Category Archives: U.S. History

Martha Washington’s Children’s Games

Yesterday I was adding a final border to my Games with Martha quilt. I haven’t told you about this yet, other than a passing mention.

Games with Martha is part of a larger project I’m working on. It’s an interpretation of a quilt top made by Martha Washington, around 220 years ago. Martha Washington was a remarkable and complicated woman. As our first First Lady, she served at Valley Forge with her husband George, during the Revolutionary War. She was considered an adept manager of the plantations of both her first husband and Washington, bargaining with Europeans on tobacco prices.

She was a slave owner, having inherited the use of more than 80 slaves when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died. The slaves were, in essence, held in trust for her use during her lifetime. When she died, ownership of these “dower” slaves reverted back to members of Custis’s family. George Washington also owned slaves. In his will Washington directed that they be freed upon Martha’s death. After he died, she freed them soon after.

And she was a quilter. She is known to have started three quilts, finished one, finished the top of another, and started the top of a third. It is possible, of course, that she was not the quilter, but a slave was. However, since the third top was finished by a younger relative after her death, it seems likely that it was her own handwork, rather than something she directed a slave to do. All three quilts are now held at Mount Vernon in Virginia.

One of the quilt tops is called “Children’s Games” because of a toile used in large corner blocks depicting children at play. I’m creating an interpretation of the top. Note, there is a difference between an interpretation and a reproduction. A reproduction is a copy intending to appear essentially the same as the original. An interpretation is a representation of the original, but without intention to look exactly alike.

Here is a photo in George Washington’s Mount Vernon Facebook page showing a woman who is making a reproduction of Children’s Games, along with the original flat on the table.

While her reproduction is, I believe, imitating the scale (larger than eight feet) and creating or finding copies of the fabrics, my version is not that. Again, it’s an interpretation. It will finish at approximately seven feet (about 84″) and uses fabrics currently available and from my stash.

I have finished the top. However, it is BIG and I didn’t get a photo of it. I did get a picture prior to adding the last border yesterday. Here’s what it looked like, and a comparison to the original. Mine is on the right of the screen capture.

My final border is technically a double pink, but is printed in pink, red, and white with small red rosettes in the stripe. It will look substantially like hers. I mitered the border corners and messed that up, cutting two of the strips too short. (If you look at Washington’s mitered corners, they’re not great, either.) However, all’s well that ends well and it looks just fine now.

I’ll tell you more about my mitering adventure, the design of the quilt, and some other things soon. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

A New Use for Quilts

Today in east central Iowa, the temperature won’t get above 0°F. My son emailed from Oklahoma, where it is windy and not much warmer, unusually cold for his location. His gas company sent a notice asking residential customers to reset their thermostats to 60-65° during the day and even colder at night, because of unusually high demand for fuel. Brrrr!

We are all lucky, though, and can stay in where it’s safe and cozy, tucked under quilts to keep warm.

A creative person might think of a different use for quilts on a windy, cold day. Jim stumbled on this anecdote as he was researching genealogy sources for western Illinois:

Thomas Camp, in 1849, settled near where the present town of Good Hope is situated. All north of him for many miles was one vast, unbroken wilderness, with not a house or dwelling of any kind, and also perfectly void of timber. A few winters after his settlement upon the prairie, there came a heavy fall of snow, and upon the top of that a sleet of rain, which freezing, formed a solid crust on top, and over which a man could walk or slide. Mr. Camp thought he would have a good sleigh ride; so taking a sled out several miles from his house, and rigging it up with quilts for sails, he jumped in, and there being a brisk northwest wind, he was soon sailing over the prairies. The wind being so strong he could not lower his sails, although in a measure he was able to direct his course, and therefore, on arriving at home, he could not stop, but run into an out-house, wrecking his prairie schooner and almost losing his life. He never tried the experiment again, although he declared it was a perfect success.*

So if you get a notion to go outside and you have a sled, a quilt, and a broad stretch of icy landscape, you could give it a try, too!

*Source: History of McDonough County, Illinois, Its Cities, Towns, and Villages with Early Reminiscences, Personal Incidents and Anecdotes, and a Complete Business Directory of the County, by S. J. Clarke, published in 1878, page 593. Extracted 30 Jul 2016 by Norma Hass. Via this link https://mcdonough.illinoisgenweb.org/1878remicamp.html

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.

