University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of EngineeringSpring/Summer 2013
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Ernest B. Haight (1899-1992) attended the University of Nebraska from 1919 to 1924, earning a B.S. in Agricultural Engineering. When Dean of Engineering O.J. Ferguson saw Ernest’s high grades, he asked him to consider a dual degree in Arts and Sciences to earn Phi Beta Kappa honors, which Ernest did.

After graduation Ernest returned to the land his grandparents, Lewis and Elizabeth Haight, homesteaded in Butler County, Neb., in 1871. The Haights were successful farmers and Ernest went into partnership with his father, Elmer, and younger brother, Lewis. Their prosperity eroded during the Great Depression. But Ernest and his wife, Isabelle, and their five children endured, recovered and made a living. They retired from farming in 1972.

In the dark hours after farming all day, and during the winter months after the crops were laid, Ernest made quilts—nearly 300 from 1934 to 1986. The most remarkable thing is that he made quilts from the mindset of an engineer. It was about the process for him.

“As an engineering college graduate I think in terms of methods as well as aesthetics,” he said.

He spoke of maintaining tight tolerances in quilt construction, of the importance of “extreme accuracy,” and of using “assembly-line” processes to make quilts. He also looked at every quilt as a puzzle—a problem to solve in the most efficient and accurate way.

Joe Cunningham, another male quiltmaker, recently observed that when men take up quilt-making it’s often in a “spirit of competition” with women or to answer an inner challenge. For Ernest, it was both.

“As an engineering college graduate I think in terms of methods as well as aesthetices.” - Ernest B. Haight

Ernest’s first quiltmaking venture began because he “couldn’t keep his mouth shut.” Isabelle was finishing a quilt her grandmother had pieced 20-25 years earlier. He noticed that, “In many of the blocks, the corners of the pieces didn’t fit too well. It was so obvious to me, I had to mention it, and she came right back with, ‘Well, if you can do better, prove it! If not, keep still.’ Soooooo, what else could I do?”

Ernest drew upon a range of experiences to meet Isabelle’s challenge. As a boy, he spent countless hours in the machine shop on the Haight farm, learning the properties of materials and becoming confident in using tools and machines. As a teenager, he built a two-cylinder steam engine using materials and parts on hand. He under-engineered the boiler and it blew up, so he modified it to run on compressed air. Even his failure increased his range of skills and mechanical knowledge.

Ernest was also accustomed to precision work. As a newlywed he made Chinese wood puzzles, sometimes called burr puzzles, in which the precisely cut pieces interlocked along three axes. One of these was a combination of 27 puzzles with 216 pieces measuring just five inches in each direction. The assembly required tweezers.

Of course, Ernest had the benefit of a university education in engineering that broadened his experience of materials and processes, advanced his mathematical knowledge, and honed his problem-solving process. He had every reason to believe he could easily design and draft a precise quilt pattern, learn the properties of cotton cloth, master a sewing machine and produce a quilt with greater precision than his wife’s grandmother had.

View the exhibit
Ernest Haight's Half-Century of Quilt Making

June 7, 2013 - March 2, 2014
International Quilty Study Center & Museum | UNL East Campus


But something went wrong. Possibly due to the plastic nature of cloth, he assumed that maintaining a consistent width seam was not essential—he thought all the pieces could be made to fit with a little nudging and tugging as he coaxed them under the needle. The quilt pattern he chose required 56 identical block units assembled in an 8 by 7 grid. When sewing blocks together into rows, Ernest soon discovered that his blocks were inconsistently sized, and therefore, the “corners of the pieces didn’t fit too well,” just like Grandmother’s quilt.

Ernest-the-engineer puzzled over the problem, arriving at a salvage plan. He measured each block and sorted them from largest to smallest. He placed the largest blocks together in a row at one end of the quilt and the smallest in a row at the other end, and then sorted the remaining blocks into rows by size in between. With a little nudging, his corners met precisely, but the quilt was 3” wider at one end than the other! Of course, he didn’t call the quilt’s skewed dimensions to Isabelle’s attention.

Engineer-quilter Ernest Haight is featured in videos by UNL’s International Quilt Study Center & Museum:
One – introduction
Two – background
Three – innovations
Four – style
Five - legacy

Ernest had discovered that quiltmaking challenged him intellectually and mechanically. Years later, he stated that each quilt design was like a puzzle: “…the choice of color, how best to fit the pieces together, how to ‘modify’ the pieces to avoid unnecessary seams…or ways to use ‘assembly-line’ methods in piecing the blocks.”

“I rarely make more than one or two quilts of the same pattern—I have solved THAT problem,” he added.

Ernest substituted assembly-line piecing for the age-old method of creating pattern templates and tracing around them on the material before cutting out the pieces with scissors. For example, rather than cut out hundreds of little squares only to sew them back together into dozens of identical designs as most quiltmakers did, he sewed together long strips of fabric side-by-side and then made cuts perpendicular to the seam lines to create pre-sewn units, reducing both cutting and sewing time and increasing consistency.

Hand quilting—the insertion of functional stitches with needle and thread to hold together the layers of a quilt—is labor intensive. Ernest did not do hand-sewing so he left the hand-quilting to others. But he could machine sew quilt tops faster than others could quilt them. To widen this bottleneck in production, Ernest mechanized the quilting process with a simple approach that required only eight to 12 hours per quilt, a mere fraction of the time required for hand-quilting. Whereas machine quilting with industrial sewing machines was common in the mattress and garment industries, quilting with a domestic sewing machine for personal use was rare. Ernest’s innovation was an early influence on the development of a thriving home-based machine-quilting industry today.

Ernest assumed that understanding the mathematical relationships inherent in geometric forms and drafting those forms were basic skills possessed by everyone with a high school education. Because Ernest’s experience and education had embedded these skills and the underlying principles into him, he found such tasks simple.

Nevertheless, quiltmaking exercised and expanded Ernest’s abilities to solve problems and create efficient processes. As a result, for more than 50 years, Ernest made his original quilts like an engineer.

by Jonathan Gregory
© Jonathan Gregory, 2013.
Jonathan Gregory earned his M.A. in Textile History with an emphasis in Quilt Studies from UNL in 2007. He is currently Assistant Curator of Exhibitions at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) at UNL ( Gregory is researching Ernest Haight for his doctoral dissertation and is curator of “The Engineer Who Could: Ernest Haight’s Half Century of Quiltmaking,” at the IQSCM.


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