Tag Archives: quilting

Currently Reading – Quilt Books

I’m fascinated with quilts. No, I don’t collect them, nor do I make them. It’s the historical meaning hidden within these little pieces of textiles that keep me interested in them.

Recently I drove to the Pickens flea market in Pickens, SC. I’d been before, and knew that it’s a very mixed bag of good and bad, new and old, and down right bizarre. The highlight of the visit was a bluegrass band in which a little mutty dog was the fifth member. He had been taught to let out a howl at just the right time. I was too amazed to even take a video.

I had been all over the field – and it’s a big one – with no luck when I stumbled upon a used book seller. He had a few books on quilting so I stopped to have a browse. I asked the price, which was a dollar each, so I was feeling extravagant and had about five or six picked out when the seller said he had more in the back of the truck.

What he had was the entire library of a long-time quilter. There were easily several hundred books on quilts, most of them how-to books. I wasn’t interested in those, but there were also quite a few books on quilt and textile history. I ended up with eighteen of them, which he let me have for $10.

The prize of the lot is the book above, Barbara Brackman’s quilting classic, Clues in the Calico. I had been looking for this book for a long time, but I didn’t want to pay the high price it commands. It is a guide to dating quilts, but more than that, it’s a guide to identifying antique textiles. I’m still reading this one, but I found myself using the information a few days ago when someone on Instagram posted a recently found hoard of old fabrics. Immediately I knew that some of the prints had been printed with “fugitive” green dyes, as the stems and leaves of plants were now a tannish brown.

Some of the books are general quilt histories, but most focus on a particular type or region. I thought this title was very interesting, as I do not associate quilting with Native Americans. I’ll probably put this one at the top of the reading queue.

There were also a couple of books on textiles, and in particular the types of textiles commonly used for quilts.

I’ve read probably four or five of the books, and I’m beginning to see quite a bit of the same information. That’s not a bad thing. I certainly don’t want to read conflicting “facts” as then, how would I figure out who to trust?

Several of the authors have pointed out one of the big fallacies of early quilt-making in America: that colonists made patchwork quilts out of their old textiles out of necessity. I already knew this, but it seems to be a generally held belief when so many writers take the time to make sure that the earliest quilts were not scrap projects in a make do and reuse sense.  The earliest American quilts were generally whole cloth quilts, or were quilts made from appliques cut from fabrics that were printed specifically for that purpose.

Two of the books are detailed accounts of the quilts of one family of makers. I’m in the process of reading one of these, Mary Black’s Family Quilts, by Laurel Horton. I’m enjoying this one partially because Mary Black lived in Spartanburg, SC, which is only an hour and a half down the road from me. And besides that, many quilt books tend to focus on quilts from Pennsylvania or New England, so it’s nice reading about quilts from a Southern family.

I need to point out that it’s almost impossible to separate the production of quilts, textiles and clothing in the days before the Industrial Revolution. All the quilt books I’ve read so far also discuss cloth and clothing production. I’ve had to stop and remind myself that the authors of these books are quilt – not clothing – experts.

In referring to the South Carolina backcountry in the late 18th century, Horton writes, “Fabrics were available in abundant variety in local stores for home sewing as was ready-made clothing.” While ready-made fabrics were readily available, ready-made clothing was not. Most of the ready-made clothing at this time was very cheaply made, and was marketed in the South as being appropriate for enslaved people. The best explanation I know of for this is found in Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America by Claudia Kidwell and Margaret Christman.

Okay, no more quibbling over the details; let’s look at some quilts. The one above is pictured in Kentucky Quilts 1800 – 1900 by John Finley and Jonathan Holstein. It was made by Ann Johnson Armstrong, circa 1890.

Emma Van Fleet made this quilt in 1866 to commemorate the Civil War battles in which her husband had fought. There are forty-seven battles. Seen in Threads of Time by Nancy J. Martin.

The maker of this one, also seen in Threads of Time, is unknown. It was made around 1865.

And finally, this marvelous creation is seen in New Discoveries in American Quilts by Robert Bishop. The quilt was made by Celestine Bacheller, and the blocks are thought to depict real places around her home in Massachusetts.

It’s a sort of scenic/crazy quilt hybrid. It is now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

 

 

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Cruso Quilt Show, 2015

One of the things I have to do every summer is attend the Cruso Quilt Show.  Even though I’m not a quilter, I’m enough of a textile lover and appreciator to love spending an hour or so examining the quilts, both modern and vintage.  I always learn something and I always see something that is new to me.

The bowtie quilt above is a vintage quilt top that has been newly finished using machine stitches.

This is a new quilt made from vintage fabrics and feedsacks.  The fabrics had belonged to the quilter’s mother-in-law.

Quilts are meant to be seen from a distance, but also close up.  I love the visual impact of a beautiful quilt, but the little squares are sometimes design marvels by themselves.

In the quilting world, things are not always as they seem.  This quilt is made from modern reproductions of vintage fabrics.  The maker could have gone one step further into vintageland by using a natural muslin for the background fabric.

