Resources for Quilt History

In the excitement of the modern era of quilting, we sometimes forget that people have been quilting since ancient times. The simplest definition of a quilt is two layers of fabric with padding between, and stitching through all three layers. Given this, there is some evidence of an Egyptian pharaoh wearing a quilt more than 5,000 years ago.

More recently and with stronger evidence, quilting seems to have arisen in Europe centuries ago. (Don’t be fooled, though! Cultures across the globe have long histories of quilting. It is NOT merely a European or American construct.) Quilted garments were used for warmth and for armor. Only later were quilts used to line walls as insulation, or used as bed coverings.

Most quilts with which we’re familiar are bed covers from the 1800s through present. Whole cloth, broderie perse, early medallions and block quilts, crazy quilts from the 1880s, we’ve all seen photos of antique textiles. The peripheries of quilting history include so much more. Slavery, industrialization, labor history, women’s rights, art; all are part of quilting’s story.

I love the history of our art, in all its beauty and shame. I’m inspired intellectually as I consider the constraints under which our predecessors worked. Visual inspiration comes at all turns, from the most technically perfect pieces to those created with a freer hand.

We’re so fortunate to be able to access much of that story. With online resources, books, and groups, we can learn more easily than ever. How and why did various quilting styles arise? What technological advances changed our methods? What was the impact from the social, economic, or political environment?

Here are a few resources you may find helpful in answering some of these questions. I invite you to suggest more links and other means to find out more.

Web Resources
There are so many museums and other institutions that have put collections online. If you have favorites, please share.

The Quilt Index — searchable database of tens of thousands of photos and quilt stories from all eras and collections around the world.

Material Culture — a broad look at fabric and quilt history by respected historian Barbara Brackman.

Women’s Work: Quilts — a new blog by Brackman looking at quilts within the context of economics and the business of quilting.

Civil War Quilts — Barbara Brackman’s blog chock full of information on both textiles and quilts from the 1800s.

Womenfolk.com — a variety of articles on the history of quilting in America, with some connections to other cultures and countries, by Judy Anne Breneman

Quilthistory.com — lots of articles, links and other resources from group-list members. It appears the group is closed or disbanded now, but some of the resources may be worth your look.

Books
I’ll only list a few of my favorites here, but feel free to suggest more in comments.

American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007  by Robert Shaw — one of my favorite texts, with large full-color photos on at least half of the 376 pages. Shaw acknowledges the origins of quilting prior to the American experience, but he delves deeply into quilting in this country. The roles of slavery, industrialization, economics, and politics are all discussed. It is gorgeous and clearly written. If I could only keep one book on quilt history, it would be this.

Making History: Quilts & Fabric From 1890-1970 by Barbara Brackman — Brackman’s book, one of many by her, reviews fabrics, dyes, and print patterns over an eighty-year period, along with popular quilt styles of the time. The text gives plenty of information and full-color photos to help anyone interested in the subject. As a bonus, there are patterns for nine projects inspired by different eras. I haven’t reviewed the project instructions so can’t tell you about writing quality or accuracy of the directions, but the quilts are appealing.

Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide 1800-1960 by Eileen Jahnke Trestain — this is in essence a swatch book, using photos rather than slips of fabric. Taking two or three decades at a time, Trestain groups fabrics by color, showing the evolution of colors and print styles over 160 years. She also discusses changes in dyes and manufacture, as well as quilt styles. For a small book, there is a lot of information packed in.

Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns by Barbara Brackman — my edition, published in 1993, is a comprehensive reference of quilt blocks, including pieced sashing and strip quilts. The blocks are presented as line drawings in black and white. Each is numbered for indexing, and identified by names and source. Many blocks have multiple names, and many names have multiple block styles. Each pattern category includes a key, grouping blocks by construction method for ease of finding. I don’t use this book a lot but I’m sure glad to have it.

Museums
There are museums that focus on quilting history, and other museums that exhibit primarily contemporary quilts. Still others have a broader range but may have continuing or special exhibits on quilts. Here are just a few.

International Quilt Study Center & Museum, Lincoln, NE — though the emphasis here is on quilt study and preservation, the museum is a premier site for exhibitions as well. They have several galleries with exhibitions that turn over regularly. They also have online resources to view.

