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Traditions Remembered

A collection of timeless beauties mingled with some of the stories that antique quilts can tell.

Crossing the Prairies

I made quilts as fast as I could to keep my family warm, and as pretty as I could to keep my heart from breaking.
A pioneer woman’s diary

Quilt name: Wertman Family Appliqué
Pennsylvania, c. 1878

Thirty-one family names inscribed with inked stamps.

Old quilt patterns went west with the pioneers, and new ones were made and named for the milestones of the journey. Kansas Troubles, Road to California, and Oregon Trail are pattern names that reflect a growing nation and the diversity of the patchwork tradition. Cherished souvenirs of life in the East survived the trip west, especially signature quilts, since they symbolized ties to distant family and friends.

 

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Antebellum Legacy

We learned to sew patchwork at school while we were learning the alphabet; and almost every girl had a bed quilt of her own begun, with an eye to future house furnishing.
Lucy Larcom, A New England Girlhood

Quilt name: Whig Rose
Maryland, c. 1860


Appliqué continued to be a popular quilting technique into the 1860s with the Baltimore Album quilts being the most popular. Quilters would try to outdo each other with elaborate creations of bouquets, wreaths, and cornucopias. Album quilts gained popularity. Quilts were used to raise funds and make statements of friendship, or for social commentary. Remember, women couldn’t vote, but still they needed to feel involved. Pieced quilts developed diversity. The rigid lines of squares and triangles were softened with curved corners to form blocks, such as Hearts and Gizzards. An important ideal set in the mid-1800s prevails today--the preference for light-color backgrounds for both patchwork and appliqué.

 

Crossing the Prairies

I made quilts as fast as I could to keep my family warm, and as pretty as I could to keep my heart from breaking.
A pioneer woman’s diary

Quilt name: Wertman Family Appliqué
Pennsylvania, c. 1878

Thirty-one family names inscribed with inked stamps.

Old quilt patterns went west with the pioneers, and new ones were made and named for the milestones of the journey. Kansas Troubles, Road to California, and Oregon Trail are pattern names that reflect a growing nation and the diversity of the patchwork tradition. Cherished souvenirs of life in the East survived the trip west, especially signature quilts, since they symbolized ties to distant family and friends.

 

Sickle Quilt


Quilt name: Sickle
c. 1870

Oregon Trail Quilt


Quilt name: Oregon Trail Quilt
c. 1870

Rumblings of War

At the quilting bee, one might have learned . . . how to bring up babies; how to mend a cracked teapot; how to take out grease from brocade; how to reconcile absolute decrees with free will; how to make five yards of cloth answer the purpose of six; and how to put down the Democratic Party.
Harriet Beecher Stowe

Quilt name: Underground Railroad
c. 1870


The social climate of the years preceding the Civil War was filled with political turmoil. Quiltmakers used their work to make political statements, naming their quilts to match the times. Clay’s Choice, Underground Railroad, and Whig's Defeat were a few of them. At about the same time, the sewing machine was invented. It freed up women from the tedious task of hand-sewing quilts and clothing. The Log Cabin block is attributed to Lincoln’s run for the presidency, symbolizing the rustic home and frontier he came from. The logs of the block are built around colored centers with a variety of meanings--red for the hearth as the center of the cabin, yellow for candles in the cabin windows, and black to denote safe houses on the Underground Railroad. The Log Cabin block can be assembled in so many ways, with each variety having a different name.

Log Cabin Medallion


Quilt name: Log Cabin Medallion
c. 1890

Barn Raising Log Cabin


Quilt name: Barn Raising Log Cabin
c. 1900

Barn Raising setting for the Log Cabin block

 

Pineapple Log Cabin Setting


Quilt name: Pineapple
c. 1938

Covering the Plains

I have found nothing so desirable for summer covers as the old-fashioned scrap quilt of which our mothers were so proud. Every girl should piece one at least to carry away to her husband’s house. And if her lot happens to be cast among strangers, the quilt when she unfolds it will seem like the face of a familiar friend, bringing up a host of memories . . . too sacred to intrude upon. Annie Curd, Good Housekeeping, 1888

Quilt name: Streak of Lightning
Indiana, c. 1880


Scrap quilts are perhaps the most beloved quilts! The patchwork quilt was created out of need--the need for women to keep their families warm. They were made by a generation of quilters who spread out over the prairies after the Civil War. Times were tough everywhere, but the West offered new beginnings and opportunities for all. The railroads moved both people and goods, encouraging settlers with news from home and bits of calico and thread!

