Category Archives: Quilting history

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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Quilts From Central Asia

Last month Jim and I traveled across northern Nebraska and through Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park. We’ve posted several times about our 3,000 mile road trip in our joint blog, Our View From Iowa.

When we returned, we dropped south into Colorado before driving across southern Nebraska. For our route, the most convenient way to cross the Missouri River is on I-80 at Omaha. To get that far, we went through Lincoln, NE, home of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum.

A few days before, Jim asked me if I wanted to stop at the museum on the way by. Well, YEAH! I visited the museum with my sister a few years ago and was glad for the opportunity to go back.

The current exhibits included four small galleries, none of which drew my interest. Besides the small exhibits, a large gallery displayed dozens of quilts and other textiles from Central Asia.

It’s easy (for Americans!) to believe that quilting has its origins in the US, and is primarily an American craft. But people quilt all over the world and have since early textile history. The quilts in this exhibit show the beauty of a quilting tradition with which we’re less familiar.

The items on display played many functions. There were household objects, such as bedding and wall-hangings to decorate the interior of yurts. Some clothing for children had triangle motifs to bestow protection from danger. And horse “blankets” would dress up the plainest horse. Here are just a few of the many objects. Click on any picture to open BIG in a new tab.

Patchwork and embroidered wall hanging from southern Kyrgyzstan, mid-20th century. Note the combination of pineapple and other blocks in the outer borders. Also see how the HST are a little unpredictable.

We missed the label on this one. See the asymmetry with the extra border on left side. Also the placement of blocks is asymmetrical. Some of the blocks are unpieced ikat.

Patchwork hanging from Uzbekistan, mid-20th century. The tiniest flying geese I’ve ever seen. See how the corner blocks differ on all these miniature pieces of the bigger quilt.

Patchwork hanging from Uzbekistan, mid-20th century. So intricate! And note the background setting triangles for each of the blocks. Have you ever been so bold?

Wholecloth ikat quilt, Uzbekistan mid-20th century. I want this…

Embroidered quilt, Uzbekistan, late 19th-century. This reminds me of Indian coverlets from the 1700s.

I could have spent a lot more time looking at these beautiful pieces. But the road called and we headed home.

Quilt Myth #2: Quilts Helped African-American Slaves Escape

Let’s start with the punchline: NO. Or at least, NO, there is NO evidence that this is true.

The myth is that quilts were used in an “Underground Railroad Quilt Code” to help slaves escape their bondage.

The story was propagated by authors Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Ph.D., in the book Hidden in Plain View. The book was published in 1999. Though it was not the first reference to the idea that quilts helped slaves escape to the north, it is the most famous.

Author Tobin met Ozella McDaniel Williams in 1994. Williams was a South Carolina quilt vendor who told Tobin stories she claimed were passed down through her family. This oral history, if confirmed, would change our understanding of methods of communicating about the Underground Railroad and routes to freedom.

According to Williams, there were eleven quilt blocks in the code. The blocks were sewn into quilts, which would be displayed one at a time on fences or clothes lines. Because it was normal to air quilts regularly, showing the quilts this way wouldn’t arouse suspicion by owners or overseers.

The blocks shown below are woven into Williams’ version discussed in the book. Some versions include other blocks, as well.

A short version of the code says

The Monkey Wrench turns the Wagon Wheel toward Canada on a Bear’s Paw trail to the Crossroads. Once they got to the Crossroads, they dug a Log Cabin on the ground. Shoofly told them to dress up in cotton and satin Bow Ties and go to the cathedral church, get married and exchange Double Wedding Rings. Flying Geese stay on the Drunkard’s Path and follow the Stars.

The book presents this very short interpretation, but it includes linkages and suppositions and speculations about the meanings of all the blocks, as well. For example, the Bear’s Paw block shown above is interpreted as both a map of the plantation itself, as well as advice to follow actual bears’ trails over the mountain. A mesh of related research about African symbolism, escape routes, and information about the times is used to support the premise.

The Evidence
Strong evidence in support of this story could consist of testimony of escaped slaves, or from former slaves after emancipation; testimony from freedom activists; public records or contemporary writings; or remaining textiles with long provenance and supporting documentation, among other things. Weaker evidence in support might include other contemporary information such as textile availability and use, for example; or direct linkages between African symbolism and the quilt code.

If none of this evidence exists, there is no support for the claim that quilts were used as part of an Underground Railroad communication system, helping slaves to escape.

When the book was published, historians eagerly reviewed the possibilities to answer the question: Were quilts used to help guide slaves to freedom? Reputable historians of both the Underground Railroad and of quilts agree: there is insufficient evidence to support the premise that a quilt code was used to communicate this way.

In short, NO, there is no evidence the myth is true. 

I’ve written much, much more about this in a prior post on the Underground Railroad Quilt Code. It is a lengthy post, which is why I did not recreate it in full here, and I encourage you to take a look if you’re interested to know more.

I see this myth repeated too frequently, including a reference to it just the other day. The story is included in school lesson plans and incorporated into popular fiction. As I said at the end of the linked post, “Truth is strength. We don’t need to pretty it up with cozy quilts and homey images. We owe it to those who suffered slavery, to ourselves and our children, and to the future, to know and tell the truth.”

If you’d like to read about Quilt Myth #1, please see this post.