A Quilt Is More Than A Blanket

My guild quilt festival earlier this month was part of the annual arts festival in our community. Because of how it was promoted, many attending our show did not walk in the door as quilters, or even fans of quilts. Depending on experience, they might have had no prior knowledge of the variety and beauty of quilt styles. Most people who aren’t quilters aren’t aware of the process of creating a quilt. And few people, even many quilters, consider how much they are worth.

As a guild, our primary goal was to showcase our quilts and raise friends and awareness in the community. With that, we wanted to educate the public about quilting.

I was asked to create a slide show to demonstrate what a quilt is, and how a quilt is different from a blanket. This difference is where the value lies.

This brief video is the show I made, stripped of the quilt show credits and titles. It takes a little less than 3.5 minutes. Enjoy, and feel free to share.

 

 

Needles

I ordered longarm needles the other day. It was so easy to do that I could take for granted the availability of sewing needles. But needles have not always been so common.

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Last summer a needle was found in a cave in Siberia. It was a little more than 7 centimeters long (about 3″,) made of bird bone. It is the oldest complete needle found and was made some 50,000 years ago. The maker was not homo sapiens, or even Neanderthal. It was Denisovan, a contemporary species of hominid! Other ancient needles have been found in places ranging from southern Africa to China to eastern Europe.

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Elias Howe, an inventor of the sewing machine, developed the needle with the thread hole at the pointed tip. According to legend, “He had the idea of a machine with a needle which would go through a piece of cloth but he couldn’t figure out exactly how it would work. In his dream, cannibals were preparing to cook him and they were dancing around the fire waving their spears. Howe noticed at the head of each spear there was a small hole through the shaft and the up-and-down motion of the spears and the hole remained with him when he woke.” This dream led to his contributions to the modern sewing machine, circa 1845.

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By 1847 with the introduction of specialty machinery, more than 50 million needles were made each week in the Redditch district of England. These needles were for hand-sewing tasks, and Redditch still specializes in them. (I’ve been looking for information about needle production in the US during the 1800s, but so far haven’t found any.) During the US Civil War, sewing needles became hard to acquire by Southern civilians. The North’s blockade kept most imported supplies from reaching southern ports. Soldiers’ uniforms and bedding took priority for the supplies that could be purchased or made. The lack of needles for civilians meant that repairing old clothing and bedding was difficult, if not impossible.

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On the American frontier, settlers faced deprivations of many kinds. In 1855 the community of Pass Creek Canyon in Wyoming was visited by a peddler named Aaron Meier. He brought his wares to the remote settlers, including fabrics, tools, and candies. But the item they needed most was darning needles, as it had been months since the last one broke. With Christmas coming, the Jewish peddler made a gift of all the needles he had to the women of the community. Aaron Meier later founded Meier and Frank department stores in Portland, OR.

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While England still dominates the production of hand-sewing needles, Germany makes the majority of machine sewing needles. Groz-Beckert and Schmetz are two brands you may know. Here is a fascinating video by Schmetz showing how needles are made.

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Needles are not scarce anymore in the US. There is no reason not to replace them when they’re due. When a needle is dull, it needs to punch its way through fabric layers, making a popping sound. When it is sharp, it doesn’t make that noise. In addition, your machine motor needs to work a little harder with a dull needle, and you may hear the machine laboring.

Experts recommend changing the needle every 8-10 hours of sewing (machine time, not cutting, pressing, and pondering time). That may not sound like a lot, but if your machine stitches 1,000 stitches per minute, that’s actually about a HALF MILLION stitches! While you’re stitching, you may sew through several layers of fabric and batting, and occasionally hit pins. (I do!) Your needle takes a lot of abuse.

Take a look at some great photos by Schmetz Needles USA of a needle that looks sharp. Once magnified with increasing power, you can see the burr on the tip. A dull needle doesn’t do your machine or your project any good.

And please dispose of your needles carefully. I use an empty yogurt cup with a hole poked through the lid. When I get rid of needles, bent pins, and dead rotary cutter blades, they go in there. And the cup is always safely out of reach of children!