LINCOLN, NEB. — Hints of her academic passion are scattered among the usual clutter of papers and files in Carolyn Ducey's tiny office an array of fabric swatches, antique quilting needles, a small Japanese quilt hanging on the far wall.
Hidden in a corner of the University of Nebraska's home economics building, this is where Ducey works as curator of the International Quilt Study Center, the nation's only university-backed quilt scholarship program.
Down the hall is a climate-controlled, dimly lit storage room that houses one of the world's largest quilt collections almost 1,200 items, each folded in acid-free paper and tucked into archive-quality boxes by graduate students wearing white cotton gloves.
This is where students wanting to become antique dealers, auction house experts or museum curators can study the designs and history of quilts.
"It is the quilt epicenter in terms of quilt study," says Patricia Crews, chairwoman of the university's School of Textiles, Clothing and Design.
Ducey is used to the inevitable questions when quilting novices first learn of the university's little-known center.
Why quilts? Why Nebraska?
The quick answer is a remarkable donation of 950 quilts by two Nebraska natives that anchored the center's birth in 1997. Quilt lovers Robert and Ardis James of Chappaqua, N.Y., knew of Crews' scholarship into quilts and donated not only their collection, valued at $6 million, but also an additional $1 million to fund the center and build its storage room.
And Nebraska's strong quilting history makes it as likely a place as any for a center to focus study of the hobby-turned-art, Ducey and Crews say. They brand as a misconception the idea that quilting is tethered to New England.
"That's just one of the myths that got started in the 1930s, this idea of Colonial quilting," Ducey says. "There were very few quilts made in Colonial times because fabric was entirely too expensive for that kind of luxury."
It wasn't until after the Civil War, when cotton fabric could be mass-produced and was more affordable, that quilting became a popular hobby, she explains.
Ducey also mentions more ardent reasons for the center.
"Comfort, love, care, grandma ... these are what quilts impart with viewers," she says. "It doesn't matter who comes through here, they always seem to have some connection to quilts. Even with men, they always have a memory of a quilt they had as a child or one their mother or grandmother made for them."
"I don't think I would say there was surprise that it was set up in Nebraska," says quilt historian Karey Bresenhan of Houston. "There was surprise that it was set up, period. The James collection is famous in the quilt world. It's a real treasure for any one institution to have in their possession."
The Jameses' Nebraska heritage made the University of Nebraska a logical home for their collection, says Bresenhan, a fifth-generation Texas quilter.
"You might think, logically, that a collection like that would go to a museum in New York or Washington," she says. "I don't think it would have ever been given the proper attention at a museum in New York or Washington. The university is doing great things with it ... they're not keeping those quilts hidden."
A dozen quilts celebrating human rights were recently displayed in the university's textile gallery, while 30 to 50 others regularly tour Nebraska in museums, galleries and libraries.
Bresenhan spent years studying textile books and antique fabrics to teach herself how to date quilts based on their fabric content and patterns. What took her years of trial-and-error now can be learned through a few courses at Nebraska's center.
"I didn't really learn about quilts and their history until I got here. Now I'm in love with it," says Marin Hanson, 27, of Chicago, who is enrolled in the university's graduate textile program, with an emphasis in quilt studies. She hopes to become curator of a quilt museum.
The center's roots go back more than two decades when Crews was recruited by the Lincoln Quilters Guild, a group of hobbyists, to serve as adviser for a survey to determine how many Nebraska quilts were in private hands.
"They were really concerned that those quilts ... were going to be sold out of family hands, and much of the information about the history of those quilts would be lost," Crews says.
The group then persuaded her to edit a book based on the survey, "Nebraska Quilts and Quiltmakers." The book received the Smithsonian Institution's Robert Frost prize for Distinguished Scholarship in American crafts.
That distinction attracted the attention of Robert James, originally from Ord in central Nebraska, and his wife, Ardis, a native of Lincoln. They had been looking for a home for their quilt collection, which had occupied an entire wing of their house.
"We spent two years looking for a place, and then got discouraged," Ardis James said. "You can't give a thousand of anything away. Just at the very last minute when we were about to give up, we talked to Dr. Crews."