Friday, August 3, 2018

Big Pink Lies: The Bicentennial Flag Quilt

I had mixed feelings when I received this 1970s flag quilt from eBay sellers, "gb-best" in Pennsylvania. The sellers were not exactly straightforward in their description, which read:

"I gave it a gentle wash for freshness. The stripes are a tea dyed look. Faint dye migration of the blue that is minor."

Actually, it appeared as though the red dye ran when the seller washed the quilt, and all the whites turned pink. The auction photos didn't really show how pink the whites were, and when I opened the package, I thought, "Hmmmmm..."

The whites were not tea-dyed, they were pink from careless washing.
What a disaster! A careless washing turned the whites pink and the sellers told a little white lie...or maybe it was really a big pink one. The thing was I still loved the quilt and wanted to see if I could reverse the damage by rewashing it. 

The rewashing took over a week. I started with cold water and some Shout Color Catchers in the bathtub. Color Catchers are like laundry dryer sheets that go in the wash and catch dyes that bleed into the water. Red dye was bleeding from the stripes and backing, so after some cold water soaking and rinsing, I tried a small amount of Oxy Clean with a tiny squirt of Dawn. 

The pink color was gradually lifting, so I repeated the process several times with cold water soaking and rinsing between soap washes. At the end of the week, there was still a small amount of pink in the white, but the washing had improved the look of the quilt significantly. 

Although I was able to reverse the damage enough to be satisfied with the quilt, it was a good lesson. Unless I want to spend a week washing a quilt to reverse the damages from a careless washing done by a somewhat-less-than-scrupulous seller, I will probably avoid the seller.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Circa Dating Old Quilts

At Spring Quilt Market in Portland earlier this year, Karey Bresenhan of Quilts, Inc., asked how I determined the dates of old quilts. The question got me thinking about the significant number of people involved with quiltmaking in America who did not know how to date quilts. So, I thought I'd write about it.

"Circa" is a Latin word meaning 'about, around or approximately' and circa dating is a method of determining an educated approximate range of dates. Typically, a circa date will list one year but encompass the period of ten years before and after the date, a 20-year range. For example, a circa date of 1860 would encompass the period from 1850 to 1870 with 1860 being the median.

My first suggestion is to become familiar with a few good books. "Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts" by Barbara Brackman is a good starting place. The book presents a system for dating heirloom quilts based on five characteristics-- fabric, style, color, technique and pattern.

"Clues in the Calico" offers good methods for evaluating old quilts, but when it comes to hands-on, practical application you will want copies of "Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide, 1800-1960" and "Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide, 1950-2000" by Eileen Trestain. The books include images of fabric swatches by period, as well as descriptions of the fabrics throughout history. Since a quilt can only be as old as its newest fabric, the comparable examples are especially helpful for quilt dating.

Two other books used frequently in quilt dating and documentation are the "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" and "Encyclopedia of Appliqué" by Barbara Brackman. Both books include numerous illustrations of quilt block designs and published sources when available.

When using these books, it is important to keep in mind where the information originated. In the "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" the published sources date mostly from the 1890s and later, which presents some challenges when it comes to applying the information to quilts made before 1890. If you want to get the most out of the book, read the references in the back.

The "Encyclopedia of Appliqué" includes more references to individual quilts, such as examples in museum collections. It documents the designs as well as the names assigned to them. Similar to the "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" it does not serve as a document of what makers called their designs, although it can help with dating when looking at comparable designs.

Beyond these essentials, it is helpful to learn where other specific information can be found or which experts to ask. Recently I purchased a late 18th century quilt with two fabrics found in the "Printed Textiles" books from Winterthur. A friend and fellow collector led me to the information on one fabric and I found the other one when looking through the books.

