Monday, February 13, 2012

Eight Very Old Quilts

Applique Crib Quilt, c. 1820, Pennsylvania
The recent arrival of the whole cloth quilt from New England got me thinking about the other very old quilts in my collection. There are less than ten quilts in my collection that I think of as very old, and they all represent specific points in American quilt history. So, I thought I'd put them together in a blog and let others see them all in one place. When I say "very old" I'm thinking before 1840 or 1850. Domestic fabric production grew dramatically in the 1840s, which led to a larger number of quilts being made. Surviving examples made before that are most rare.

My first very old quilt is an applique crib quilt, made in Pennsylvania around 1820. It was a gift from my parents more than ten years ago when I moved into my first house. They gave it to me for Christmas. Of course, when I opened the box, I was speechless. This wonderful little quilt includes walnut-dyed fabric with remnants of glaze on the surface. When my parents purchased it, the quilt was said to be Amish, but I haven't been able to verify that theory. It's not at all what we think of when we hear the term Amish quilt, but it is solid fabric and geometric, so who knows!

Economy Block, c. 1810, New England
Some time around 2006, I acquired a wonderful, wool Economy Block quilt, made around 1810 in New England. One of the interesting things about it is the top fabric. The term "linsey-woolsey" is often used to describe early American wool fabrics, but a lot of those fabrics are all wool, rather than linen warp and woolen weft. This quilt hasn't gone to the lab for examination yet, but I have a feeling the top fabric may have a linen component. If so, we could truly call it linsey-woolsey. This quilt also has a home-loomed twill tape binding, green on one side and red on the other three sides, and a woven backing. A tiny cross-stitch inscription appears on one block. 

Sunburst Diamonds, c. 1830s or 1840s, New England
A couple years later, I picked up a Sunburst Diamonds quilt, made in New England, and a Russian Sunflower or Star Medallion crib quilt from Tennessee. The Sunburst Diamonds quilt was made in the 1830s or early 1840s, and the crib quilt was made in the 1840s or 50s. Both are all cotton. The Sunburst includes some great early fabrics with small-scale prints that are slightly out of register when printed in multiple colors. The crib quilt is a rescue quilt, in poor condition, but in my opinion it's design makes it an enduring masterpiece. 

Crib Quilt, c. 1840s or 1850s, Tennessee
UPDATE 3/12: My friend Siobhan Fergurson from Georgia is recreating this crib quilt, and is posting progress reports on her blog, Scraps and Threadtales. She's doing an amazing job with the quilt, so check it out!
Star Medallion, c. 1800, Rhode Island
Just last March, I acquired a Star Medallion four-poster quilt made around 1800 in Rhode Island. It is a very early example of a pieced quilt, and includes glazed "Calamanco" wools and lush, decorative quilting. Research has been a little challenging because so few of these early pieced wool quilts still exist, and a majority of those are in museums and private collections. Later in the year, I added a cotton Robbing Peter to Pay Paul or Orange Peel, made around 1830 in New England, and a whole cloth chintz quilt with beautiful, decorative quilting and a loomed twill tape binding.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul, c. 1830, New England
Whole Cloth Chintz, c. 1820, Eastern United States
Whole Cloth Quilt, c. 1800 (or earlier), New England
That brings us up to the present, and if you've been following my blog you may have read about the whole cloth quilt from New England I won at auction from Pook & Pook in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Similar to the Economy Block, the whole cloth quilt is made of a course, scratchy wool with natural dyes. But unlike the Economy Block, I think this one may be all wool. The fibers look consistent throughout, and you can see it in close-up photos. Some of the characteristics of this quilt, such as elements in the quilting design, materials, and finishing, make me think it could have been made a little earlier than 1800.

It is very rare to see anything like any of these quilts here in Oregon, which was still a territory when all these quilts were made. Here in Portland, anything made before 1900 is very old - and I rarely see quilts made before 1930. The antique shops have a lot of vintage, but not many things what I'd consider bona fide antique, 100 years old or older. It's fun to have a growing group of these quilts, demonstrating a variety of techniques and materials, which were all important traditions in early American quilt making.

Do you have any quilts made before the 1840s or 1850s? What makes them unique? Please comment!


  1. Bill, Thanks for making the connection for me to facebook and your network of friends.
    About the PA quilt that was a gift from your parents, I wonder if the pattern was an elementary lesson in Papyrotamis (cutting of stiff paper). Reading Alice Earle's Home Life in Colonial Days and chapter on Girls' Occupations made me think of that in relationship to this quilt.
    For those of you in this network, I saw the brown whole cloth last week. It has fabulous dense quilting lines which made me wonder if there were "professional markers," who would travel around marking quilt for folk. Looking in Jane Nylander's Our Own Snug Fireside, I found reference to Sarah Bryant's diary where she noted drawing a feather on Mr. Briggses bed quilt" p.229. I suggested to Bill he contact Lynne Bassett to see if she had any information about "professional markers." The idea took me back to Laura Thatcher Ulrich speaking at the 1993 AQSG seminar in Portland, Maine about her work on the Midwife's Tale.
    I have seen Sarah Bryant's diary at the Houghton Library, Harvard. I told Bill that possibily be worth a trip to Boston.
    I'll be curious about others' thoughts.
    Mary Bywater Cross

  2. Hi Mary! So now you see one of the benefits of being on Facebook. You can keep up more easily with my blogs. LOL! I heard back from Lynne Bassett today, and she'd heard of people who marked quilts, but not professionally. The crib quilt is something I've always wondered about, and one of the main questions is, "Did a child make it?" Thank you for all the great leads.

  3. An amazing collection, and thank you so much for posting these pics! In looking at the appliqued crib quilt from your folks, do you think it could have been made by a group. The blocks seem to be interpretations of a single design, and there seem to be several sets of similar blocks, making me think it might have been made by several women, or girls. Is the applique stitching similar throughout? Just wondering! In any case, it's truly a treasure!

  4. Hi Regan, The applique stitches are consistent, but I do think it was made by a child or children. It seems there was a paper template, but the applique cut-outs show a lot of variation, almost like they were stacked and cut and not all of them came out the same.