Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

Friday, November 2, 2018

Patterns---Truly Ephemeral

Princesses Louise & Helena, Queen Victoria's daughters
with needlework and a pattern about 1865

Over the years I've collected many vintage needlework patterns. I have quite a few 20th-century patchwork designs like this collection, cut from cereal boxes and magazine pages.

I also save photos I find in online auctions, sometimes because the sheer
homemade quality of them is so charming.

More valuable are 19th-century patterns like this set in the American Museum of Folk Art,
 passed on with the quilt top known as the Bird of Paradise.

Plate 76 from Ruth Finley's 

Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them

Finley's Connecticut family the Ebrights had a set of "quilting patterns" made of "mill net." I imagine these are cut from a stiffened cloth.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has this survivor from 1828, a newspaper pattern for patchwork. We have to classify patterns cut from scrap paper as among the most fleeting of needlework tools.

DAR Museum
Gift of Anne Ely Wain, Harrisburg Chapter DAR

The DAR Museum recently was given this family heirloom,
"Figure of a Quilt marked for Mrs. Joanna Nichols
October 5th, 1792"

It appears to be a design for a quilted border drawn by a professional quilt marker, probably for a quilted petticoat rather than a bedquilt.

The DAR Museum also owns this piece of unfinished needlework, a net collar with the paper pattern still attached. The pattern is drawn on several layers of paper from an account book, "conveniently leaving the heading Bath, Maine 1833 on one scrap," as Curator Alden O'Brien writes me. You can see the steps in creating a fancy collar from a piece of plain netting.

Alden sent pictures of a third pattern.This one looks to be for patchwork similar to Caesar's Crown.

From an online auction

Needlework patterns are the kind of thing that gets tossed at an auction, but a Pennsylvania
dealer found these inside a sewing box....

A package of patterns and papers with many hand-drawn designs, probably
for lace work as in the collar above. I was the high bidder last year.
 But there's more.

Patchwork patterns cut from a German-language newspaper

They belonged to Lucy Ann Loch Hallman, born November 14, 1844
 in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.

Lucy Ann's box contained quilting patterns, patchwork patterns and pieces
for applique.

Maybe something that looked like this?
Caesar's Crown again?

"Lucy Ann Loch." Dates include 1861 and 1862.

One of my treasures

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Patterns: Waste Paper, Pouncing & Heat Transfer

Woman holding some kind of needlework pattern, probably
transfer paper, and fabric with the pattern transferred

This post is about patterns for needlework and how seamstresses transferred their purchased patterns in the past---stamping, pouncing, hot iron transfers, waste paper and tracing the design onto fabric.

"If one is near a first-class art embroidery shop she can of course have this stamping done for her...."
explained Home Needlework magazine in 1906. So we know the services a first class needlework shop would offer.

However, the home needleworker or the home pattern designer had many options to reproduce designs.

 The ad above ran in the Brooklyn Eagle for weeks in 1858.
"Quilting Patterns---Something New---A very useful and time saving article for forming patterns on bed quilts and ladies' skirts, price 25 cents at J. Bunce's, 94 Fulton, corner Henry Street."
John and Richard Bunce ran a hardware and furnishing store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn. They may have been selling some kind of transfer or stamping kit.

Tracing the Pattern onto Paper

1829 needlework advice: 
"Patterns...may be purchased at most of the fancy-shops...A pattern may be copied, by placing a thin piece of paper over the original, and tracing it through, against a window."
 (I still use this method when I'm too lazy to find the light box.)

One might trace onto a suitable translucent sheet of paper but if you had none you could make tracing paper by soaking the paper in lard or kerosene, according to a set of directions in Blakelee's Industrial Encyclopedia in 1889. (Do not try either of these methods at home, especially by candlelight.)

Blakelee's had you glue the tracing paper to a piece of cardboard and then cut the cardboard for patchwork templates. A time-honored tradition.

Fran├žois-Hubert Drouais, Madame Pompadour, 1760s

Collection of the National Gallery in London

She may be hooking in a tambour frame, using a hook to chain stitch

Waste Paper

An 1884 patent case from William Briggs discussed pattern for needlework. The plaintiffs contrasted their new method with the customary techniques. In old and new methods a commercial design is first printed with ink onto paper using block printing.

International Quilt Study Center & Museum
 has archived Mountain Mist's steel plates for printing 
patterns on paper for batting wrappers. 
"In domestic embroidery it is customary to use paper upon which the pattern to be embroidered is printed from surface blocks or otherwise. This paper is stitched upon the fabric to be embroidered, and when the embroidery is complete the paper upon which the pattern had been printed is torn out."

Nancy Zieman showing how to tear away a pattern printed on stabilizer

This transfer method is sometimes called waste paper. I have used it many times for hand embroidering words. You write words on high quality paper and baste it to the fabric; embroider through both the paper and the fabric and when finished tear away the paper. It works quite well if the paper doesn't shred too much.