This one is vintage, and after looking at a lot of vintage and reproductions, the background fabrics are usually a big hint as to which is which.

This quilt that uses reproduction fabrics really caught my eye, and not only because it is so bold.  Some of the fabrics in this quilt are reproductions of the “neons” of 1892 through 1900 that I learned about back in April when I found some old swatches.

I have the originals on which the leaf prints are patterned.  Even the colors are the same.

Crazy quilts are associated with the Victorians, but women were still making them in the mid twentieth century.  The fabrics in this quilt date from the 1930s through the 1960s.  This method of making crazy squares is more obvious without all the Victorian embellishment.

This vintage quilt had the best dancing elephant fabric.

This vintage quilt is interesting for several reasons.  First, I need to point out that the squares are very small, about one and a half inches across.  This was obviously made by someone who saved even the smallest scraps.  Second, note the way the fabrics are positioned, with no attempt to cut the triangles on the grain of the fabric.  And finally, there was not much effort put into matching the corners.  We tend to thing that old equals quality, but in many cases that is just not true. Today quilting is a craft, something that people do for fun, but for many women in the past, it was just work that had to be done.

And I’ll end with a new quilt, this one made by my sister-in-law for my niece’s soon to be born baby boy.  I love the bold colors!

Correction:  I changed the word foundation to background in the paragraph following the fourth photo.  Thanks to my more-knowledgeable-than-me readers for keeping me straight.

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Currently Reading: The Mountain Artisans Quilting Book

Mountain Artisans shows just exactly how important timing is in business, and in life in general.  After President Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, there were dozens of agencies set up to implement hundreds of programs that were meant to help the poor.  Mountain Artisans was started by a worker in the arts and crafts department of the Department of Commerce, Florette Angel.  Ms. Angel was in West Virginia to help a group of quilters figure out how to market the projects they were making using traditional quilting skills.

It was a good time to be starting a crafts cooperative.  Not only was there the Federal assistance that sent Ms. Angel to the quilters, it was 1968, and interest was increasing in alternative lifestyles such as the back-to-the-earth  movement.  The American Bi-centennial was coming up in 1976, and interest in history and heritage were growing.

Even so, the project got off to a rocky start.  Interestingly, there was money to spend on studies of impoverished people and how they could make money, but there was no money to pay for needed craft supplies.  All the young women who were working to start the business had no experience and they were working without pay.

Help arrived in the person of Sharon Rockefeller, whose famous name helped open doors.  She put the group in touch with the famous Parish-Hadley decorating firm, which arranged for meetings in New York, including one with Diana Vreeland at Vogue.   Through Vreeland, Oscar de la Renta ordered some of the fabric being pieced by the women in the co-op.  The group was on its way.

They also benefited from some excellent press coverage.  Whoever was in charge of public relations did a fantastic job, getting a feature in Life magazine, and mentions in Newsweek and New York Magazine.  The Associated Press and United Press International regularly distributed features on the co-op.

Dorothy Dembosky Weatherford, a local artist, donated her talents as a designer, and her work led to a distinctive Mountain Artisans style.  She liked big bold blocks of color, much in the style of the late 1960s and early 70s.

By 1972 the co-op was a success, and Weatherford won a special Coty award that year for “reviving native handicrafts.” According to an account from the AP in 1972, there were 160 full time quilters, with an additional 60 working part time.  Total sales for the previous year had been a half a million dollars.  A showroom was planned for New York.

Sharon Rockefeller wearing a Mountain Artisans skirt

The success of the group is nicely documented in this book by Alfred Allen Lewis.  Published in 1973, it is a book typical of the time, with the story of the co-op intertwined with directions for making projects based on those of the Mountain Artisans.  I’m not so sure how easy it would be to actually follow the directions, but there are lots of photos of the quilters sitting and sewing along with diagrams showing the design and construction process.

The clothes, which were mainly floor-length “hostess skirts”, were sold in high-end stores including Saks Fifth Avenue, Joseph Magnin, and Neiman Marcus.  The co-operative also made patchwork pillows and quilts.  These items occasionally come up for sale today, and they are easily identified because they are labeled.

Quilt made for the Rockefeller baby

In appreciation for all the support she had given them, the group made a quilt for Sharon Rockefeller’s first baby.  Designed by Weatherford, it was not the average baby quilt made from sweet pastels.  I’ve got to wonder if the Rockefellers still have it.

Dorothy Weatherford experimented with modern-looking variations of old quilt themes.

The early 1970s were an interesting time.  People were discovering traditional handicrafts such as quilting, knitting, and sewing, and there was a definite Little House on the Prairie vibe going on in fashion.  The women running Mountain Artisans were wise to capitalize on this interest.

But fashion changes, and the homespun look died with the passing of time.  After July, 1976, interest in “tradition” waned, as Americans discovered the pleasures of disco.  Mountain Artisans closed in 1978.

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