Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Colorful New York Beauty Top

Recently, several friends alerted me about an eBay auction for a colorful New York Beauty Top. Quilt dealer Mark French of Yellow Springs, Ohio, was selling the top, and if you buy quilts on eBay, I'm sure you've seen his auctions. Mark is a prolific eBay seller known as french72, and I recall buying quilts from him in the past, including a 1940's blue, green and pink Chinese Fans variation on the New York Beauty pattern. He's always got a wide selection of reasonably priced quilts for sale. When I checked out his eBay shop, I found 430 items priced from $100 or less to just under $2900. 

Of course, when I received the note about this quilt top, it was toward the end of the month and I wouldn't be able to pay for it for a week, but Mark was very willing to give me time to pay for it. As soon as December rolled around, we closed the deal and the top arrived in less than a week. I appreciated the great service, and shared information about my web site with Mark. He saw my collection of New York Beauties and variations on the pattern, and told me about a very cool Suspension Bridge quilt he had available, which I've purchased.

This New York Beauty quilt top has a circa date from the 1930's, but I still need to get out the "Dating Fabrics" book to identify the fabrics. It could be a time-span piece, and I'm thinking some of the fabrics could be a bit later.  

One thing's for sure, it's a fabric lover's piece. This pattern wasn't often made with such a wide variety of fabrics until the last quarter of the 20th century, so finding such a scrappy example from the early-to-mid part of the 20th century is exciting. If it turns out to be later, that would be even more exciting for me, because I haven't found a lot of examples made between 1950 and 1990.

Two other characteristics make this top an intriguing find. One is the arched strip of lavender fabric from the inner part of each quarter circle. The second thing is the way the sashing is pieced as an interlocking sawtooth pattern. Both of these characteristics are uncommon and add visual interest to the piece. It is one of only three quilt tops I have in my "New York Beauty" collection, which now includes 30 examples from the mid 19th century to 2010. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Red and Green - An Evening with the Northwest Quilters

Yesterday morning at 10am, I got a phone call from Tony Haas, President of the Northwest Quilters in Portland. Tony was in a bit of a bind. The surprise presentation planned for the evening meeting had fallen through when the presenter was hospitalized for an emergency back surgery, and he needed someone to step in at the last minute and do a presentation for the group. He was calling to ask if I could help.  

I was honored, glad that he thought of me, and happy to help. I'm a member of the Northwest Quilters, and since I'm not a quilt maker I've tried to find other ways to offer something to the organization. Over the years, I'd spoken to the group several times, most recently in January when I presented six masterpiece quilts. Lately, I've been trying to attend the meetings, bringing quilts from my collection for show and tell. Since I'd planned to attend the meeting anyway, I was more than happy to help out.

In the holiday spirit, the theme for the talk was red and green quilts. So, I selected some quilts, pulled out a few books for reference, and thought about what I would say. When I arrived at the Immanuel Lutheran Church in Sellwood, I thought I'd be early, but there must've been over 100 people already there. The large meeting space was full of quilters and buzzing with activity. Charity quilts and challenge blocks covered the walls, people were milling about visiting with friends and sharing holiday greetings. There was barely a seat to be found. 

Before my talk, the committee chairs presented reports. One after the other, the officers had such wonderful news to report about their activities. Thousands of raffle tickets had been sold, thousands of dollars had been raised, and over a thousand quilts had been made for families in need. The fire department would soon be arriving at the meeting to pick up some of the charity quilts, and we prepared by practicing singing a verse of "Here Comes Santa Claus", which we sang to the firemen when they arrived.

During the break, I set up a quilt stand with the Sprigs of Laurel Medallion quilt, one of my absolute favorite quilts. To me, this quilt feels like the quintessential Christmas holiday quilt, and I knew the group would enjoy the wonderful quilting in it. I left it up for the duration of the meeting because I wanted to give people an opportunity to see it close-up. All of the other quilts were held up, show and tell style, by Tony and the husband of one of the quilters, who we referred to as Mr. Maureen Orr-Eldred.

When I got to the podium, I said I'd been looking forward to the surprise presentation ever since I'd received the newsletter, but I didn't realize the surprise was that I was the one giving the presentation. There were smiles and laughter, and we were off to a good start. I spent a few minutes talking about the Oregon Quilt Project, which will be documenting quilts at the Northwest Quilters show in March, and then talked about the red and green quilts. 

