Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Polyester in American Quilts

Polyester is an important part of American quiltmaking tradition. It was one of the most widely available fabrics during the great American quiltmaking revival of the 1970s, and the legacy of quilts is truly remarkable. 

The polyester formula originated in the writings of Wallace Carothers of DuPont, who is also credited with the invention of nylon in 1935. Carothers worked with a team of chemists around 1930, experimenting with the earliest form of polyester.

At the time, DuPont chose to concentrate on Nylon research. By 1945, British chemical company Imperial Chemical Industries patented Terelene polyester, known in the U.S. as Dacron. DuPont purchased the U.S. rights for further development, and later opened plants in Delaware and North Carolina to produce Dacron.

In 1951, DuPont showed a suit made of Dacron to a group of reporters in New York. The suit was worn for more than two months without being pressed. It was dunked in a swimming pool, machine-washed and surprisingly was still wearable. The fabric was wrinkle resistant and did not stretch or pucker when washed. Dacron was touted as a wonder fiber. 

Polyester double knit garments were available by 1960, and solution dyed fabrics, also known as dope dyed or spun dyed fabrics, were introduced to polyester production in 1962. In the solution dyeing process, the pigment becomes part of the fiber and the resulting fabric has excellent colorfastness.

By the 1970s, the popularity of polyester double knit garments began to decline as cottons were becoming more widely available. Quilting cottons were still scarce, and calico print fabrics used for making clothing started to appear in quilts. However, the growing interest in quiltmaking inspired people to make quilts out of what was available— polyester double knit.

DayGlo fabric was another technical innovation of the period. History from the DayGlo Color Corporation explains the origins and development of the intense, glowing colors. In the 1930s, Bob and Joe Switzer, sons of a California pharmacist, began experimentation with colors that would glow under ultraviolet or black light. By 1940, they were working on new colors that glowed in daylight. 

During the World War II era, DayGlo had military applications, such as signaling aircraft from the ground, ocean buoys and night missions. After the war, there were many more uses for DayGlo color. 

“As the chemistry and manufacturing process improved, the areas of application expanded,” according to the DayGlo Color Corporation history. “Advertising, safety and promotional firms began to recognize the uniqueness ofto recognize the uniqueness of these bright colors and specified their use.” The trademarked name DayGlo caught on, and in the late 1960s, the company officially changed its name from Switzer Brothers, to DayGlo Color Corporation.

Students of American quilt history cannot deny the importance of polyester, particularly during the 1970s. Now that the period is nearly half a century in the past, it is time to bring out the quilts, study and celebrate them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Quilt Show

Last weekend I was in Colorado to tape two segments about antique and vintage quilts for The Quilt Show with Alex Anderson and Ricky Tims.

The two segments featured quilts from my collection-- elegant, old applique quilts and modern looking antique and vintage pieced quilts.

My fiance Linda accompanied me on the journey. It was our first time sharing a quilt-related travel experience, and we had a blast. We loved meeting everyone, and hope to return again in the future. Many thanks to all the fine folks involved with The Quilt Show, and of course the enthusiastic audience. As soon as I know when the two shows will air, I will make sure to announce the dates here. Stay tuned...

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Circa Dating Old Quilts

At Spring Quilt Market in Portland earlier this year, Karey Bresenhan of Quilts, Inc., asked how I determined the dates of old quilts. The question got me thinking about the significant number of people involved with quiltmaking in America who did not know how to date quilts. So, I thought I'd write about it.

"Circa" is a Latin word meaning 'about, around or approximately' and circa dating is a method of determining an educated approximate range of dates. Typically, a circa date will list one year but encompass the period of ten years before and after the date, a 20-year range. For example, a circa date of 1860 would encompass the period from 1850 to 1870 with 1860 being the median.

My first suggestion is to become familiar with a few good books. "Clues in the Calico: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Antique Quilts" by Barbara Brackman is a good starting place. The book presents a system for dating heirloom quilts based on five characteristics-- fabric, style, color, technique and pattern.

"Clues in the Calico" offers good methods for evaluating old quilts, but when it comes to hands-on, practical application you will want copies of "Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide, 1800-1960" and "Dating Fabrics: A Color Guide, 1950-2000" by Eileen Trestain. The books include images of fabric swatches by period, as well as descriptions of the fabrics throughout history. Since a quilt can only be as old as its newest fabric, the comparable examples are especially helpful for quilt dating.

Two other books used frequently in quilt dating and documentation are the "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" and "Encyclopedia of Appliqué" by Barbara Brackman. Both books include numerous illustrations of quilt block designs and published sources when available.

When using these books, it is important to keep in mind where the information originated. In the "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" the published sources date mostly from the 1890s and later, which presents some challenges when it comes to applying the information to quilts made before 1890. If you want to get the most out of the book, read the references in the back.

The "Encyclopedia of Appliqué" includes more references to individual quilts, such as examples in museum collections. It documents the designs as well as the names assigned to them. Similar to the "Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns" it does not serve as a document of what makers called their designs, although it can help with dating when looking at comparable designs.

Beyond these essentials, it is helpful to learn where other specific information can be found or which experts to ask. Recently I purchased a late 18th century quilt with two fabrics found in the "Printed Textiles" books from Winterthur. A friend and fellow collector led me to the information on one fabric and I found the other one when looking through the books.

Over the years researching individual quilts in my collection, it seemed like every conversation with a fellow quilt lover led me to purchase more books. I ended up with a large reference library, and it comes in handy each time I find an old, unidentified quilt. So, to make a long answer short, the quilts tell me how old they are, and I know what they are saying because I did my homework. That's all you have to do if you are interested in circa dating old quilts.