Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Monday, February 12, 2018

Selling Patchwork Patterns: A Fancy Repository

Women selling needlework in the New Jersey booth at an 1864 
fundraising fair in New York City

Some questions this blog hopes to answer:

1. How long have people been selling patchwork patterns?
2. How long have people been selling quilt kits?
3. How long have women been making a living supplying needleworkers?

The answers are probably all the same: As long as people have been stitching patchwork and quilts.

A reference to buying a paper quilt pattern in 1835 from a Delaware woman:

Phoebe bought her pattern card at a charity bazaaar, a typical place (then and now)
for women to exchange needlework.

The Empty Purse by James Collinson, about 1850. 
Tate Museum Collection.
Painting with a moral of an English woman at a church fair at St. Bride's Church in Lonodn.

St. Bride's

Being a Pre-Rafaelite, Collinson painted everything
in great detail. Notice the ball pincushion.

It's hard to figure out Collinson's moral but we get a view of the kinds of needlework and paper items available at charity fairs on either side of the Atlantic. 

Patterns also were available from commercial establishments in London. One entrepreneur was  Emma Elizabeth Keytes Wilcockson (1829-1871) who operated a Fancy Repository with her husband Herbert near Tottenham Court Road in the 1850s &  '60s. Her primary business seems to have been marking for embroidery. By 1856 she noted: " I have issued from my establishment upwards of 60,000 square yards of traced and perforated muslin for embroidery.” 

Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine April, 1865
Dagmar Star (perhaps named for Princess 
Alexandra's sister who
married the heir to the Russian throne in 1866)

Mrs. Wilcockson also sold patterns for patchwork.  
A feature in an 1865 ladies' magazine showing the Dagmar Star advised readers:
"Mrs. Wilcockson....supplies pieces of patchwork arranged in this pattern, as well as pieces of stiff paper or cardboard ready cut, and silk for completing the work. The pieces may be obtained at her establishment."


You could buy a pre-cut kit for the star or paper templates with silk to cut yourself.

The neighborhood on Tottenham Court Road. 
The shop was at 44 Goodge Street and later 46, both buildings gone.

If you could not drop by Emma would "send you the pattern for a trifle."

Emma and Herbert Wilcockson's Fancy Repository was an all-purpose needlework shop selling fabric, thread, marked patterns for embroidery, kits for making what-nots and  knicknacks ("smoking caps with the leaves cut out and gummed on the cloth ready for working")

An 1860 advertisement for a free catalog.
She featured "Initial Letters in Twenty Different Styles" to embroider here.


Typical published embroidery pattern

Emma explained how to use her paper patterns:
"Trace your pattern on tissue paper. Ink over the design, and when dry tack the paper on the material ...when finished tear the paper away. "
Husband Herbert (1827-?) was a solicitor, a printer and a publisher. While working as a lawyer he was also proprietor of the Repository, although this may have been a legal nicety and Emma was the actual proprietor. In 1857 she published a book Embroidery: Its History, Beauty, and Utility: With plain instructions to learners (Darton & Company, Holborn Hill)I haven't been able to find a digital copy of this book or her catalogs.

1861 ad in Mrs. Beeton's magazine on household management.

Emma Wilcockson was skillful at using print to promote her pattern business. She had regular features in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine and advertisements (hard to distinguish between the two) in other periodicals.
"Ladies and the Trade supplied with the Newest Designs. Better Materials than any other House, at Mrs. Wilcockson's, 44, Goodge-street, Tottenham-Court-road, London"
Emma and Herbert had five children to support. Annie, Frank (born about 1856) and Ernest are three of them.

The Sandringham Patchwork Pattern,
published by the Domestic Magazine in 1863.
Sandringham was the home of the Prince of Wales &
Alexandra who married in 1863.

 20th-century Pennsylvania version of 
Sandringham in velvet from Stella Rubin's shop

Many of you readers know how hard it is to run a needlework business and the Wilcocksons had financial difficulties. Herbert declared bankruptcy (twice as far as I can tell, in 1862 and 1867---or the process dragged on for five years.)