The group of quilts included examples from 1830 to 1940, and I was happy with how the talk went. Even though it was a last-minute thing, I felt prepared. Over the last year, I've immersed myself in quilts, quilt study, research, and documentation. Sharing quilts and their stories, I also looked back to the first time I spoke to the group about 9 years ago, when I had less than a dozen quilts in my collection. Since then, my collection has grown significantly, and I've learned so much. I was thankful to be present, and although I was there to inspire the audience with old quilts, it was the Northwest Quilters who inspired me.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Unusual Princess Feather Block

The Princess Feather pattern was first made in the early 1800's and is most commonly seen in mid-to-late 19th century quilts. It appears most frequently appears in red and green quilts as an eight-bladed motif. The second most common variation is a six-bladed design, and the block is also seen in other color combinations. This block from the Album with Lyre is an uncommon variation, a four-bladed Princess Feather. 

This block is in the fourth row, center, just below the Lyre block. It is made of two fabrics including a fairly common over-dyed green floral print and an uncommon solid oxblood/burgundy/maroon. The blades of the feather are joined in the center with interlocking triangular points, and 21 rounded, finger-like barbs around the edges of each feather.

Each of the four plumes appears to be made from the same template, and the overall shape is like an "x" with curved tips. It is one of several original variations on designs seen in other quilts of the mid-19th century, particularly Baltimore Album and sampler quilts. 

Karen Alexander recently blogged about red and green quilts, and in her blog there are some interesting notes about the Princess Feather, also called Prince's Feather. To read Karen's blog, click here.

So, that leaves just three blocks to blog about in the Album with Lyre, circa 1850, by Mary Couchman Small of Martinsburg, Berkeley County, West Virginia, which was part of Virginia at the time. If you have any questions or would like to see additional close-ups of any of the details in this amazing quilt, please send me a comment. Enjoy!

Friday, December 10, 2010


The word scherenschnitte means "scissor cut" in German, and is also a term used to describe paper cutting design. Scherenschnitte art work often has symmetry within the design, and common forms include silhouettes, valentines, love letters, and applique quilt designs. The art tradition was founded in Switzerland and Germany in the 16th century, and was brought to colonial America in the 18th century by immigrants who settled primarily in Pennsylvania. 

The two blocks in this blog could be called scherenschnitte. Both designs include elegant, symmetrical shapes that resemble paper cut snowflakes, but these designs may seem like something other than pure scherenschnitte because they include more than one piece of fabric. Some of the most distinctive examples are seen in quilts from Pennsylvania, but also in Hawaiian quilts. 

The first block (pictured, top) is from the second row, second block from the left. The center part of the block is a squared paper cut design made of oxblood/maroon/burgundy fabric. Leaves sprout from the corners, and budding flowers from top, bottom, and both sides. The second block is a unique design, but the central part of the design is actually made from five pieces of matching oxblood/maroon/burgundy fabric. In that regard, it is a fabricated scherenschnitte with seams visible only on close examination. This design has matching, unique green shapes in each of the four corners.

Even though scherenschnitte was prevalent in Pennsylvania quilts of the middle to late 19th century, the influence made its way into other types of quilts, including this album from West Virginia. These two scherenschnitte blocks are also among the most original and unusual designs in the quilt.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

For Sally Bramald

Yesterday, I posted a picture of this quilt, an 1840's Sprigs of Laurel Medallion, on my Facebook page. One of my Facebook and Blogger friends, Sally Bramald from Fleet, Hampshire, UK, was interested in seeing detail pictures of the quilting, so I thought I'd take a quick break from the Album with Lyre and post some pictures for Sally.

This quilt is one of the pieces I plan to show when I speak at the Quilter's Affair in Sisters next summer. I am doing an evening lecture on old quilts, and a classroom talk called "eBay-O-Rama", about the wild world of eBay. The Sprigs of Laurel medallion is one of the most sensational eBay bargains I've ever had. The quilt came from Baltimore, and I won it with a bid of $419! The quilting is really wonderful!!

