Saturday, January 28, 2017

Alternative Facts: Scraps in Quilts (part 2)

detail of Achsah Goodwin Wilkins applique counterpane
from Colonial Williamsburg
The origins of quiltmaking in the United States were remarkably less humble than you might think. Colonists brought European traditions, and the families producing the elegant, decorative objects were the ones with the money for materials and the time to create.

scrappy nine-patch quilt top, c. 1830, New York
Alternative facts might suggest otherwise, but the familiar, scrappy style associated with American quiltmaking tradition was not an early form. It took time to develop, and the function of quilts took time to evolve. Once there was a source of scraps there were scrap quilts. They typically appeared after the rise of the textile and garment industries. But before there could be a tradition of scrap quilts in America, many mills would open, domestic fabrics would replace costly imports, and garment making would flourish.
velvet crazy quilt, c. 1900, New York
Along with scrap quilts came improvisational style, a topic I wrote about in the 2016 edition of QuiltCon Magazine. Since then, I have connected a few more dots. The success of Gee's Bend over the last 15 years triggered a lot of unvetted ideas. Improvisational style in quilts was hastily attributed to African design, and suddenly anonymous quilts were designated as African-American because of their style. The most compelling alternative facts skillfully blend fact and fiction.

Bible Story, Lucy Mingo, 1979, Gee's Bend, Alabama
The thing is, improvisational quiltmaking style as we know it evolved from an elegant branch of quiltmaking tradition-- crazy quilts. The design influence came from Japan -- not Africa -- and it was strongly impacted by British preferences.
wool crazy quilt, c. 1900, United States
The Japanese and British decorative arts displays at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 first sparked an interest in asymmetrical design. Crazy quilts then emerged as a distinct style of patchwork, notably predating Cubism in painting by a quarter century. 

cotton crazy quilt, Nell Breyton, New York, c. 1900
Initially, crazy quilts were highly embellished, silk, satin and velvet patchwork display pieces with fancy, decorative handwork. The quilts were draped over furniture in the front parlors of stylish Victorian homes. Other fabrics were eventually included, such as wool and cotton. As the style evolved, fewer fancy parlor quilts and more casual bed quilts were made. The divergent styles had one thing in common. The shapes of the scraps influenced the design. 

scrappy block quilt top, c. 1910, United States
Rectangular, triangular and trapezoidal scraps were randomly pieced together in the improvisational quilts that followed the Victorian period. In these quilts, ordinary materials and stark modernism took the place of precious fabrics and ornate detail work. Quilts soon appeared with even more distinct shapes made with sleeve, leg, collar and cuff cutaways from garment making. 

scrap quilt, wools, unkown maker, Maryland, c. 1910
The connection between improvisational style and scraps was seldom more pronounced than it was in Hawaii through the middle to late 20th century. The prolific period of Hawaiian scrap quilts was far removed from movements in other places. but the discovery of the tradition provided some valuable insights into how scrap quilts appeared and evolved elsewhere.
scrap quilt, mixed fabrics, unknown maker, Hawaii, c. 1975
In Hawaii and in other parts of the world where quilts were made, all roads led back to the sources of scraps. Industrialization gave birth to those sources, and the shapes of scraps influenced design as much as the diverse populations creating the quilts. The general evolution from fancy to casual is especially intriguing considering all the alternative facts.

There are many more instances of alternative facts in the historical accounts of quiltmaking, and I look forward to blogging about some of those topics in the future. Thanks for reading! 


  1. Absolutely fascinating! Thanks for sharing your alternative facts!

  2. Can you tell us anything about the origins of the blue and white "scrappy block quilt top c. 1910"? Is it a part of your personal collection? I'd love to know more about this one. Thanks for sharing these!

  3. Right on, the British were up and running with crazy quilting and improv before we were a nation. (Another name for improv is making do.)
    Thanks for sharing,