Sunday, December 4, 2016

America's Earliest Quilts: Necessity Not the Mother of Invention

blue resist detail c. 1760
When it comes to America's earliest quilts and coverlets, necessity was not the mother of invention.  Quiltmaking required time and resources. Quilts were elegant objects made by affluent families, and decorative sewing was a skill developed in finishing schools by refined young women.

wholecloth quilt, c. 1790, New England
In the colonial period, before many mills were up and running in America, fabric was mostly imported and heavily taxed. Quilts and other decorative bedcovers were among the furnishings in well appointed homes. They were included in dowry chests and listed in estate records.

parchwork quilt, c. 1800, Rhode Island
Quilts, counterpanes, canopes, bed curtains, valences and bed rugs were all part of the bedroom decor in wealthy, colonial households. Fancy bedcovers included stuffed work, appliqué, embroidery and later, geometric patchwork. 

2012 "Quilts in the Baltimore Manner" exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg
Many of the surviving examples from the period were made with fabrics purchased new. The counterpanes of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins were made with repurposed fabrics -- specifically, cut-out chintz appliquéd -- and those cut-out chintz fabrics were fresh off the boat and fresh off the bolt.

an elegant Achsah Goodwin Wilkins counterpane, c. 1820s
Colonial Williamsburg has a superb example in its collection. The counterpane, one of four known to still exist, was exhibited in a 2012 exhibition called "Quilts in the Baltimore Manner" at Colonial Williamsburg. It retains much of its original color and the chintz still has a glossy sheen.

1820s Achsah Goodwin Wilkins counterpane, donated to DAR Museum
Another outstanding example is in the collection of the D.A.R. Museum in Washington, D.C., and was recently on display as part of the 2014 "Eye on Elegance" exhibition.

In her essay "Eye on Elegance, Early Quilts of Maryland and Virginia" curator Alden O'Brien comments on the early traditions in American quiltmaking.

"...these bedcovers were the product of leisure time and affluence."

"Seasoned devotees of historical quilts know that the oft-repeated tale of quilting's having emerged from frugal necessity is erroneous. Yet it continues to be repeated.

"The quilts in this exhibit, representing typical designs that survive from the early 19th century, tell a different story. Constructed in intensely time-consuming techniques, from fabrics whose price per yard might exceed a servant's weekly wages, these bedcovers were the product of leisure time and affluence."
early 19th century stuffed work quilt
Today's show quilts are part of a long tradition of elegant bedcovers in America. Quiltmaking was originally an activity for people who had disposable income and leisure time. The surviving quilts point to a legacy of intricate, elaborate needlework; fancy, sophisticated objects made to be decorative and beautiful.


  1. Timeless quilts that are still beautiful hundreds of years later. Interesting that only one of these doesn't have a strong central (center medallion) design focus, and that is a whole cloth quilt. That's for reminding us of these wonderful quilts.

    1. The wholecloth quilt cleverly conceals its inclination toward medallion style, but it is mildly present in the quilting design. There is a band of clamshell border quilting around all four edges, surrounding grid diamond in the rectangular center area.

  2. Beautiful! Thank you for the information!

  3. Beautiful. Some similarities to the quilts at the textile museum in Mulhouse, FR. A "need to go" if you haven't been there.

  4. and dont forget to mention a lot of those quilts were made by slaves for slave owners....

  5. I'm curious what people at this time who couldn't afford to make a quilt or have a quilt made for them we're putting on their beds. Do you know?