The outermost white square bar is mostly ferns
The next white square bar toward center is mostly botanical
The botanical quilting is mostly done in double-lines
Another detail of the fern quilting, outer white bar
The outer red bar is chevron-like
Botanical double-line quilting in the circular ring around the center
More detail from the ring around the center, and diamond grid in the red
Detail from the center medallion with sprigs of laurel applique
More detail from the ring around the medallion, there are pencil marks!
More detail from the ring around the medallion
Fern detail from the corner of the outer white square bar
More fern detail from the outer white square bar

More double-line botanical detail from the inner square bar
That's all for now, but I hope you've all enjoyed these pictures. Sally happens to be an extraordinarily good, award-winning machine quilter. I wonder if these designs will inspire her...

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Bird in the Coxcomb...

I was curious about the coxcomb block on the Album with Lyre quilt, so I looked it up on Wikipedia. Here's what the entry said:

Celosia is a small genus of edible and ornamental plants, similar in appearance to amaranths. They are sometimes called cockscombs or woolflowers. The name itself refers to the plant's brilliant appearance and striking flame-like flower heads, which resemble cockscombs, the anatomical part of a male foul. The name "cockscomb" may be restricted to those whose flower heads are crested by fasciation - a condition of plant growth in which the apical meristem, normally concentrated around a single point, producing approximately cylindrical tissue, becomes elongated perpendicularly to the direction of growth, producing flattened, ribbon-like, crested, or elaborately contorted tissue.

Red cockscomb flowers, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In the world of quilts, we commonly see the word spelled as "coxcomb", and the word also refers to the cap of a court jester (obsolete), a foolish, or conceited person or "dandy", and the fleshy red pate of a rooster. It is a recognizable motif in quilts because of the way it is depicted, and is often seen in the red and green quilts of the mid-19th century.

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The block gave me a reason to explore the origins of this well-known proverb, and I learned it refers back to medieval falconry, where a bird in the hand (the falcon) was a valuable asset and certainly worth more than two in the bush (the prey). The earliest citation of the expression in print, in its currently used form, is found in John Ray's "A Hand-book of Proverbs" from 1670.

The block is from the fourth row of the Album with Lyre, far right, and actually faces sideways with the bird in the lower left corner of the block. I've rotated the image for easier viewing. This block is the only one with a bird, or any creature, and it also appears in this quilt's "sister" quilt made by Harriet Small, daughter of Mary Couchman Small. These two quilt makers obviously worked from shared patterns, even though they didn't always do them exactly the same way.

Whenever I look at pictures of the two quilts side-by-side, this block is one of the elements that really jumps out. A bird in the coxcomb may be worth two in the bush, but these two quilts, made by the same family, are priceless.

Five Symmetrical Blocks

Today's blog includes five blocks from the Album with Lyre, and once again, I'm at a bit of a loss as to what to call these blocks. I started looking through the Encyclopedia of Applique by Barbara Brackman. Maybe I will find some leads there, but not much progress to report thus far. 

The five blocks all share something in common. They are all wonderfully symmetrical. The first block (pictured, top) is from the third row, second from the left. The flowers look like lilies, sprouting from an eight-pointed star that also appears to have cactus flowers sprouting from it. This block is another favorite of mine.

The second block is from the top row, second from the left, and looks like a Rose of Sharon wreath. The leaves surrounding the center flower are the same shape as the elements I've called cactus flowers in the first block. This block is actually one of my least favorite. It seems very ordinary compared to many of the other blocks.

The third block is from the second row, second from the right, and is one of the most simple blocks on the quilt. The shapes sprouting from the center flower look like pineapples, but could also be leaves.

The fourth block is also from the second row, far right, and has leaves alternating with a four-pointed oxblood/burgundy/maroon shape that is crowned with cheddar orange. In the center is what I'd call a pinched square in a circle, similar to a cathedral window quilt motif. 

The fifth block is from the fourth row, second from the left, and is four pomegranates sprouting from a flower. The flower looks like a Rose of Sharon without a center disc. Stylistically, the symmetry present in all five blocks seems to connect them, and I love how the echo quilting follows the designs. If any readers have corrections or ideas about what to call these five symmetrical designs, please feel free to comment. Enjoy!!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Lyre

According to Wikipedia, the Lyre is a stringed musical instrument well known for its use in classical antiquity and later. The word comes from the Greek "λύρα" (lyra) and the earliest reference to the word is the Mycenaean Greek ru-ra-ta-e, meaning "lyrists". The lyre of classical antiquity was ordinarily played by being strummed with a plectrum, like a guitar or a zither, rather than being plucked, like a harp. (Thank you, Wikipedia!) Recitations of the ancient Greeks were accompanied by lyre playing. The lyre is also a symbol of wisdom and moderation.

