A collection of timeless beauties mingled with some of the stories that antique quilts can tell.
I have plied my needle these fifty years and by my goodwill would never have it out of my hands. A woman’s letter to the London Spectator, 1700
Quilt name: Burgoyne Surrounded
Michigan, c. 1880
European colonists brought with them skills that have influenced today’s quilting designs. Whole cloth quilts, filled with hearts, flowers, and feathers, showcased a lady’s fine handwork. As Americans became more affluent, they appliquéd chintz cutouts onto plain backgrounds, developing them into pieced and appliquéd medallion-style quilts that are still popular. Quiltmakers named their new blocks to commemorate important events. They reflect women’s desires to honor a famous person or to make strong political statements.
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.
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
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.
Quilt name: Sickle
Quilt name: Oregon Trail Quilt
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
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.
Quilt name: Log Cabin Medallion
Quilt name: Barn Raising Log Cabin
Quilt name: Pineapple
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!
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
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.
Framed, this Sunburst Block is a preserved block of a Victorian quilt.
Quilt name: Sunburst Block
Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.
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.
Quilt name: Pennsylvania Dutch Tulip
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
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
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.
Quilt name: Carpenter’s Square
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
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!
Quilt name: Bride’s Bouquet
From a published Laura Wheeler pattern.
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.
Quilt name: Linked Squares
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!