Making a Living Making Quilts: A Historical Perspective

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

The quilting designs are difficult to photograph.

Linda Baumgarten's drawing of quilt 

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

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:

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