 

A Life of Leisure

You can spoil the prettiest quilt pieces that ever was made just by putting them together with the wrong color, just as the best sort of life is miserable if you don’t look at things right and think about them right.
Eliza Calvert Hall, Aunt Jane of Kentucky

Quilt name: Crazy Quilt
c. 1884


The measure of a man’s success during Victorian times was enhanced if his wife was considered a lady. Women were expected to devote leisurely hours to fancy needlework to decorate their homes. Home decoration was approached as a duty because Victorians believed a beautiful home contributed to the beauty of a person’s soul.

 

Sunburst Block Frame


Framed, this Sunburst Block is a preserved block of a Victorian quilt.

Quilt name: Sunburst Block
c. 1890

Plain Speaking

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
William Morris

Quilt name: Diamond-in-the-Square
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, c. 1920


Amish families arrived in America from Germany in the 1700s, settling in the Lancaster area of Pennsylvania. While they didn’t have a quilting heritage, they quickly adapted and took it on as their own. Amish quilts are typically associated with bright colors, simple blocks, and fabulous hand quilting.

 

Pennsylvania Dutch Tulip


Quilt name: Pennsylvania Dutch Tulip
c. 1910

Amish Bars


Quilters have been piecing the backs of quilts for generations. Although it appears to be the front, this is the back side of an Amish made quilt over 100 years ago.

Quilt: Amish Bars
c. 1900

Modern Times

It took me more than 20 years, nearly 25, I reckon, in the evenings after supper when the children were all put to bed. My whole life is in that quilt . . . All my joys and all my sorrows are stitched into those little pieces . . . I tremble sometimes when I remember what that quilt knows about me.
Marguerite Ickis, quoting her great-grandmother

Quilt name: Snowball
c. 1925

Snowball, a two-colored quilt.

The 1920s are known for prosperity and change. Women achieved the right to vote, and modern technology--electricity, gas, and water lines--liberated them from household chores. Women pieced quilts for enjoyment, more than from necessity. At the same time, magazines and newspapers began to publish quilting patterns. They fueled women’s drive to quilt. Magazines, such as Successful Farming and Ladies Home Journal, and newspapers, such as the Kansas City Star, were sought after by farm women who were the most devoted and productive quiltmakers in the ’20s and ’30s.

 

Carpenter's Square


Quilt name: Carpenter’s Square
c. 1928

Triumphs in Hard Times

When I’m gone, ain’t nobody goin’ to think o’ the floors I’ve swept . . . But when one of my grandchildren or great-grandchildren sees one o’ these quilts, they’ll think of Aunt Jane, and wherever I am then, I’ll know I’m not forgotten.
Eliza Calvert Hall, Aunt Jane of Kentucky

Quilt name: Grandmother’s Flower Garden
c. 1935


The quilting momentum gained in the ’20s was only slightly diminished during the Great Depression. Newspapers and magazines continued to publish patterns. Quilters were more careful about where their supplies came from, though. Printed feed sacks were used to make quilts; however, as charming as they are today, at that time feed sack quilts labeled the maker as poor, frugal, and from a farming community. Quilting took on a softer, more romantic look, perhaps to soften the reality of the times. The high point for the resurrection of quilting was the announcement by Sears, Roebuck & Co. that they would sponsor a quilting contest for the Chicago World’s Fair. A total of 25,000 quilts were entered for a $1000 prize. The grand prize went to a woman who hired others to make her quilt!

 

Bride's Bouquet


Quilt name: Bride’s Bouquet
c. 1940

Dogwood Quilt

Quilt name: Dogwood
c. 1938

From a published Laura Wheeler pattern.

Traditions Revived

No matter how simple or traditional a pattern, the effect of a quilt is still absolutely original because no two people handle fabric and color the same way.
Beth Gutcheon

Quilt name: Linked Squares
Macomb, Illinois
c. 1990

An updated variation of a 1930 Nancy Cabot design.

Quilting popularity decreased through the ’50s and ’60s. People saw little value in quilting, especially when they considered how inexpensive bedding had become. Quilts were banished to the attic or the basement. But then, in the late 1960s, spurred on by the back-to-nature viewpoint of a new generation, quilting began to take on new meaning. Resources for quilters were scarce. Old, yellowed patterns were dug out of boxes and were used with combinations of polyester and double knit. This revival spurned on the publication of new magazines but the pinnacle of quilt appreciation happened when quilts were featured at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City. Now quilts were art and artifacts of American history! The Bicentennial renewed interest in patriotic-style quilts, especially when Quilter’s Newsletter magazine issued a quilt contest to celebrate the event. Add publishers and manufacturers devoting their energies toward creating more publications, developing new lines of 100% cotton fabrics, and inventing the most revolutionary tool of all--the rotary cutter--and quilting hasn’t been the same since!

 

Tree of Paradise

Quilt name: Tree of Paradise

Winterset, Iowa
c. 1985

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