Over the years researching individual quilts in my collection, it seemed like every conversation with a fellow quilt lover led me to purchase more books. I ended up with a large reference library, and it comes in handy each time I find an old, unidentified quilt. So, to make a long answer short, the quilts tell me how old they are, and I know what they are saying because I did my homework. That's all you have to do if you are interested in circa dating old quilts.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Quilting Arts: In the Studio, Quilt Photography

Earlier in the year I posted something on Facebook about doing all my own photography, and it got the attention of Vivika DeNegre, Editorial Director of Quilting Arts Magazine. She asked if I would write an article about it, so that is what I did.

Crib quilt from the article, now in the collection of Leah Zieber
The article is in the August/September issue of Quilting Arts, now available as a digital file and soon available in print. Look for the beautiful landscape quilt "Shiprock" by Cat Larrea on the cover.

Quilting Arts is a bimonthly magazine encouraging quilters to create one-of-a-kind works of art. It covers all types of quilting, surface design, and embellishment techniques, and is geared toward the seasoned quilter as well as the beginner. For more information, click here

Friday, June 29, 2018

Mountain Mist Pattern Number 48, "Jack-o'-Lantern" Quilt

1930s Mountain Mist Pattern Number 48, "Jack-o'-Lantern", Florida, 65" x 83"
"Jack-o'-Lantern", pattern number 48 from Mountain Mist was copyrighted in 1934, but apparently it was not made often. I have never seen one before, and couldn't find another image of one online. 

According to Linda Pumphrey, author of "Mountain Mist Historical Quilts", the original design included a pieced, scalloped edge finish-- not for beginners. This one has a much more simple border and edge. It is also a little smaller (65" x 83") than the original design (95 & 1/2" x 81"). The simplified border and edge finish could account for the size difference.

"It sure reminds me of some of the Margaret Hays designs, but I have nothing to prove that," said Pumphrey. "The colors were labeled Bittersweet, Poppy, Tangerine, Burnt Orange, Deep Yellow, Medium Yellow and Light Yellow."

The description on the Jack-o’-Lantern pattern calls it an original, exclusive to the Mountain Mist pattern series. It was designed for quiltmakers looking for new pieced quilt ideas, and would be
 an "interesting, attractive addition to a bedroom finished in the antique or the modern manner.”  

This quilt came from an eBay seller in Largo, Florida. Now that it's on my radar, I'll be on the lookout for others. Ultimately, I would love to see one of these quilts, fully finished according to the instructions, with the pieced, scalloped edge finish.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


The other day, I woke up and logged in to eBay. No particular reason, I was simply curious to see what antique applique quilts were available. Imagine my surprise when I found this applique quilt from South Carolina.

19th century applique quilt from South Carolina
It's a doppelgänger! I found another quilt very much like it four years ago in a shop here in Portland, and called it the "Start the Car" quilt. To read more about it, click here.

The "Start the Car" quilt, found in Portland in 2014
The two quilts share the same block design, a large, stylized floral motif with four branches. Both quilts have six of these blocks and meandering vine borders.

Barbara Brackman blogged about this design on her Material Culture blog in 2013, calling the design "Pumpkin Patch" based on an early published design by Ladies' Art Company. To read more about it, click here.

I didn't have to think long or hard before clicking "Buy It Now" - and the price was very fair. Can't wait to see the two quilts side-by-side, in the cloth!

Friday, June 22, 2018

My Favorite Things: Originality

About 20 years ago, I found a new way to look at a lot of quilts in a short period of time. The best part about it was the quilts were all for sale. I was browsing through the auctions on eBay, spending many hours scrolling through photos of quilts and quilt related items for sale.

1840s pieced and appliqued quilt from Baltimore.
Seeing the quilts in rapid-fire mode helped me learn which ones stood out. There were hundreds of pastel-colored quilts in familiar patterns such as Dresden Plate, Double Wedding Ring, Grandmother's Flower Garden and Sunbonnet Sue. I was looking for something different, not the same quilts everyone else had.

