Saturday, September 19, 2015

Back to School Blog Hop: The Importance of Labels

wouldn't you love to know who made this quilt?
c. 1930s from Ohio

Welcome to the Hunter's Design Studio "Back to School" Blog Hop. This is my stop on the hop, and today's topic is The Importance of Labels.

wholecloth quilt, c. 1760-1800, unknown maker, eastern US

I have collected quilts since 1989. The quilts are mostly antique and vintage, and my collection includes more than 300 quilts made between 1760 and present day. Most of the quilts made before the turn of the 21st century have no labels, and their makers are unidentified.

silk diamonds, c. 1890 - more than 4,500 pieces, maker unknown
Let's stop and think about that for a minute. No labels. Makers unidentified. Something like that could never happen today...or could it?

This magnificent 1920s velvet Fans quilt from New York appeared
on the cover of "American Quilts, The Democratic Art, 1780-2007"
by Robert Shaw (first edition). The maker of the quilt is unknown.

Labels are largely absent from quilts made prior to the late 20th century. Quilts were made primarily for domestic purposes, and mostly made by women. Before the women's liberation movement, it was considered unladylike to be prideful. Taking too much pride in a quilt, even taking credit for it by labeling it, could have seemed unladylike. 

pieced quilt, c. 1800, Rhode Island - maker unknown

Quilts were decorative, utilitarian objects, home furnishings made for comfort and visual appeal. Sometimes they were made for special purposes such as a wedding or dowry. Still, they were not considered works of academic or fine art, such as a painting or sculpture. Academic art was a male-dominated tradition. Much has changed, fortunately!

early 1800s wholecloth quilt - maker unknown
Initials are quilted in to the quilt, but we do not know to whom they belonged

Quiltmakers managed to find subtle ways to include information in early quilts. Dates and initials were quilted in or embroidered, and those were the first signs of a desire to maintain an attribution with quilts.
pieced quilt, c. 1810, New England - maker unknown
the embroidered inscription is difficult to decipher, but it is there
There were also laundry marks, penned, stenciled and stamped ink inscriptions. often very difficult to decipher without supporting details. 

1840s Mariner's Compass, Tilton Family, Burlington County, NJ
The name Araminta Tilton is stamped on the back in ink.
(Don't miss the extremely fine piped binding)

Labeling quilts is common practice today, but before the late 20th century there were very few labels seen on quilts. As quiltmaking evolved to include other types of quilts such as fundraising and commemorative quilts, information in the form of inked or embroidered inscriptions would appear as part of the design.

1931 American Legion Auxiliary Quilt, Salem, Oregon

Some quilts, such as the 1931 American Legion Auxiliary Quilt from Salem, Oregon, included a lot of information in the inscriptions. Even though the quilt did not have a label, it had enough information for thorough research. To read more about this incredible quilt - click here.

a nice, simple example of an embroidered quilt label
There is more than one way to label a quilt, but the best way is whatever is most permanent. Indelible fabric markers can work, although they sometimes fade with repeated washing and exposure to light. Quilting in the information is also good, as long as it is legible. Embroidery is very good, although it can be costly if you do not do it yourself. Most labels are stitched on to the back of the completed quilt, but if you piece the label into the back, it's not going anywhere!

"Oregon July" 2014 by Bill Volckening, quilted by Jolene Knight

In addition to collecting, I sometimes make quilts. "Oregon July" 2014 is my first large quilt, and it represents my story of falling in love with Oregon. Since the quilt was special to me, I wanted a really good label-- but that took some thought because it is a reversible quilt.

The reverse side of "Oregon July"

When preparing the quilt for display, I thought about viewing the quilt from both sides and wanted a label that wouldn't interrupt the picture too much. So, I had a professionally-printed label made. Friends Gail and Gregg Weiss at Phantom Chicken did a wonderful job with it.

If you hang around quilters long enough, you will hear people say, "a quilt is not finished until it has a label on the back." I think I may have heard Sam Hunter say it more than once. :) Many quilters label their work today, but there are still many who do not. It is very important to label quilts, and I hope labeling is a practice all quiltmakers will adopt and maintain.

c. 1860s applique quilt, maker unknown

When I look at old quilts and see all the work that went into them, it is sad not to have any information about the origins, other than what we can glean from the quilt's attributes. Labeling your quilt is an opportunity to give a shout-out to friends, family and even quilt historians in the future. So put a label on it, and keep your quilt's story alive!


Thank you, Sam Hunter for including me in this wonderful blog hop. Next up, (Sept 20): 

Jessica Darling of Jessica Darling – How to Make a Quilt Back.


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on labels. The quilt you made and the quilting are beautiful.

  2. Yep, labels are a big deal. I hope more quilters will put a note on their work no matter what the quilt's purpose is!

  3. If we label all our quilts, what will future quilt historians research? (Asked only half in jest)

    1. I actually have thought about that, and I think researchers would take the information and seek to learn more about the quiltmakers, their families, and where they lived. It would be biographical, genealogical and even geographic research; as opposed to sleuthing textile characteristics and methods of construction like we often do today with unidentified quilts.

  4. What a shame no labels. I love reading a quilts label and reading the storey about the quilt. (Who is is make for or design etc) Even better when there is a real storey.

  5. After my grandma died I wrote her name and my estimated date of the quilts completion on the back of all her unlabelled quilts. It hurt to think that her work might become more anonymous quilts.

  6. While I have affixed a label to the quilt that my great-grandmother made - I prefer my quilts to be unlabeled.

    I've labeled a few gift quilts, but my keepers are unlabeled.

  7. I have to start doing this more. I have labels, I just don't use them all the time. Thanks for the reminder.
    I enjoyed your post in our blog hop!