"Herbert Wilcockson...Printer, Manager of the business of a Printer, and
Dealer in Berlin Wool and Fancy Goods...has been adjudged bankrupt."

Unfulfilled orders had been piling up. 

In 1866 the Domestic Magazine announced they were severing their connection with Emma Wilcockson due to "numerous complaints."

Like the Wilcocksons,  Domestic Magazine publishers Samuel & 
Isabella Beeton were a husband/wife publishing team, but far more successful. 
Their Domestic Magazine published patterns for clothing and
 fancy work from 1856 to 1879.

Emma is found in the 1871 British census. She apparently died that year at 42. I'd like to know more about her and her Fancy Repository. And: 
Were there similar establishments in the U.S. in the 1860s? 

A Fancy Repository in Durham, England about 1905.
Needlework in the right hand window.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Quilt Marking for Hire

Stuffed work quilting, mid-19th century

We can break down quiltmaking tasks into many steps - the basic two are patchwork and quilting. Within each are subcategories such as quilt marking.

Wholecloth quilt, collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Wool on one side, cotton on the other.

Marking the quilting design is particularly important in wholecloth quilts in which the quilting is the major decorative technique. These quilts are marked with the all-over designs before they are basted and put in the quilt frame.
Esther Wheat's wholecloth quilt in the collection of the 
Smithsonian Institution

Wholecloth quilt 1790-1810, New England,
Collection of the  International Quilt Study Center & Museum
#2006-007-0001

The quilting designs are difficult to photograph.

Linda Baumgarten's drawing of quilt 
#2006-007-0001

But Linda Baumgarten has been drawing the patterns in wholecloth quilts using a computer-assisted-drawing program, revealing the complexity of the designs.

Quilt marking was also a drawing skill. And as we shall see in this blog every part of quiltmaking had a commercial value. 

In 1822 Sarah Snell "Went to Mrs. Briggses to draw a feather on a bed quilt."
She may have drawn feathers as a favor or in trade but it is also
possible she was paid for her art.

Wholecloth wool quilt date inscribed 1833. One of the
latest of these popular New England style bedcovers that I have seen.



Mrs. Littleford would "draw for work in the most elegant patterns"
in Lexington in 1817. She'd mark a bed quilt (coverlet) or a toilette.

Early 19th century Toilette from Stella Rubins's shop

We might call a toilette a quilted dresser scarf.
These were quite the fashion in the first quarter of the 19th century.

Whitework bedquilts survive with dates throughout the 19th century
(and into our own times). 

Wholecloth white cotton quilt date-inscribed 1849 by Elspeth Duigan.
Collection of the Smithsonian Institution
americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_556177

Elspeth's quilt is charming but not what one might term skillfully drawn. She probably marked it herself or with the help of friends and they might have marked it in the frame as they quilted it.

Recent Mennonite whole-cloth quilt from Ephrata, Pennsylvania

When we worked on the Kansas Quilt Project in the 1980s we learned much about quilt marking as a marketable skill. Sara Reimer Farley's chapter in our book Kansas Quilts & Quilters describes a family of Mennonite quiltmakers who worked together on wholecloth quilts, which were sold.

Helena Peters Ewert (1881-1962) lived in Hillsboro, Kansas. With an ill husband she quilted about 100 wholecloth plain-colored quilts for diversion and for sale. She quilted by herself. "Since she was being paid she was obligated to provide a consistently fine piece of work." Stepdaughter Marie Ewers Regier (1899-1982) who was only about ten years younger than Helena was the quilt marker in the partnership.


Sara Farley described Marie's marking process. She made a homemade light table by opening her dining room table and putting a piece of glass where the table leaf would go. A lamp under the table provided the tracing light. "Working in her spare time, Marie could mark a full size quilt in two weeks."

Anna Calem was another woman in the Hillsboro partnership. She hemstitched the quilt edges before Maria Peters added a crocheted edge treatment, a finish usually done for crib quilts.