Pennsylvania Hexagon Pictorial, c. 1900
Seek and you shall find! I love the head-turners, oddballs and quirkies. My favorite question is "what was the maker thinking?" The more unusual it is, the better.

1890s pieced quilt made of silks
I love a technical masterwork as much as other collectors, but there has to be something more. It could be a one-of-a-kind original design, or it could be a new way of thinking about a traditional design. It could also be far from perfect. Originality was much more important to me than technical mastery.

1920s pieced quilt with fans, New York
early 20th century velvet crazy quilt
There is nothing quite like the excitement of finding the one quilt that really jumps off the page...or off the computer screen. With tens of thousands of quilts up for auction at any given time, you can do a lot of looking on eBay and other auction and sale sites.

1930s pictorial quilt, Ohio
I did a fair amount of buying, some selling, and a lot of looking. It was an important formative experience, eventually leading to more focused collecting and research. It was really a good lesson in originality. After looking at thousands of quilts every day for decades, the most indelible quilts were the most original ones.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

My Favorite Things: 1970s Quilts

"I don't give a damn what anyone says...
I love 1970s quilts, and I'm going to collect them!"

It was a beautiful day when I said to myself, "I don't give a damn what anyone says...I love 1970s quilts, and I'm going to collect them!" The idea didn't come without some pushback from all the folks who thought they knew better. But really, they didn't know diddly.

1970s polyester crazy block quilt, made with raw edge appliqué 
The quilts of the 1970s were rarely the technical masterworks we see being made today. A lot of them were put together by inexperienced quiltmakers, and made out of material people joke about today. The road to gaining acceptance and respect would be long, it seemed.

how could anyone look at these colors and not learn anything?
The presence of polyester double knit fabrics is precisely why the quilts are so great. Fade-resistent fabrics made it possible to preserve the vision of the artists. Their use of color was masterful.

Hexagon Diamonds, Oregon - a masterwork in polyester double knit
Quiltmakers in the 1970s did not necessarily think of themselves as artists, but they were. I was convinced when I saw what they did with what little they had. They used homemade, cardboard templates with sandpaper pasted to the back. There were no rotary cutters or long-arm quilting machines. Even quilting cottons were scarce.
how could anyone not fall in love with this quilt?
The quilts are full of joy. They represent a blissful starting point, or more precisely a starting over point. Other periods such as the Civil War era, Victorian period, Colonial Revival and Great Depression had a lot of quiltmaking activity, too. The surge in American quiltmaking in the 1970s was the latest in a series of revivals.

"Interacting Pyramids" Barbara McKie, 1974
There were no rules back in the day, at least not like there are today. Books, magazines and teachers were hard to find. By the 1970s, 40 years had passed since the last, big boom in American quiltmaking, but having no rules meant new quiltmakers had no idea how they could be bending and breaking the rules.
improvisational 1970s quilt made with strips of polyester
Art paying tribute to art: "Klee" by Marsha McCloskey, 1973
An appreciation for quilts as works of art grew in the 1970s. Major museum exhibitions explored antiquities in a new context-- decorative domestic objects gaining recognition as important works of art. At the same time, artists began making quilts intended to be works of art, for the wall rather than the bed.
how could anyone look at this quilt and not think it was important?
I have blogged about each of these quilts in the past. The information is out there for anyone who is interested. There are details about physical attributes, how and when quilts were acquired, places of origin and any available history. It is great to see a group of favorites together, and to think about why they are favorites.

Today, the information age generates a lot of knowledge, but we must continue searching for wisdom. It would be wise, for example, to consider all aspects of quilt history when assessing the cultural value of the quilts of an era, rather than simply picking and choosing favorite periods and styles and marginalizing others.

Things haven't slowed down much since the 1970s. Despite many changes in the industry over the years, it is still going strong. Many of our most noteworthy, experienced quiltmakers and fiber artists got started in the 1970s. That is why I say, "When it comes to the quilt industry today, all roads lead back to the 1970s."