WASHINGTON — "It is like sending an icon to be mass produced," says Virginia Gunn, a quilt historian. "The Smithsonian should be above those things."
"This was a one-of-a-kind piece," says Hazel Carter, a quilting expert. "If it weren't the Smithsonian, we wouldn't be so upset. They are supposed to be guarding our American treasures."
The Great Quilt Debate is on. The Smithsonian Institution, like many other museums, earns badly needed revenue by licensing the right to reproduce some of its collections, whether furniture or jewelry. But when the first handmade copies of the Smithsonian's historic 19th-Century quilts appeared in the 1992 Spiegel catalogue, many American quilters were horrified.
Are antique quilts icons of women's history that should be kept on a pedestal? Or can they be copied and sold like blankets, to be snapped up by the thousands to warm the beds of Middle America? Should they be made in China? Why didn't the Smithsonian buy American?
The controversy spread like a prairie fire at Quilt Till You Wilt slumber parties, at Working Women's Basting Bees, at Pieced Pineapple classes, at the kind of gatherings that have stitched this country together for more than 200 years.
"We're not perfect, and we're reminded of it periodically," said Roger G. Kennedy, the museum's director.
"We are sick," said Lisa-Margaret Stevenson, director of the Smithsonian's product development and licensing office. "The last thing the Smithsonian wants to do is alienate a constituency. That was not our intention."
For members of Maryland's Four Counties Quilt Guild, holding their monthly meeting at the New Market Middle School recently, the big surprise came at show and tell. A member brought in a $269 copy of a rare quilt bearing the design of the Great Seal of the United States. The original was made in 1830 by Susan Strong of Frederick County, Md., and is at the Smithsonian. But this Great Seal quilt was hand-stitched in a factory in China, one of the controversial adaptations from the national museum.
The 40 quilters gathered in the school library, all passionate practitioners of this American folk art, examined every inch of the import. This was no old-fashioned quilting bee, but there was a lot of buzzing before the verdict was handed down.
"We were greatly insulted by this quilt," declared Diann Paarmann, a Sykesville, Md., quilter who attended the meeting. "I have nothing against the Chinese people," Paarmann said. "This is not about them or us. It is about something very dear to my heart that is part of America's past."
The National Quilting Assn. has contacted members of Congress to ask for their support. The organization also asked the lawmakers to display quilts in their offices all month. Seventy offices have complied. The issue of the Chinese-made heirloom reproductions has made an impression in at least one of them.
"There is great irony and insensitivity in the Smithsonian's decision to have Chinese workers reproduce classic American quilts that will be sold here," said Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who displays a 1930s Tennessee quilt in his office.
"Quilting is not a lost art: It is alive and well in our own country, in the hands of our own craftspeople. Tennessee represents but one state where quilting represents a strong and proud tradition sustained by talented people who pass their skill from generation to generation."
More than 500 quilters have contacted the Smithsonian since late December.
In addition to the Great Seal quilt, reproductions of the Bride's quilt, made by a Carroll County, Md., bride in 1851, and the Bible quilt, a symbol-laden 1886 work by Harriet Powers, a freed slave from Georgia, were pictured in the Spiegel catalogue. Pillow shams and small hooked rugs to match are offered as well.
The fourth reproduction, a copy of an 1850 design called Sunburst, was introduced in the winter 1992 Chambers mail-order catalogue in twin, double, queen and king sizes. It is also available in Robert Redford's Sundance catalogue, which does not mention that the quilt is imported.
Reproductions of other quilts will probably follow. Lands' End is considering an exclusive Smithsonian design for its catalogue.
Although quilt aficionados wrote letters and mobilized forces, hundreds of consumers were delighted to find they could afford handmade copies of historic quilts for $200 to $400, about the price of a machine-made designer comforter.
Spiegel has sold so many of the Smithsonian quilts that it has tripled its order from American Pacific Enterprises, the New York-based importer and licensee. Said Robert Longendyke, a Spiegel spokesman, "They strike me as the kind of item that will be passed along, that can become a family heirloom."
The Smithsonian, meanwhile, is trying to explain itself. "We felt and still believe that we are highlighting the art and craft of American quilting," said Stevenson, whose office generated $610,000 last year from royalties from 60 licensees.