Kalona Quilt & Textile Museum, Kalona, IA — this small museum has ongoing exhibits featuring Amish quilts. In addition, another gallery hosts changing exhibits of “English” (non-Amish) quilts.

Quilters Hall of Fame, Marion, IN — I haven’t been to this museum, so can’t say with confidence how it’s arranged or what the galleries feature. I do know if I were driving through the area (between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne,) I’d make the effort to stop.

This list from Craftsy offers more quilt museums you might find compelling, though they don’t necessarily have a historical context.

Groups
Across the US and internationally there must be many groups whose mission is to study quilt history. Unfortunately, I only know of one group that specializes in quilted textiles. That is
The American Quilt Study Group

Do you have favorite resources about quilt history? Please let us know in comments.

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Pink and Brown Quilts

I like to think I choose from a large color palette, but there are some distinct color combinations I’ve used multiple times. For example, I’ve made three different quilts from red and white. Another combination that appeals to me is pink and brown. Whether pink and brown reminds you of chocolate-covered cherries, or strawberry ice cream with chocolate syrup, or some other sweet treat, it’s a duo with a long history together. And I do love quilt history. 🙂

Pink and brown quilts were especially popular in the mid-1800s. The pink prints used at the time were often called “double pink.” What is double pink? From the Quilt Index Wiki page:

Double pinks, sometimes called ‘cinnamon’ pinks, feature tiny prints in a dark, cinnamon-like pink, on a light rosy pink ground. Both of these hues have warmer undertone than bubblegum pink, which emerged as a quilt fabric, often as a solid rather than a print, in the twentieth century. Double pinks were most popular in the 1860s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, though double pinks are common in quilts through the 1920s. At the height of their popularity in the mid-nineteenth century, double pinks were often paired with madder or chocolate browns in quilts.

At the same time double pink and brown was most popular, medallion quilts were on their way out of favor. Medallions in the early 1800s included whole cloth such as whitework,  broderie perse, and pieced quilts with both regular and irregular border forms. Delectable Mountains quilts might be an example of “regular” borders, with some uniformity of style, color, and value from the center to the outside edge. As the medallion quilts lost popularity, block quilts became the dominant style.

In the last few years I’ve made three different pink and brown quilts. The colors appeal to me partly because the double pink is very strong — while it is feminine, it is not timid, but boldly shows itself.

The first pink and brown quilt I made was a block quilt for a family friend, for her college graduation in 2011. I love the Ohio Stars with chain blocks, and the border stripe fabric framed them perfectly.

College graduation quilt for a friend — still one of my favorites. It’s about 81″x81″. 2011.

My other two pink and brown quilts were both made last year. One was the Delectable Mountains quilt from early in the year.

Delectable Mountains. 61″ x 61″. Finished spring 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

And the other was Union, which I showed you a few days ago.

Union. Finished December 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

When I finished piecing Union, I was still enjoying working with the pinks and browns. Since I still had them out, I began a new quilt featuring them. The new one, however, will expand its palette by including reds, olive greens, and teals. After it is finished, I’ll probably be done with the double pinks for a while.

Do you have color combinations you use repeatedly? Do you have a reputation for using particular colors? (I’ve seen that happen!) If you were limited to four colors of quilting for the rest of your life, what colors would you choose?

Union

So much of last year was a blur. Because Jim and I were gone a lot, and because of the quilts I chose to make, I made fewer than I usually do. Three of them were particularly time-consuming and spread out over a long time.

One took especially long because it started last year as a UFO. By early July I had the top done. And some time in late August the top was quilted. But I think it was December before I finally got the binding on.

Its name is “Union.” Many quilts seem to name themselves, and occasionally I’ve asked you for help with names. This one took a lot of thought. The overriding factor in its name has to do with the six-pointed star, or hexagram that centers it.

The caption of the image in the wikipedia entry:  “A regular hexagram, {6}[2{3}]{6}, can be seen as a compound composed of an upwards (blue here) and downwards (pink) facing equilateral triangle, with their intersection as a regular hexagon (in green).”

In other words, the hexagram is the union of two equilateral triangles.