Heat Transfer

Heat transferring ink was invented in the 1850s or '60s.

The Briggs patent lawsuit discussed their new method of pattern copying, patented in England in . 1874, which involved printing designs in a novel ink---"a bituminous substance or varnish and transferring the said pattern to the fabric when required, by the application of heat to the back of the paper....A beautiful clear pattern of any colour is marked on the fabrics."

Transferable patterns were sold in this 1886 book
from Briggs in Manchester, England, who may have held
most of the early patents.

The patterns were bound into the book. It's a wonder any of the books are left but here's a digital version:

Pouncing or Stamping Through Perforations

A fourth method of transferring pattern is by punching holes through the paper pattern, securing it to the fabric and sifting a powder through the holes. The powder is called pounce powder or stamping powder.

An old pounce shaker

One can make a tool for applying powder by stitching a small coarse cotton bag, filling it with powder and banging or pouncing the bag against the pattern lines. Powder sifts into the holes.

You can still buy pounce powder

Cardboard pattern with pounce powder sticking to the holes

Many patterns sold by professional designer were pre-punched with holes. A clever mechanic could perforate several sheets of paper at once with her designs. Or the customer could punch holes herself in a printed pattern with a sharp needle or a special tool, a pounce wheel.

Vintage tracing wheel
A perforating wheel looked like this but probably sharper and with spikes spaced further apart.
We used to use this type of tracing wheel with dressmaker's 
carbon paper (yet another way to transfer designs).

Before heat transfers, perforated commercial patterns must have been the norm. You may recall Emma Keytes Wilcockson (1829-1871) who operated a Fancy Repository shop in London in the 1850s & '60s. In 1856 she boasted: " I have issued from my establishment upwards of 60,000 square yards of traced and perforated muslin for embroidery.”

See a post on Emma here:

The blogger at Q is for Quilter found a catalog advertising "Perforated Stamping Patterns" 
from the 1880s

This 1915 ad in a needlework magazine for a battery-operated perforator tells you that it's a "money maker." "Greatest help in [a] Fancy Work Shop. Perforates as a pencil writes. Several patterns at once." 

Well, I wouldn't invest 6 of your 1915 dollars in this item but it does give us a little insight into making money by making patterns.

Contemporary pattern to be perforated

And the machine to do it with

I think this punch would be more reliable than the "Midget Perforator." See a recent Threads post on perforating design.

J.B. Marchais, Girl in a Blue Skirt Sewing
Collection of the Bowes Museum
She has Berlin work in her lap

With all the trials and troubles detailed above you can see why counted or charted needlework has
always been so popular. No tracing, just counting.

Here's a post on a New York fancy store:

Read more about pattern transferring in Molly Proctor's Art Needlework & Embroidery Transfers:

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

New York City's Crawford Shops

Women working in the Crawford Shops sewing workroom in the early 20th century,
stitching dolls for the toy store, located at 28 West 51st Street.

Plain sewing on clothing. 
Jessie Tarbox Beals took many of these photographs
for the Association's newspaper Baghdad on the Subway

Offering sewing rooms where women could find work, comfortable conditions and companionship was a common mission of charitable organizations. The New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, founded in 1843, opened the Crawford Work Shops in 1915. 
"For several years the work of the Association's Sewing Bureau was limited to the giving out of sewing to be done by women in their own homes, this for the purpose of giving to such women an opportunity of adding a dollar or two each week to the family income....
Working at home had advantages but a 
central workshop offered a refuge from small city apartments.
"It was decided to change the method of work by having rooms to which the women could come to do the sewing under instruction....through the kindness of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Emerson who gave us the use of two rooms in the Emerson Apartment House at 555 West 53rd Street, near Eleventh Avenue. The classes, beginning with five women in attendance, had increased to 30 in July, making it necessary to transfer them to larger quarters at 408 West 20th Street. Here again they have steadily increased to an average attendance of between 40 and 50 women at both morning and afternoon classes."

The clients are often described as old and infirm, but obviously
there is a range of ages. 

Why so many references to the elderly? Perhaps the article of faith that younger women should be at home taking care of children might prejudice the public against the enterprise.

In 1917:  Ninety women were employed "paid at the minimum rate of 15 cents an hour and are allowed to work any or all of the day...women who must prepare children for school [may] come late and go home as early as they wish." This change in descriptions may reflect changes brought by World War I when working women gained some temporary patriotic approval.

One ambitious project was the Crawford Rug Shop begun in the 1930s in which professional artists designed rugs to be hooked by shop workers. In 1937 eleven of the rugs were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, which owns one of them, Marguerite Zorach's Jungle. Artist Florence Decker managed the Rug Shop in those years.

I haven't found any references to patchwork or quilts in the Crawford Shop records, but this is the kind of charitable sewing organization that was a common source of needlework plain and fancy.