 

Quilt Myth #1: Quilts Originated from Necessity

There are a number of pervasive myths in quilting, some of them so ingrained that even long-time quilters believe them. It’s time to take on a few of these to set the record straight!

The first myth is one I see perpetuated frequently. It’s the story that quilting came about as a way to use scraps and used clothing, by people who had nothing else to use.

Of course, innumerable quilts were created just this way, and still are. People using the bits and pieces available have long made bed clothes both utilitarian and beautiful, from scraps of new fabric and cuts from salvageable parts of used clothing. But this is not the origin of quilting.

There is evidence that quilting may have existed at least 5,400 years ago. Yes, you read that right! According to quilt historian Averil Colby, an ivory statuette of a First Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh shows he wore a quilted robe. The photo in the attached link doesn’t show it well, but a side view with different lighting shows heavy relief with a diamond pattern. The relief suggests indentations made by decorative stitching (quilting,) rather than a surface design.

From the next 5,000 years, there are extant a number of examples of quilts, created for a variety of uses across Asia and Europe. In the Middle Ages, quilted garments were used as body armor. The garments were called “gambeson,” and they looked quite like quilted jackets that people wear now.

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Docent at Edinburgh Castle with audience volunteer. She is wearing the gambeson, quilted body armor. 2016.

Over the centuries, quilted objects also included rugs, wall- and window-hangings for both decoration and warmth, undergarments, and outer layers of clothing. These items were made from a variety of fibers, including wool, linen, silk, and cotton. The preferred fiber depended on the type of object as well as the region in which it was made.

In the New World in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the quilts with which we’re familiar were mostly bedding. But they were not common. They were objects in homes of the affluent. Fine fabric was scarce. It was mostly imported and subject to heavy taxes.

Cotton fabric, in particular, was rare and expensive. As a crop in America, cotton was not mature. The modern cotton gin, used for separating fibers from seeds, was not invented until 1793. The new process allowed the variety of cotton grown inland to be economically feasible, but until then, raw cotton production was quite low. The first American textile mills emulating English technology didn’t open until 1814, and production took decades to ramp up, along with the cotton fiber crop.

Then as today, quilts were many times more expensive than woven blankets. They were listed in estate documents (wills) and included in dowry chests. They were luxury items that took tremendous time to create. Only people of means had the leisure time or the servants or slaves to expend that amount of time.

Because fabric is fragile and perishable, the historical record has unavoidable gaps. Textiles that experienced the hardest use are least likely to persist. But that also argues against the notion that “used clothing” was a resource for making quilts. In the days when most people had two or three changes of clothing, when use was hard and washing methods harsh, there were no “good” scraps left when clothing was ready to be replaced. While even that cloth may have been layered with stitching, it would have created the crudest type of covering.

It may be that the myth persists because so many of us have family heirlooms, quilts made during the Depression or in the 1940s. Many of these quilts used feed sack fabric, or did include scraps from either new sewing projects or from older clothes. However, even in these relatively meager times, fabric was much more available than it was a hundred years before.

Quilting’s story is long. It is a mistake to assume that what we know from recent history can be generalized over the longer term. In this case the assumption is just wrong. Quilting did not originate from necessity. On the contrary, it was a household craft for those who could afford multiple layers of fabric for one object, and the time required to create it.

What quilting myths would you like explored here? There are a number I can think of, but I’d like to know what notions you’re interested in. 

Red and White Quilts, Part 2

Red and white quilts are stunning in both their simplicity and complexity. Two simple colors provide exciting contrast, capturing our attention and holding it long enough for us to notice details. The details, or complexity, show that no two red and white quilts are alike. Indeed, the most famous exhibit of red and white quilts, in early 2011, was titled “Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White Quilts.” The show in New York City displayed 650 American red and white quilts, no two of them the same.

While that is the most famous, and likely deepest show of these quilts, it is by no means the only one. Since 2011 there have been exhibits mounted by Quilts, Inc. through its International Quilt Festival (IQF,) and at the National Quilt Museum in Paducah in 2015. Local guilds also include exhibits of these glorious quilts. My own guild is showing a selection in our show (yesterday and) today.

Red textiles have a tradition much longer than here in America. In the 1500s, European explorers in Mexico found a small insect called a “cochineal” created a red dye. In Europe the dye was in short supply and high demand until the mid-1800s, when synthetic dyes were invented. Here are two interesting articles about the use of red dye in textiles and cochineal in particular.

Another popular, natural dye in the 18th and 19th century was called “Turkey red.” This is probably a more familiar term to most of us. Turkey red was made from the root of the rubia plant, and the process originated in India or Turkey. It was considered color-fast, meaning it didn’t fade or readily wash out. You can read more about it in wiki.

According to The Quilter Community, the peak years for using red and white in quilts was 1880-1930. (I’ll have to research more to see if that’s true. Red and white quilts followed on the popularity of red, white, and green quilts of the early 1800s. The greens faded quickly, and lost favor as a color to include, leaving the reds and whites as the surviving characteristics.) You can see examples of antique red and white quilts at Rocky Mountain Quilts, an antique dealer with ever-fascinating photos of quilts for sale. Barbara Brackman, quilt historian, shows some examples here. And there are dozens more examples at the International Quilt Study Center & Museum (IQSCM) if you use the search function. Plug in “red and white” under the keyword search to find them.

Here are a few photos from my guild show. There are about a dozen red and white quilts entered, including eight on the altar. Enjoy.