In the mid-19th century, the lyre appeared in Baltimore Album Quilts, often as the center block. I first became familiar with the lyre in high school, when I was co-editor of the literary magazine of the Peddie School in New Jersey. The name of the publication was "Amphion", referring to a Greek mythological character who was the son of Zeus and Antiope, and twin brother of Zethus. Amphion and Zethus are known for fortifying the city of Thebes. According to the tale, Amphion used the music of the lyre to magically guide the stones into place.

The experience of being editor of the Amphion was formative for me. During those two years, I was part of a group that revamped the magazine, evolving it from a very humble publication into an award winner. Many years later I became editor of a magazine and helped create a second magazine, which went out of 50,000 readers. During those years, I always looked back fondly on the experience of being editor of the Amphion. It was the foundation for everything I ever did with publications.

So, when I saw the Album Quilt, the Lyre really spoke to me. It was an image that carried deep meaning in my own life, and was the primary reason why I wanted to buy the quilt. At the time it was for sale, Shelly Zegart had another Sandra Mitchell quilt available, which was accompanied by a story about how Mitchell had bought the quilt on the occasion of her 50th birthday. That gave me my own idea. I bought the Album Quilt as a 40th birthday gift to myself in 2006. 

Here would probably be a good place to mention that I feel it is important, whatever you may collect, that it's something you enjoy and something that speaks to you. I've always viewed quilts primarily as works of art, and less as historic objects documenting cultural and social history. In the case of the Album Quilt, it does all these things, and has introduced me to the importance of quilt history. The quilt had been separated from its history for at least 15 years, if not longer, and reuniting it with that history has been such a wonderful reward!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Whatcha-call-its? or Whirligigs?

I have great respect for people who can identify applique designs - especially those who have a good, working knowledge of botany. Neither area is part of what I can say I know, so I apologize for not knowing what to call these two designs. Whatcha-call-its? or Whirligigs? They do appear to have some things in common, and that's why I've grouped them together in this blog. Both of these designs seem to be based on a botanical eight-pointed star.

The first block (pictured, top) is from the bottom row, second from the right. It is the more elaborate of the two designs. If I'm counting correctly, it includes 30 pieces of fabric. It looks like more, but there is reverse applique involved where the yellow hearts peek through the green leaves. Here's where I know my friend Liz from Sydney, Australia, would say she wants to see a close-up - so here you go, Liz! :)

If you click on the picture and click again to enlarge, you'll see the applique was, indeed, done with colored thread while the quilting was done in white. The green thread appears bluish, but it could have matched the fabric more closely when the quilt was made. The yellow may have faded out of it, or not. The thread used for the oxblood/maroon/burgundy applique is quite a bit lighter than the fabric - almost pink. It, too, may have faded.

The lavender print applique could have been done with lavender thread, but it's really hard to tell. The delicate chain stitch embroidery looks like it could have been done with the same color thread used for the green applique.

The second block (below) is from the second row, far left, and also appears to be based on an eight-pointed botanical star. In both stars, the points seem to be made of leaves. This second design appears to be more simple that the first, but on closer inspection, the level of difficulty is there. All of the cheddar orange details are done as reverse applique, with the cheddar orange colored shapes peeking through the oxblood/maroon/burgundy fabric.

In both block designs, Mary Couchman Small's sewing skills seem far more advanced than those seen in the quilt made by her daughter, Harriet. The two block designs are shared by both quilts, but Harriet's do not include as much of the reverse applique hearts seen in Mary's quilt. As mentioned previously, Mary would've been about 50 years old when the quilts were made, and her daughter, Harriet, would've been about 14. Two more detail shots of the second block design appear below.

It's difficult to pick favorites when looking at all the blocks in this quilt, but these two designs are among my favorites. Both have a sense of movement, particularly the second design, which has directional leaves sprouting from the tips of the stars. It looks like it's spinning, and its exuberant beauty is dizzying. This quilt truly makes my head spin!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

1,000,000 Stitches?