See a post about charity sewing rooms and women's exchanges here:

The tradition continues:
The Waverly Tennessee United Methodist Church has scheduled its Annual White Oak Women's Exchange Quilt Show & Boutique for November 2 & 3rd this year.

Read more about the Crawford Shops at Columbia University Libraries archive here:

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Entrepreneurs: Scioto Imhoff Danner

Scioto Imhoff Danner (1891-1974)

Pattern collectors are familiar with Scioto Imhoff Danner's quilt booklets. Mrs. Danner's Quilts was a long-lived Kansas pattern source, purchased by Helen Ericson from Danner in the 1960s and only recently closed at Ericson's death.

Scioto (She pronounced it Sigh'-oh-toe) Imhoff was born in Missouri in June, 1891.

ElDorado in 1906

Her parents, half-sister Della and grandmother moved to ElDorado, Kansas at some point. She attended college in Warrensburg, Missouri and taught in Missouri where she kept many ties. During World War I she traveled to Maui to teach in a mission school. Miss Imhoff married Mr. Danner in the 1920s but they soon divorced. Looking for income after her divorce she and the women in her family turned to quilts, hoping they could sell their handiwork. According to her autobiographical manuscript (Blanche Greenstein & Thomas Woodard refer to it in their book Twentieth Century Quilts) selling a quilt for $25 was "like finding an oil well."

Danner made several wedding ring quilts when she
began making quilts to make money. This one, reportedly by her hand, is now
in the collection of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum,
in the Helen Ericson collection.

In the late 1920s she arranged with Wichita's Innes Department Store to exhibit quilts and sample blocks. Few customers were interested in buying her quilts, she later recalled, but "so many people asked me for my designs that I took orders and came home and cut patterns by hand for those who wanted them so badly." 

In 1931 Rorabaugh-Wiley's in Hutchinson, Kansas offered quilts for $2 
during a Mrs. Danner trunk show in 1931. Wilene Smith found this advertisement.

The manager at Innes's suggested she enlist local high school girls to draft the patterns and mimeograph them. (Let's hope she paid adequately.) This was a low overhead scheme, what we'd
call print on demand. Catalog booklets might be ordered in large quantities but one could mimeograph patterns as they were sold.

Before the Xerox machine every school relied on the mimeograph,
which used a paper stencil wrapped around a drum to print in in sometimes smelly fashion
depending on the technology.

As many other entrepreneurs figured out, selling patterns was the way to profit. Mrs. Danner seems to have been a remarkable success.

In 1934 she displayed her wares at 
Kahn's Department Store in Washington, DC.
[Scioto is hard to spell and hard to pronounce.]

Her business model was impressive. She and her employees traveled around the country doing exhibits in department store fabric sections from Macy's at Herald Square to Famous-Barr in St. Louis. The store might show her quilts in the windows and hang some next to the bolts of recommended fabric. 

Quilt display (not Danner's) at an Ohio store in 1931
---a popular marketing tool for the drygoods department.

Danner or her employees offered sewing and shopping advice and sold patterns. 

In 1934 she began publishing small catalogs of
her popular designs with information about
quilts that inspired the patterns.

At one point she had six (or eight) women traveling for her, each with a set of quilts, blocks, kits, basted tops and patterns. In 1934 she told the Kansas City Star 24 women sewed for her. Thirty plus employees (who took care of the mail?) during the Great Depression is an achievement.

The Ladies' Dream was one of her most popular designs.
See a post on the pattern here:

In 1936 Danner apparently sold most of her 125 quilt samples and moved to Berkeley, California, where she managed a boarding house. Her retirement was not complete, however. A 1938 issue (only issue?) of a Lockport Batting publication Land O’ Nod, the Monthly Magazine for Quilters carried her name as editor.

After her father died in 1942 Danner returned to ElDorado to help her mother and revived Mrs. Danner's Quilts by offering mail order patterns again and republishing her catalogs. 

Detail of a Horn of Plenty sampler in Ericson's collection.

According to her obituary (not always accurate) she operated the Cape Cod Flower Shop there too. When she retired in 1970 she sold the quilt business to Helen Ericson who moved it to her home town of Emporia where she designed her own quilts, patterns and catalogs as well as continuing some Mrs. Danner favorites.

How many kits, basted tops and completed quilts did the Danner quilt empire sell in the halcyon days of the 1927-1937 quilt craze? Well, we dropped the ball on this one and forgot to interview anyone in ElDorado during the Kansas Quilt Project in 1986. It never occurred to us that any of those 1930s quilts people brought in to show us might have been made in a complex cottage industry system.

IQSCM has a page on Cottage Industries discussing this little considered topic in their World Quilts.
"Quilts made within cottage industries may be the true anonymous works, particularly because multiple quiltmakers often contributed to distinct aspects of the project—such as cutting, piecing, marking, quilting, or binding—and the final product was removed from its community of creation."

Read Wilene Smith's page on Scioto Danner: