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.


  1. This is a topic we don't hear much about. So glad you are doing this blog.

  2. Now this sounds like a good read for us Barbara. Thanks so much for bringing it to us.

  3. Barbara we are so lucky to have you in our Quilt History world, your search for information is endless. This is a wonderful and little researched topic, thank you for this new blog!!!