Tillamook is Textile Town

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on March 31, 2002

When Clara Fairfield decided that the Maple Leaf Schoolhouse in Tillamook, Ore., was an ideal place for local quilters to meet, she knew what she was getting into: a 1930s-era structure with a leaky roof, rattling windows, and blackberries growing up through the floorboards.

But as curator and exhibit designer for Tillamook’s Pioneer Museum, Fairfield was accustomed to looking beyond first appearances. The building was sound and its potential great.

So she got to work writing grants, soliciting donations, and overseeing volunteers. More than 10 years and thousands of volunteer hours later, the Latimer Quilt and Textile Center in Tillamook (pop. 4,352) is a hub for handcrafting activity in Tillamook County and a beacon for textile artisans across the country.

A combination museum, school, research library, and hangout, it’s just what Fairfield envisioned. “That’s what it is today,” she says, “but it took a lot of work.”

The Latimer Center offers space for crafters to work and an exhibit room to showcase the center’s collection of nearly 300 quilts and dozens of woven, crocheted, and knit items.

But many of the center’s visitors are more interested in learning how to make exhibits of their own than in gazing at other artisans’ handiwork. This can-do spirit is inbred in Tillamookians, who have long upheld the local economy through logging, fishing, and dairy farming, the latter fostered by grazing cows consuming verdant, plentiful grasses—the result of up to 72 inches of annual rainfall. Today, many of these do-it-yourselfers are crafters—retirees who build their dream homes and youngsters, such as Hannah Roach, who thrive on self-sufficiency. Roach, 14, learned to spin and weave at the Latimer Center after friends of hers did the same.

“Don’t let anyone tell you it’s a dying art,” says Shirley Medsker, one of Latimer’s weaving teachers and a retired college professor. “Weaving and spinning is a whole industry.”

For newcomers such as Roach, the Latimer Center opens doors to a new world; but for the initiated, it is a place to talk shop with other textile artists, whether they weave, quilt, spin, knit, crochet, hook rugs, tat, basket weave, or create cloth dolls with the Lighthouse Cloth Doll Makers.

This latter group is named for nearby Cape Meares and Tillamook Rock lighthouses; Cape Meares is a State Scenic Viewpoint, while the legendary “Terrible Tilly” lies on a rock island a mile and a half out to sea.

A fortunate turn of events brought Fairfield to the Maple Leaf Schoolhouse just as the school district planned to return it to the Latimer family, who had donated the land in 1892. The Latimer Center is a perfect fit in this idyllic Oregon coast community bisected by U.S. Highway 101. Before that, Highway 6—built in 1939—allowed Tillamook residents to get to Portland, but a 72-mile trip to the big city was a major undertaking.

“It made them develop their own resources for entertainment,” explains Cathie Favret, a cloth doll maker.

Small wonder that the town is filled with crafters and the Pioneer Museum stocked with historic quilts and textiles. Museum Director Wayne Jensen recalls his grandmother quilting in Tillamook in the 1930s, “but now people are doing all kinds of things.”

Latimer Center exhibits the exotic—a January show featured quilts from Zimbabwe—but homemade quilts are still the main stars, hanging in the local library and the county courthouse. During Tillamook County Quilters Guild shows, merchants donate window space for quilt displays.

“People feel it’s a real asset to the community,” says Latimer Center board chairwoman Norma Cole. “There were enough textile artists and lovers of old schoolhouse buildings in the area to gain us an awful lot of community support.”