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Family Ties at the Renwick Gallery
January 11, 2008

The Holen Boys Ties Quilt

Top: Detail, The Holen Boys Ties Quilt, about 1935, silk, Lent by The Nebraska Prairie Museum of the Phelps County Historical Society, Holdrege, NE, with permission of the Holen Family. Bottom: The Holen family in front of the Renwick Gallery last December.

When I was a young kid in grade school, I had to wear a gold tie and a pressed white shirt each Thursday for "assembly," when all the students would gather in the auditorium for a special program, a spelling bee (when I was in third grade received did me in), or a concert. On those mornings my father would tie a tie for me around his own neck, then slip it off and place it on the handle of my bedroom door. All I had to do was take the nearly-finished tie, slip it over my head, then tighten it around my neck to fit. So much better than one of those clip-on numbers, or even something with an elastic back that could be snapped by a mischievous friend. Those are my first memories of having to wear a tie and I've been a reluctant tie-wearer ever since. When I heard there was a quilt on display at the Renwick made mostly of men's ties from one family, I had to check it out for myself...if not for men-kind everywhere.

I visited the tie quilt on no ordinary day in its own life or in the life of the Holen family. On that day in late December all ninety-two of the Holens, who planned their annual family reunion in D.C., to coincide with the exhibition of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century quilts, Going West! Quilts and Community. In 1935, their relative Ellen Holen of Nebraska decided to collect ties from the men in her family—her six sons and her husband—and make a quilt. Having eight children left Ellen with little time to work on the quilt except for late at night when all the children were asleep. Her only surviving child, her ninety-two year old daughter Rachael made the trip to D.C. and remembered that her mother always wanted to work on the quilt, "but never seemed to have time till late evening after she had taken care of the needs of the family: that always came first." It turned out that Ellen never finished the quilt. Only after her death in the mid-1980s was the unfinished quilt found, damp and musty, in an old trunk in a basement."

According to Rachael, she and other relatives contacted the quilting ladies at the local senior center for advice on treatment for the quilt. They advised Rachael to roll the quilt in newspapers to take away the musty smell, and several days later—much to their surprise—the smell was gone. Then it was time to finish the quilt. On February 15, 1986, Rachael gathered nearly twenty relatives for "tieing day" including her brothers, Milford and Norris who "put up the quilting frames at my house. We made a full day of it with a pot-luck at noon. Mother would have been proud to know that her children finished what she didn't quite have time to finish before she left us."

Then on a cold winter morning, one of the last days of 2007, two fully loaded buses pulled up near the Renwick and within minutes, more than ninety members of the Holen family, in identical red and white scarves, were heading up the street. They stopped to pose on the museum steps before entering. Click! They also posed for photos inside the gallery in front of The Holen Boys Ties Quilt which will be on display at the Renwick through January 21. Then it returns to its home at the Nebraska Prairie Museum of the Phelps County Historical Society, Holdrege. 

I hope you have a chance to see it. The circular shape of the ties forms a spoked pattern reminiscent of the wagon wheel motif that repeats itself in quilts throughout the exhibition. Every quilt tells a story: there's only one tie quilt, however. And I, for one, though a reluctant wearer of ties, thank Ellen Holen for making me think twice about the patterns and fabric of my own family history.

Posted by Howard on January 11, 2008 in American Art Here


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