Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Dating Game: Quilts and Color

One way to understand American quilt history is to understand color. There was always color in quiltmaking, but the fabrics and colors evolved.

a late 18th century wool wholecloth quilt from New England

Colors often faded or changed over time. This late 18th century wholecloth wool quilt from New England was originally red, but eventually faded to brown. Brick red is evident on the underside of the top fabric, seen through a small hole in the quilt, and in the quilting thread. It could have been a brighter, more vibrant red originally.

mid-19th century, red, white and green applique quilt with orange and pink

When I first started collecting quilts almost 30 years ago, I wanted a red, white and green quilt. For some reason, I believed a quilt had to be made with those colors to be old. There was some truth to the idea. In the middle 19th century, many red, white and green quilts were made, often with hints of double pink and cheddar orange. The colors were on trend.

an 1870s tan and white pieced quilt
Sometimes an odd-looking tan color appears in old quilts. There is much debate about what color the tan may have been, but almost universal agreement that it is a "fugitive" dye, or a dye that changed significantly over time. We see a lot of quilts with this color made in the second half of the 19th century.

Victorian period jewel tones in silk

In the Victorian period, there are many dark, rich jewel tone fabrics, especially silks, satins and velvets. Silk was sometimes sold by weight, and dyes included metals which corroded and caused significant fabric deterioration. That is why Victorian crazy quilts often have shredded silks in poor condition.

soft colors in hard times, a Depression era quilt

When you see an old quilt with pastel, "Easter egg" colors, it could be from the Great Depression era. In such difficult times, it is interesting how quiltmakers often chose the most cheerful colors.

bright, saturated polyester, pure 1970s!
If you see a quilt with bright, saturated, unfaded color-- particularly if it is made of polyester-- it could be from the third quarter of the 20th century; and there's a good chance it was made in the 1970s or 1980s, when polyester was one of the most widely available fabrics.

Quiltmakers freely experimented with color, and the solution-dyed polyester resisted fading. It was the first generation of quilts that were virtually the same colors as when they were first made.

Color is one of many clues historians will use to determine the dates of old quilts. We also look at methods of construction, finishing details, and patina or signs of age. Of course, there are sometimes comparable examples with inscriptions to help us verify dates. Quilts have a tendency to say exactly what they are. That is why it's such a pleasure to work with old quilts.

1 comment:

  1. love the simple (and easy to remember) things you mentioned about these quilts.