Document your Art Quilts

by Diane Howell

Your collection of art quilts is wonderful to behold. But do you know how much you paid for them, who made them, or even where they are?

Documenting your collection gives quick answers to these questions. Preserving details provides each work with a rich storyline that adds to its enjoyment. Careful tracking of your quilts also makes it easier to insure the works or donate them to a museum.

Most collectors contacted for this article document their art quilts with Microsoft Excel, a spreadsheet program. While digital catalog management tools exist, collectors tend to maintain a personal catalog in the format it was originated.

Collector Maureen Hendricks says she sets up an Excel page for any quilt that cost more than $1,000. “These sheets go to my insurance company. For each quilt I have a little photo, an item number, a description—this includes name of quilt, year, dimensions, artist, where the quilt is located—and the appraised value of the quilt.”

She also generates an Excel sheet for her own use for quilts she purchases for less than $1,000, which consist mainly of auction quilts from the SAQA Benefit Auction and International Quilt Association. She makes an Excel sheet for each event, inserts pho- tos of quilts purchased, and adds basic information.

A similar approach is employed by longtime collector Marvin Fletcher, although Fletcher uses Microsoft’s Access program. “I have a database which includes the quilter, the title, the size, the date pur- chased, the source, such as SAQA or Quilt National, whether I have authorization to use the image, dates when I have hung the quilt, and where it has been exhibited,” Fletcher says. He also maintains a hard copy of important records. “In terms of paper, I have the bill of sale, a printed image of the quilt, and any other information, such as a note from the quilter.”

Fletcher had an appraisal done when he donated 87 art quilts to the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. The gift was from the Marbaum Collection,  an impressive body of works built with his late wife, Hilary, who was the Quilt National project director from 1982 to 2006.

Collectors Warren and Nancy Brakensiek and Del Thomas use Excel to document basic information. Warren Brakensiek says they also have invoices and slide images of most pieces. Along with her Excel files, Thomas keeps a regular manila folder for each quilt as her “old-fashioned backup system.” Photos, correspondence, and publicity are stored in the folder.

Build your system
Documentation is a twofold process, says Carolyn Ducey, Curator of Exhibitions at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) in Lincoln, Nebraska.

First, add an identifying label. All the IQSCM quilts are identified with a unique object number that is written with archival ink on twill tape and then sewn to the back of the quilt in the lower left corner. “This standardization helps when you are working with a large group of quilts—if the quilts are stacked, you can access numbers without moving the quilts,” she says.

Second, write down all possible information. The minimum information needed includes title of the quilt, the maker, its origin, and its date. Document the purchase price or appraisal value as well, and note physical characteristics: size, materials, and condition. “If your quilts travel, keep a record of where they are shown. Basically, we like to have as much information about a quilt as we can: why it was made, what the artist was inspired by—the story behind the quilt’s creation. Those are the questions people will want to know in the future,” Ducey says.

A prime example
Collector Jack Walsh’s documentation includes several indexes in Excel and Word. He works with professionals to maintain his files.

“I work with a collection manager, a curator, and a conservator. All are professionals who have worked with museum collections and/or large corporate collections. All of the information is stored in Dropbox so that we can all make entries and/or changes,” he says. Dropbox tracks when changes are made and who made them. The directories are:

  • Artist directory: Includes complete contact information for each artist.
  • Collection alphabetized by artist, summary: Includes artist’s name, the works in the collection that they created, and titles, dimensions, and insurance values.
  • Collection alphabetized by artist, details: A comprehensive record of all useful information available about each work of art. In the artist’s folder is a separate file for each art quilt in the collection created by that artist. The file for a single art quilt includes description, provenance, artist’s statement, images, exhibitions, and publications.
  • Image inventory organized by artist: This section records the type(s) of image(s) available for that art quilt. The photo credit is listed for each type of image.
  • Exhibition: A record of each exhibition, beginning with an initial listing of works to be exhibited. As the exhibition is fleshed out, details are added and the list may change. By the time the exhibition is displayed, the information for each art quilt in it will include artist, title, dimensions, materials, insurance value, packing and shipping details, and mounting information. The loan agreement also is stored here.
  • Quilt storage location: Records the location of each art quilt. Most (around 90) of the art quilts in the Walsh collection are stored individually rolled on acid-proof tubes. All rolled works are wrapped in cotton sheets, tied with strips of cloth and labeled. In storage a metal rod is inserted down the center of each roll. The ends of the rod rest on bars in a metal rack.

Artist’s perspective
Artists also document inventories. Janis Doucette maintains several computer files, including a folder for each art quilt and each series. She has recently begun trying out a new inventory system called ArtMoi Studio. The company’s website,, has online options for collectors and galleries, as do several other art catalog software firms.

Quilt artist Carol Bryer Fallert-Gentry says the main benefit to documentation is saving time when filling out entry forms. “Having the information at my fingertips makes answering much less painful,” she says. Documentation also helped her prepare materials during her 30 years of lecturing and teaching work- shops. Having detailed information on her website has led to the sale of several quilts.

In 1990 her first computer simplified Fallert-Gentry’s process. Her records are kept in Microsoft Word, and as computer technology advanced, she began to add publication-quality photos of each quilt. Her website has a link to a printable PDF version of each quilt record. “Early on in my quilt teaching career, I had several students who were copying pictures of my quilts from the Internet and bringing them to class. I decided I would give them good, publication-quality photos to print that also included my name and copyright.” She also has great advice applicable to artists and collectors. “It’s much easier to sit down and document each quilt as you finish it or acquire it, while the information about it is fresh in your mind. It’s also the best time to photograph your work. It will save you hours of searching for information at a later date.”

Diane Howell is editor of the SAQA Journal. This article originally appeared in Art Quilt Quarterly #12.

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