t bring it with her, though, because she said it’s much too old and fragile to take out.
In researching the quilt top, Osborne said she learned that one of Mitchell’s sons is buried in the Ashland Cemetery. She took West and her husband to visit the grave on Saturday.
KENNETH HART can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2654.