Stitches in Time

New England’s textile heritage is alive with color and texture at museums and galleries that feature rare antique quilts and modern art tapestries.

New England’s textile heritage is alive with color and texture at museums and galleries that feature rare antique quilts and modern art tapestries. Whether it’s a glimpse inside one of the first mills in the United States or the soft sight of a handmade shawl, New England is home to many textile treasures.

Lowell National Historical Park, Lowell

Guides lead canal tours through the web of waterways that turned Lowell’s mill wheels as early as the 1820s. Now the location of the nation’s first urban national park, this Merrimack Valley city was a hub of America’s industrial -revolution. Park visitors can see textile mills and19th-century commercial buildings. Stories from one-time millworkers are presented at a re-created boarding house. The Suffolk Mills Turbine Exhibit features a restored turbine that shows visitors how water was used to power machinery, and at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, cloth-weaving frames clank and clamor authentically; visitors can buy the dish towels they produce. 978-970-5000;

New England Quilt Museum, Lowell
A block from the Park Visitor Center, the New England Quilt Museum features contemporary and antique quilts from around the country. The small, intimate galleries display awe-inspiring quilts from the museum’s permanent collection or from one of many rotating exhibits. Related video presentations also add valuable insights into the craft-making tradition. 978-452-4207;

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford

The nation’s oldest public art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, houses such collectibles as flapper-era theater costumes from the musical No, No, Nanette and toddler togs embroidered with woolen yarns. Mannequins and pull-out drawers display well-preserved objects from the museum’s costume and textile holdings. 860-278-2670;

Slater Mill, Pawtucket

Where the Blackstone River cascades over Pawtucket Falls, Samuel Slater harnessed its liquid wealth to power the country’s first mechanized textile factory. The original 1793 mill now displays antique machines that once spun cotton fiber into thread. Costumed actors encourage visitors to drill bobbins in the site’s mechanical shop, called the “Apprentice Alcove,” or thresh flax in an 18th-century millwright’s home. 401-725-8638;

Maine Fiberarts Center, Topsham

As the gateway to the state’s hidden and high-profile textile talent, the Maine Fiberarts gallery highlights artists working in a variety of mediums. The center’s revolving exhibits include rugs, quilts and clothing, as well as baskets, beads and paper. Executive director Christine Macchi provides full-color maps of the community’s fiber art studios and farms. 207-721-0678;

Portland Fiber Gallery & Weaving Studio, Portland
Melodi Hackett’s passion for weaving was the genesis of her Congress Street gallery, but she’s really fascinated by all things fiber. In addition to studying the various fabrics on her looms, visitors can try on and take home hand-woven shawls, felted purses, knit hats and silk scarves, or make their own gifts during workshops and classes. Changing exhibits focus on the dozen artisans represented in this eclectic shop. 207-780-1345;

The Fibre Company, Portland
Using everything from alpaca to yak hair, the Fibre Company creates designer yarns in its own mini-mill. Just beyond the retail shop, which stocks Khroma, Terra and five newer lines of yarn, Daphne Marinopoulos and Iain Stanley create soft-as-silk, texture-rich skeins that invite plenty of knitting-needle exploration. 207-761-9992;