Antique Quilt Returns to North Haven

photograph and text by Andrew Frederick
originally posted on The Working Waterfront

The top row of the Lucy Dyer Denham Quilt provides a snapshot of the Dyer family’s history.

A true heirloom has a certain haunting beauty about it. A patina comes with age, care and loving use, creating a subtle but powerful aura to behold in person. The gift that was recently bestowed upon the North Haven Historical Society has that very sense of deep, storied history.

The gift is a quilt, dubbed the “Lucy Dyer Denham Quilt,” after the mother of the four Denham brothers who generously donated the 200-year-old family treasure to the North Haven Historical Society (NHHS). The Dyer family has a long history on the Fox Islands, reaching back to some of the earliest settlements, and the quilt is evidence of the life the Dyers left behind when they came to the islands.

Jean Baker White, a fount of knowledge on the history of quilts and a talented designer herself, encouraged the audience in attendance at the celebratory ceremony on June 6 to investigate what the Lucy Dyer Denham Quilt expresses about the family that created it. “Look here, at the top row of blocks,” she said. “What makes this quilt unique is the personalization of this top row.”

White pointed out four quilt blocks that adorn the top edge of the quilt, just below the hem, which show codfish, a crudely rendered eagle and a traditional fishing boat. “These people had moved from Cape Cod and settled on Vinalhaven and North Haven when cod was a big industry on the Fox Islands, hence these codfish,” she explained. “As for the eagle—remember that this is soon after the Revolutionary War, so patriotism is high. This next block shows the fishing boat they used.”

An heirloom like this can be easily overlooked—its vegetable-sourced dyes are anything but eye-catching. However, the insights White provided made the piece seem absolutely enchanting. A small group of schoolchildren came to the ceremony, and one politely asked how long a quilt like this takes to make. White paused for a beat, and then, with a gleam in her eye, replied, “Well, first you have to raise the sheep…”

Events like this help tighten the social fabric of a community. “The whole quilt thing,” said Rick “Sonny” Denham, “has really been in the background of this process. At a certain point, after it had spent some time the State House in Augusta, then briefly in the hands of James Julia Company and the Farnsworth Art Museum, we began to question: Where does this really belong? After I talked with Nan [NHHS president], and after I talked with my brothers, everything just sort of blossomed and fell into place.”

It was, many noted, as if the quilt was “coming home.” That sense of belonging permeated the air during the celebration, and the quilt became a proxy for family storytelling. Islanders jockeyed for speaking time on the floor, each one more excited than the last to share some salient tidbit of family lore. Some in attendance had traced their ancestry back to the Mayflower. There was talk of the Sea Venture, a ship whose mythic journey inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest and whose noted passenger Stephen Hopkins was a forebear of the Denham brothers, as well as other Hopkins in attendance.

There is a true sense of community and shared ownership in the history and story the quilt tells. In a sense, this simple object is an illustration of the family itself—with its neatly hand-stitched hems and embroidery and vibrantly preserved colors, it is evidence of a sense of responsibility and stewardship that was passed from generation upon generation, preserving not only the memory of their ancestors, but their handwork as well.

Andrew Frederick is a freelance contributor to The Working Waterfront living in Owls Head.