Detail of heart applique - tiny stitches!
I can barely thread a needle, and I'm probably the last person who should be talking about the construction of a masterpiece quilt, or any quilt for that matter. However, I've been asked to show some more details of the applique as well as pictures of the back of the Album with Lyre Medallion, so I'm more than happy to oblige. The first thing you may notice is the tiny stitches. Mary Couchman Small must've had great eyesight, very nimble fingers and a lot of patience!

Back view of the quilt looks like whitework trapunto
The back view of the whole quilt looks very much like a whitework trapunto, or boutis. The whole background is densely quilted at 10-12 stitches per inch, with 1/8th to 1/16th of an inch separating the rows, but there is little to no quilting in the applique.

Back view of Lyre center block and surrounding blocks
As much as I've studied the quilt, I've had a difficult time figuring out if it was quilted in blocks and pieced together afterwards, or if it was pieced first and quilted afterwards. If you click on the detail shots and click again to enlarge, you may see what I mean.

Detail view including the binding, which was rolled from the back
The binding is especially fine. It is 1/16th of an inch in most places, and no wider than 1/8th of an inch at  its widest. This quilt is approximately 93 inches square. I was curious, so I did a little mathematical estimate based on quilt size, amount of quilted area, number of stitches per row, and distance between rows. A very conservative estimate would be approximately 500,000 stitches, but I think there could be 1,000,000 stitches or more. How cool is that?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Be Still My Heart

I feel the love whenever I see this hearts applique block
Today I'm sharing just one block, along with some memories about the Album with Lyre Medallion quilt. The block is all about the hearts, and when I look at it I feel the love that went into this wonderful work of art. The block is in the third row, second from the left, and includes 36 individual hearts plus four heart shapes branching out from the center piece of applique.

The hearts around the outer edge are alternating with two colors: over-dyed green print floral and solid cheddar orange. The larger hearts inside the outer row are oxblood/burgundy, and the center piece is solid cheddar orange. Although I do not have a specific source for the design, it seems like something you might see in Pennsylvania Dutch/German painted furniture. This possible design reference brings me back to the first time I saw the quilt in November, 2001. 

Full view of the quilt, hanging in my loft.
Two months earlier, I was airborne during the terrorist attacks of September 11th, on my way to a convention in Detroit. During the flight, the pilot made an announcement, saying that we were experiencing a national emergency and all airplanes in the United States were being landed. We were somewhere near the California border, and turned around to go back to Portland. Before landing, we would circle the area to burn off some fuel in order to land more safely. When I got out of the plane, I learned what had been happening that day. The convention was cancelled, and eventually rescheduled at a new location in November. That's what brought me to Louisville, Kentucky.

Since I was going to Louisville, I contacted Shelly Zegart to see if she was available for a visit. Shelly sold me my first quilt about 12 years earlier, and we'd been in touch recently about an exhibition of quilts in New York. I was lending two quilts for the exhibition, called Heritage of Genius, which was to be displayed in three of the Durst buildings in midtown Manhattan. Luckily, Shelly had some time, and I visited with her for probably a couple hours at her home.

I had expected to see a lot of quilts that day, but we mostly just talked about quilts. Toward the end of our visit, I asked if I could see some quilts, and she led me to an upstairs guest room to show me the one quilt I would see that day. The quilt was in a box under the bed, and when she pulled it out, the quilt literally knocked me backwards a couple steps. I just about fell over. It was the Album with Lyre Medallion, and it was the most magnificent quilt I'd ever seen. The density of quilting, freshness of the fabrics, the fine binding, and the overall design just knocked my socks off. I loved the quilt!

At the time, the quilt had recently come from the estate of Sandra Mitchell, separated from its family history and misidentified as a Pennsylvania quilt from 1865. I wrote about it in my AQSG Seminar Poster Presentation. When I think about the whole story, the heart block could be one of the reasons why the quilt was identified as coming from Pennsylvania. Speaking of location origins, I wanted to add that although the quilt is attributed as having West Virginia origins, when it was made, that area of West Virginia was actually Virginia. Thank you to Barb Garrett for reminding me about this point.