The symbol has been used for centuries around the world and within many religions. Many of us are familiar with the Star of David in Judaism, but it also is an important symbol in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. In Christianity, it is called the star of creation. Islamic artifacts and mosques feature it, as well.

Besides the religious connections, there are many others. If you watched the movie based on Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, you saw the interlocking triangles used to indicate “the divine union of male and female energy, where the male is represented by the upper triangle and the female by the lower one.”

Union. To me, the six-pointed star, which began this quilt and literally centers it, represents union or connection. We are all connected.

Union. Finished December 2017. Photo by Jim Ruebush.

The photo shows it is a bit ripply. This is due to the wool batting. I used remnants of wool from other projects. Some of it was thick and resilient, and some of it was very thin. Because of the irregularity of density and loft, I just kept stuffing more wool in as I went, trying to get a fairly consistent thickness through the whole quilt. Besides the rippliness, this has to be the heaviest quilt I’ve ever made.

Here are a few close-up pix to show the quilting and the loft provided by the wool.


This quilt was a puzzle from the beginning, which is why it started 2017 as a UFO. After a long journey, it is finished. It’s not a perfect quilt. When I look at it, I know there are things I would do differently if I were doing it again. Nevertheless, I’m pleased with how it turned out.

Longarm Quilting | My Turn

My sweet Jim wrote this post. Take a look. 🙂

Our View From Iowa

Melanie is a fabulous quilter. She understands color, fabrics, threads, design, is a great teacher, and so much more. I am impressed with her creativity and beautiful quilts. You can see her works here.

Quilting the finished front to the back with the batting sandwiched between is a study in patience and concentration. I wondered what it was like to actually run the machine. She set up a narrow strip of muslin and batting, gave me some instruction, and turned me loose.

I now have a much deeper appreciation for her skills. Some things are ‘easy’ like straight lines. She does curves, animals, flowers, leaves, and designs. Hers look realistic and artistic. Mine not so much. I need more practice.

My quilt could be made into a table runner or cut into placemats. It could even hang on the wall as a piece of modern art. I’ve heard quilters…

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Best Tips For Newer Quilters

Em’s baby quilt, before being rebuilt and enlarged. December 2003. This was the first quilt I ever made.

When I made my first quilt fourteen years ago, there weren’t many online resources for quilters. There were no blogs, only a few message boards, and a small handful of sites that, at the time, weren’t interactive with reader comments. But those few websites provided me with a vast amount of help as I learned to quilt.

I thought it would be fun to offer some “best” tips for quilters, especially tips that could help newer quilters. AND I’d like YOU to join in! In comments below, give a recommendation or two (or ten!) of things you wish you’d known as a new quilter. Or if you’re moved to write your own blog post with tips, give us the link in comments.

Here are a few of mine, in no particular order:

1. Have some basic equipment that will make your efforts easier, like a sharp rotary cutter with mat and rulers, a sewing machine that will make a good-quality stitch, and an iron. These don’t need to be fancy.

2. Buying is often a substitute for making. Either one is okay (assuming you can afford it!) but they are not the same thing. Decide which is more important to you.

3. Learn to make a decent 1/4″ seam allowance. If you do, it will save you lots of hassle, including trimming blocks, making parts fit, and making your quilt look the way it should. Here are some tips on improving your seam allowance.

4. Don’t get hung up on particular designers for your fabric choices. Your quilts will have a more timeless quality if you mix and match designers and lines.

5. When choosing color palettes, audition a broad range of colors including some you think couldn’t work. Unless you’re deliberately using a muted color scheme, err on the side of too bold rather than too meek.

6. The same idea works with value contrast: unless you’re deliberately going for a “low-volume” (low value contrast) look, have a range of value from very dark to very light. This means your purchases need to include that range.

7. If possible, take some classes in person. A good teacher can make your learning curve easier.

8. Work on improvement, but ignore the quilt police! If you like it, that’s the most important criteria.

9. If you get stuck within a project, ask for help. Often the solution is pretty simple if you only know what it is.

10. Starting projects is exciting, but finishing is deeply rewarding. Make sure you finish some of your projects so you understand the benefits of both.

Alrighty, now, it’s your turn! What advice do you have for less-experienced quilters?