Monday, August 26, 2013

Let the Sun Shine In

QUESTION: I recently purchased a very thin summer quilt with a sunburst pattern. It really brightens up my day to see the sun spread out on my bed. How did women come up with patterns like this? Do you have any idea of how old it might be?

ANSWER: Patterned quilts have been around for a long time. While some appeared in Colonial times, the peak time for pattern quilts was the latter half of the 19th century. Amish women still meticulously hand-sew them, both for home use and for sale to tourists. Most quilts take hundreds of hours of work, so they’re priced rather high. Although some individuals did make the older ones, the most intricate ones were the result of a group of women sewing together in what became known as a “quilting bee.” This not only produced a quilt but provided a time for socializing and exchanging news and gossip. Yours looks to have been made by an individual, perhaps in the early 20th century.

During the years between the American Revolution and the beginning of the westward migration, bedcovers blossomed with cotton cutouts salvaged from leftover bits of expensive European chintz. Women carefully snipped around the bird and floral motifs of the imported chintzes and appliqu├ęd them on fields of plain domestic cloth to make the most of the patterned fabric available to them. Known as patchwork quilts, these served a practical purpose—to keep people warm in bed at night.

But it was during the years of the westward journey, from 1840 to 1870, that women stitched the majority of patchwork quilts. As families moved west, fabric became scarce, so women creatively used what they had. While their Colonial forebearers used bits of leftover fabric, pioneer women also used pieces of old clothing and household linens. They stitched these scraps together in designated patterns with some pretty folksy names—the Hole in the Barn Door, Rocky Mountain Puzzle, Log Cabin, Galaxy of Stars, and hundreds of others that reflected the joys and sorrows of pioneer women’s lives. Only rarely did quilters use new pieces of cloth.

Another type of quilt popular at the time was the crazy quilt, a seemingly wild pattern made more coherent by a series of straight seams. Because of a lack of space and quilting supplies, individual pioneer women often assembled lap-sized quilts suitable for throwing over the legs when riding in a wagon or carriage in cold weather.

The dust on the westward movement slowly settled as howling locomotives took the place of the swaying Conestoga. Hastily thrown up shanties made way for gingerbread mansions filled to the rafters with sumptuous furnishings and awash with a rainbow of brilliant colors. The quilts of the late 1800s illustrate the extravagance of the Victorian age. In fact, the quilts that most typify those years when Victoria last reigned in England aren’t really quilts at all, but thin parlor throws meant to thrill the eye—not warm the body. At home on the tabletops, sofa arms, and piano backs of overstuffed parlors, these throws had neither quilting nor batting. Yet, in their own splashy way, they are as much masterworks of American stitchery as their pioneer predecessors.

Pieced from the best silks, satins, and velvets—materials newly available to the growing middle class—the patchwork throws of this era are rich mosaics of color and texture, emphasizing proficiency in embroidery and the mastering of different types of stitches. Women's magazines of the day printed detailed embroidery instructions for anyone to follow.

In an unprecedented outpouring of sentimentality, Victorian quilters filled their work with bits and pieces of their personal past: Father's vest pocket, lace from a wedding veil, ribbons commemorating political events or visits to faraway lands.

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