Tag Archives: Quilt 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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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?

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. 

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!