Tuesday, May 10, 2016

1950s Tumblers

This wonderful, scrappy, 1950s Tumblers quilt came from a seller in Carlsbad, California. In the description, she said,

"My grandmother lived in Ohio. I spent the summers visiting her. She was always sewing something and keeping all the scraps she had left over. When she had a enough extra material in her basket, she would sit down and fashion a quilt with the leftovers. The result was this beautiful, colorful piece of art. I cherish it, but now it is time to share it with you."

The quilt is tied, approximately 73" x 80" with a wide variety of fabrics, and it is backed with a pretty floral print fabric. The backing is brought to the front for binding on two edges, and the other two edges are finished with a "knife edge" or "pillow edge" finish.

I am very intrigued with the quilts of the 1950s right now, partly because I don't see them for sale often, but also because I recognize the mid-century design influences in today's quilts. We haven't heard much about the 1950s in quilt history circles until recently, when Roderick Kiracofe's book "Unconventional and Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950-2000" introduced the tradition of offbeat and improvisational quilts in the period. It is a wonderful book, and it is also the tip of the iceberg.

In the 1930s and 1940s, quiltmaking reached a height of popularity. In the 50s, fewer publications printed patterns, crafts catalogues had fewer quilt projects, the textile industry was beginning a big shift toward polyester production, and there was a sharp increase in mass-produced bedding such as chenille, hobnail and matelassé woven spreads. The increased production of reasonably priced, mass-produced bedding had everything to do with a strong economy in post WWII America, and it helps explain the decline in people making quilts.

I have a friend who buys and sells hundreds of these mass-produced bedspreads, and her knowledge of them is encyclopedic, so I asked her. She also observed a sharp increase in the mass-produced items around 1950, post WWII. I keep begging her to write a book on the subject. She guided me to vintage catalogues from Sears and other companies. I am eager to see more of these materials. They will help determine when the increase in mass-produced bedding occurred, and how it unfolded.

My other reason for being interested in the handmade quilts of the 1950s relates to vintage design and how it influences what people make today. Mid-century design informs the work of 21st century quiltmakers, but the 1950s period has not been thoroughly explored by historians. We don't have a complete picture of the quilts of the period, even though we are making quilts derivative of the period style. In my mind, that makes the 1950s a period ripe for exploration right now.

I sent a note to the seller of the Tumblers quilt, asking for more information about her grandmother. She replied, letting me know her daughter, who is an archivist, is gathering more information for me. Score! Usually when I request this type of information, people are pleased to share it. As a bonus, there may be another quilt available from the same maker. Talk about the beauty of reaching out. I will be sure to post an update when I have more details.


  1. Very interesting! Lovely quilt too. Hope you get and share more information with us

  2. How many women, who quilted when young, entered the work force during WWII and never quilted again? It would begin a distillation of quilting, down from utilitarian and towards passion and self expression. I am the first quilter in my family since 1935, and I do it purely for love, never for need. Mid-century quilts are an interesting topic and ripe for exploration. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Very good points...excellent!! There were so many factors influencing what happened with quilts through the 50s.

  3. Stunning quilt! Thank you for sharing!

  4. I'm so glad you're collecting the 50's era quilts. I was born in 1955, and my mother trashed the quilts that were handed down from my great-grandmothers. I imagine respect for quilts was at an all-time low, as we were becoming "modern" in the 50's and 60's. Those fabrics are my favorites, reminiscent of things we boomers saw as youngsters.

  5. I have a quilt and a baby quilt made by my grandmother and great grandmother in the later 1960's. Yes they are real scrap quilts and tied. I did not know how to care for them so they are lumpy. Still lovely to me. My grandmother was a WW1 wife and widow in 1953 I think. People in the town gave them their scraps and she did dress making also. She did make quilts for warmth in Michigan. Being in Texas I didn't need them as much. But my daughter for two years would sleep anywhere as long as she had her quilt. My grandmother made quilts over her life time and tied them on a frame lowered from the ceiling.

  6. You have some wonderful quilts in your collection.