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.


  1. Great post! You really have done your homework. I marvel at how your brain can remember so much and am grateful for all that you share! I label my quilts. . .not that any would end up being old!!!

  2. Thank you Bill for sharing this! I now know what books are missing from my quilt book library!

  3. You have inspired me to put my "ref" quilt books together on one or two shelves instead of all over the house. Thanks