American history stitches in to tapestry

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 28, 2004

It’s been said quilts are a reflection of the life and times of the women who made them. The technique used in quilting has been around for ages – for example, quilted items have been discovered in Egyptian tombs – but quilts as we know them didn’t appear on the American horizon until just prior to the 19th century.

In colonial America, needles and thread were very costly. The cotton gin wasn’t invented until 1793, so most of the materials used in clothing consisted of linens, silks and wools. Quilted petticoats were worn for warmth prior to 1800, and you would sometimes find quilts made from such petticoats, or from bed curtains. Most quilts from that period, however, were made from wool.

Did you think all early American quilts were made from worn clothing?

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Not true, say historians. &uot;While this was sometimes the case, it was far more likely a quilt would be made of fabric purchased specifically for that purpose, possibly to match bed curtains,&uot; says Kris Dreissen of Hickory Hill Antique Quilts.

A luxury for the rich

Early quilts might also use fabric left over after making clothes. While some women were weaving their own fabrics in the early 1800s, it took great time and energy to produce handwoven goods – and it wasn’t something they were likely to put into a luxury item such as a quilt.

&uot;Generally, quilts were the domain of more well-to-do Americans along the Eastern Seaboard, who could both afford and have access to a great variety of fabrics brought in by ship,&uot; says Dreissen. Many of the early American quilts still in existence today were made of imported fabric or have some imported fabric with American goods.

Early American quilts were often quite large (120 inches by 120 inches) and  &uot;whole cloth&uot; (quilts of whole panels), such as the Tree of Life.

Trapunto (stuffed work) quilts were made until the 1840s, when their popularity waned. Some quilt edges were finished with a fringe and fabrics glazed with egg whites or honey were quite popular.

Glorious colors

&uot;The colors were glorious,&uot; Dreissen says. The dye process was a long and involved one. Home dyes using bark, onionskin and nutshells were used to create browns, yellows and greens, but their use wasn’t as common as many think.  Reliable commercial dyes were readily available by the mid-19th century.

Green, however, proved a &uot;fugitive&uot; color – one that often washed out. In the early 1800s, green was made by over-dying yellow with blue. Later in the century, the process was reversed. Many appliqu\u00E9d quilts of that time that now possess leaves of blue or tan may have very well once had green leaves.

Purple, another fugitive color, was made with lichens and seashells. Walnut hulls, hickory nut hulls, clay or wood chips made brown. Sumac, birch, iron and oak made black. Indigo (a deep blue) and turkey red proved very reliable dyes.

By the mid-1800s, more elaborate appliqu\u00E9d quilts were being made. In fact,  women could purchase fabric specifically made to be cut out and appliqu\u00E9d. Colors were bright and varied, and quilts were large as ever, though they grew slightly smaller as the century progressed.

Wartime quilts

The Civil War and its aftermath brought many changes for the American woman, and, therefore, brought changes for the American quilt.

Quilts were used as bedding for soldiers – and shrouds for those soldiers who were killed. They were used to smuggle messages and supplies through enemy lines. It is even believed by some historians quilts were used to direct escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.

The quilts that made it back home were usually in terrible condition. Those salvaged from the era were usually either rescued by the families of soldiers who retrieved them from encampments, or purchased them from soldiers who were using them as a common blanket. Others were looted from southern plantations.

Due to the inevitable shortages caused by war, this is the period in which, for the first time, many quilts were being made from discarded clothing

While silk prices had come down, it was not a useful fabric for most women during those difficult war years.

&uot;The silk quilts popular during this period were probably made more out of sentiment and a need to keep busy while the men folk were away,&uot; says Dreissen.

A somber time

Post Civil War quilts took on a more somber aspect as so many women had lost their sons and husbands in the war. Mourning prints (Shaker Greys) become more popular during this time.

Stripes and plaids were used, as well as textured fabrics, shirtings and silks.

As manufacturers made an effort to keep up post-war production, there was a veritable explosion of reasonably priced, colorfast cotton goods. Quilts became more utilitarian and appliqu\u00E9s became a rarity.

Craziness reigns

As life improved, women found themselves with more time to spend on the needle arts once again. &uot;Crazy quilts&uot;, made of silk and satin and heavily embellished with beads, embroidery, ribbons and hand-painted blocks, become very popular. &uot;Impractical&uot; silk, satin and velvet quilts were made using traditional patterns, like the log cabin.

By the earliest 20th century prints were getting lighter and cheerier. Germany’s high-quality aniline dye formulas – part of their war tribute for WW I – gave American quilts more depth of color. Quilt kits became popular during the Great Depression, and most of the quilts made during that time were Double Wedding Rings, Dresden Plates, Grandma’s Floral

Gardens, Floral Appliques and Sunbonnet Sues.

As another war came and goods were in short supply once more, American women again found themselves forced to be resourceful and ingenious.

New quilts were made out of old tops and printed feedsacks (also called feedbags, textile bags and &uot;chicken linen&uot;). Once the flour, salt, sugar or other foodstuffs were used up, the cloth bag was recycled (years before that word was the &uot;in&uot; thing) into garments, quilts and household items.

Once the war ended, the interest in handmade items waned. Women were joining the workforce in unprecedented numbers and there was no time to make bedding, especially now they could afford to simply go out and buy it. It seems quilts were associated were harder, poorer times many would rather forget.

In the late 1970s, as the nation celebrated its bicentennial, a renewed interest was seen in quilting. Today there are numerous quilting circles at senior centers across the nation, including several in the Butler County area. Many of the old patterns like the Log Cabin and Wedding Ring once again grace bedrooms and hang on walls in newly created quilts.

Quilts – decorative, practical, a sentimental tie to our past and a true American art form  – are once more in demand.