Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"...but where are the quilts?"

This gray and white Ocean Waves, c. 1890, is the only
pre-1900 gray and white quilt I have ever owned.
No information came with the quilt
Today I received a question about mourning quilts. Was there a tradition of black and white, or gray and white mourning quilts? The quick answer is "no," there is no evidence to support a widespread tradition of two-color mourning quilts. There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but I have another way of answering the question. If there was a known tradition of antique, two-color, black and white or gray and white mourning quilts, they would already be collected to death.

exploring mid-century modern design: a 1974 quilt by Barb McKie
The interest in mid-century modern design and optical art would make antique black and white quilts hugely popular. However, in my travels very few antique black and white or gray and white quilts surfaced. If they had, I probably would've bought them all! Black and white is such an ideal expression of modernism, an aspect of quiltmaking I always appreciated.

At one time I owned a gray and white "Ocean Waves" quilt. It was the only time I'd ever owned an antique quilt in either gray and white or black and white. Currently the two black and white quilts in my collection are "Interacting Pyramids" 1974, by Barbara McKie, and "Spirit of Forgiveness" 2014, by Carolyn Mazloomi. Neither is described specifically as a mourning quilt, although Mazloomi's quilt does tell a story inclusive of death and mourning.

lit from behind, this all white quilt includes a symbol
of mourning and rebirth -- the willow tree
Mourning quilts are certainly known to exist, but they tend to be individual, personal expressions of grief rather than trends. I do not recall seeing a mourning quilt made in black and white. Two all-white wholecloth quilts in my collection have large willow trees in the center. The tree is a symbol of mourning, as well as rejuvenation and rebirth. So, they could really be dowry quilts as easily as mourning quilts.

I cannot be certain any of the quilts I have ever owned were truly intended as mourning quilts, but one quilt came with such a sad story, it essentially was a mourning quilt.

Anna Showalter Trissel made this quilt around 1880
in Rockingham County, Virginia
It was a red, white and blue Irish Chain made by Anna Showalter Trissel in the 1880s. Trissel was widowed when her youngest son, David, was three years old. She died two years later, when David was five. Before her death, she made this quilt for her young son. David grew up and married Lily Hess. He died eight months later. Lily was remarried to David's brother, John Trissel, in 1910. They gave this quilt to their daughter, Iva, the second of six children. 

Wow, that's quite a story! It was published in “A Treasury of Mennonite Quilts” by Rachel and Kenneth Pellman. I sold the quilt through Latimer Quilt & Textile Center a couple years ago, but made sure a copy of the book went with it. 

I was curious, so I did a quick search of eBay for "black white antique quilt" and the search produced just one item, a quilt top. If that doesn't say it all, what does? eBay is by far the largest marketplace for antique and vintage quilts in the world.

So, that's my take on the idea of antique, two-color, black and white or gray and white mourning quilts. They weren't "a thing" -- because if they were, they'd really be a thing among collectors. If you ever hear someone talking about quilt history and you're not sure if what they're saying is true, there's a simple way to respond. Ask, "...but where are the quilts?" Either you will get a good answer or not. Most likely you'll get a blank stare.


  1. I am working on a family tree quilt and was doing some research on my husband's side, trying to confirm the maiden name for Anna Trissel, which I suspected was Showalter. What a pleasant surprise to see your posting and a quilt that she made. I've ordered a copy of the book so we can learn more about that part of the family history!

    1. I sold the quilt several years ago through Latimer Quilt & Textile Center in Tillamook, Oregon. I'm sorry I do not know the identity of the buyer, but they were aware of the story of the quilt in the book, so the family history is still somewhere with the quilt.