Mennonites were not the only quilt markers working well into the 20th century. We heard stories in northern Kansas of women who were well known in their quilting communities for their drawing skills. Whether they were well-paid is a different story.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Quilts in an Economic Context: A New Blog


A new blog offering a historical perspective on making a living making quilts.
In which I ramble on about quilts and economics. I've been thinking quite a bit lately about where quilts come from and I realize I've had to unlearn much of my original thinking, picked up years ago when I first became interested in quilts.


In the early to mid-20th century popular quilt writing was valued more for mythology than accuracy. Nostalgia for an imagined colonial and pioneer past fed a sense of national pride. Patchwork quilts were  survivors that seemed to support that argument. Curators, popular historians and pattern companies shaped their stories to fit the myth.


In her 1915 book Marie Webster set the standard for thinking about 19th-century quilts by quoting another author:
 "Only he who knows what it means to hew a home out of the forest... and witness the devotedness that gathers around the old log schoolhouse and the pathos of a grave in the wilderness, can understand how sobriety, decency, age, devoutness, beauty and power belong to the story of those who began the mighty task of changing the wild west..."
"Old Ladies Quilting" from Webster's book
Not only were they always thrifty they were generally old.

Webster agreed:  "The comforts of the family depended upon the thrift, energy and thoughtfulness of the women. ..All day in the frontier cabin could be heard the hum of the spinning wheel, the clack of the loom or the click of the knitting needles."

Ruby Short McKim also "rambled with romance" as she noted in her book One Hundred and One Patchwork Patterns.
"To salvage beauty and usefulness from coarse waste material was the everyday accomplishment of our pioneer mothers who hooked rugs and pieced quilts.
"Some quilt names are of pioneer ancestry with a breath of dare and danger like 'Bear's Paw,' 'Crossed Canoes,' 'Indian Trail.' 'Prairie Queen.' "
Another quote from Webster: “We used to hear a great deal about the sad and lonely fate of the western farmer’s wife..."

No romantic story was too far-fetched.



"Shortly after the treaty of Paris [1898] whereby the Philippines were surrendered to the United States by Spain, a pioneer woman of northern California created and named this design for a coverlet. Before the spread was finished she sent one square to a sister in the east. From there and the west coast the pattern migrated in several directions." Nancy Cabot, Chicago Tribune, 1935.


Mary McElwain sold Bear's Paw quilts in the 1930s with a short story about a husky pioneer boyfriend hiding from a bear in a tree in the 1820s, copied from Ruth Finley.

I am wallowing in nostalgia and over-the-top copy writing here mainly to illustrate the point that we owe our standard image of the 19th century quiltmaker to these writers.

The image: An isolated woman working alone, recycling scraps from her ragbag, clever and artistic enough to imagine new patterns named for geese, bears and turkeys as she glanced out her cabin door at the wildlife. Occasionally finding respite from her solitary life in a group quilting bee.

Photo from Carlie Sexton pattern catalog about 1925

One woman: one quilt ---from pattern idea through ragbag to binding---with a little neighborly assistance in the quilting.

Money was never mentioned (you didn't need money if you were thrifty enough, apparently.)

No one ever shopped in a city store, sold a pattern, bought a bundle of scraps, hired someone to mark her quilt top, made up fabric kits or taught patchwork in a needlework class. Women did not work for pay, and they certainly didn't create time-honored American crafts for money.

The irony here is that Webster, McElwain, Finley, McKim and Nancy Cabot [whole real name was Loretta Leitner] each made a living doing many of those activities:


  • Writing about needlework
  • Lecturing about quilt history
  • Marking fabric and tops
  • Selling patterns
  • Making up kits of fabric
  • Basting tops
  • And selling finished quilts
Every one of those authors painted a false picture of the past by ignoring the economic and commercial aspects of women's needlework at which she herself was succeeding admirably.

Plus: I wanna know: Did city dwellers ever make quilts?


Dutch housewives making log cabin quilts in log cabins on the western frontier... wholesome history from Mary McElwain's aptly named Romance of the Village Quilts


See the whole booklet with all it's paradoxes here at the Quilt Index:
http://www.quiltindex.org/ephemera_full_display.php?kid=1E-A3-5C7

So sign up for email notices when I post here. Or check back every week or two to see a new rant.