Lowell, Massachusetts was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution in America as the leading textile manufacturing city in the country. Through the 19th century, thousands of people migrated to the city, with its massive brick factories powered by an intricate system of canals, for jobs turning raw cotton into textiles.
The advent of manufactured textiles such as those produced in Lowell freed women from the task of spinning and weaving their own cloth. Mass produced fabric became widely, and cheaply, available. This gave rise to the practice of quilting. Suddenly, nearly every homemaker could purchase swatches of different colored and designed cloth to be sewn together into a quilt. So it is fitting that Lowell, where so much of that fabric was produced, is now home to the New England Quilt Museum.
The New England Quilt Museum is home to a permanent collection of over 225 quilts – ranging from antiques and eye-catching contemporary designs. The on-going exhibits feature a wide variety of quilts, from traditional patchwork designs to Amish geometric patterns and even modern three-dimensional designs. The museum also showcases textile manufacturing and sewing-related items in presenting the history of quiltmaking in America.
The 18,000 square foot New England Quilt Museum building also has ample space to feature a series of limited-time exhibits organized around different themes. The line-up of planned 2010 exhibits includes collections highlighting America’s top contemporary quilters, Amish crib quilts and African-American quilts.
When the textile industry left New England after World War II for cheaper labor and easy access to raw materials, first in the American South and then overseas, huge factories across the region were shut down. While many of these mill towns fell on economic hard times, Lowell was determined to celebrate its history and preserve its manufacturing heritage. Local residents got behind an effort to convert the mills into the Lowell National Historical Park.
The New England Quilt Museum occupies a unique building in downtown Lowell. The rhomboid-shaped building is a Greek Revival style, two-story brick structure with an intricate wrought-iron balcony and decorative trim. It houses the museum’s exhibits, as well as a library and classrooms, and a museum store. The store offers not only quilt-related art items such as notecards, calendars and photos of items in the museum’s collection, but also sewing and quilting supplies such as fine threads and fabrics from around the world.
The museum also offers workshops ranging from basic quilting to advanced techniques, and is a meeting place for area quilting groups. The library is home to more than 2000 volumes, as well as quilting periodicals and specialized computer software.
The New England Quilt Museum is located at 18 Shattuck Street in downtown Lowell, Massachusetts, a short walk from the Lowell National Historical Park. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturdays year round, plus Sundays from May to December. There is a small admission fee. Tours are available for groups of 10 or more, with advance reservations.