AUGUSTA – More than a century ago, Ethel Orr, a 10-year-old girl from Bailey Island wrote a letter to 10-year-old Helen Keller. Ethel requested an autograph for a quilt her mother, Mary Louise Orr, was stitching. The rest of the story – along with the first-time showing of the quilt and letters from Helen Keller – will be presented March 28, 29 and 30 at the Maine State Museum.

Ethel wrote to Keller in 1890, requesting an autograph on a silk ribbon that her mother would have sewn into the quilt. Keller, though young herself, was already well known at the time. Keller wrote back to Ethel explaining she could not use a pen and ink because “I am blind and pencil writing would soon rub out.” Thus, she could not contribute her signature – but the two developed a pen pal friendship.

Other well-known people did sign silk ribbons for the quilt, and today the signatures of Anna Morton (wife of U.S. Vice President Levi Morton), Caroline Scott Harrison (wife of U.S. President Benjamin Harrison), and well-known American poet John Greenleaf Whittier can be seen on pieces sewn into the quilt.

Orr family descendants donated Helen Keller’s letters and the quilt made by Ethel’s mother to the museum in 2000. (But this marks the first time it will be on exhibit.) A few years later, the granddaughter of Ethel Orr, Nancy Orr Johnson Jensen, wrote a children’s book about the quilt and her grandmother’s pen pal friendship with Keller. Jensen will be at the museum to read from her book, “Helen, Ethel & The Crazy Quilt,” and for book signings at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. March 28 and at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. March 29.

Crazy quilts were very popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Unlike most quilts, they were designed to be parlor throws, not bedcovers. Although patchwork, they were generally not quilted. Instead, stitched tufts of yarn or embroidery thread held the top and back together.

Each crazy quilt block is a hodgepodge of brightly colored specialty fabrics such as silk, velvet or wide ribbons. In most cases, the quilter embroidered the boundary between each fabric with contrasting stitches. The feather stitch was commonly used, though some women tried to use as many different stitches as possible.

Most quilters were content with the riot of color and texture created by the many fabrics and embroidery patterns, but Mary Louise Orr added central vignettes of island life to the center of each block. These included painted portraits of a woman and a girl, cats, a dog, horse and cow, and three-dimensional flowers of silk and velvet.

Museum admission and activities throughout the three-day event will be free.

At 1:30 p.m. March 29, Danny D. Smith, chairman of special collections at the Gardiner Library, will present an illustrated talk about Keller’s visits to Gardiner. Family art and educational activities on Friday and Saturday will include “Paper Crazy Quilt Making,” “Try Your Hand at Embroidery Stitching” and “Write A Letter the Way Helen Did.”

Throughout the weekend, the crazy quilt beautifully stitched and hand-painted by Mary Louise Orr will be exhibited at full size. The original and copies of Helen Keller’s letters sent to Ethel Orr will also be shown. The letters demonstrate the squared alphabet technique used by Helen Keller to conquer the challenges of communicating with pencil and paper.

The Maine State Museum at 230 State St. is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; and from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for seniors (age 62+) and children 6 to 18 years of age. Family maximum is $6. For more information, call 287-2301.


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