Friday, July 13, 2012

The Quilt in America: Part I

A "Daisy" quilt design for a child's bed.
      The date of the quilt’s advent into America is unknown, and—because of the lack of knowledge concerning the house furnishings of the early colonists—can never be positively determined. Quilts were in such general use and were considered as such ordinary articles that the early writers about family life in the colonies neglected to mention them. We do know, however, that quilted garments, bedspreads, curtains, and the like were very essential to the comfort and well-being of the original settlers along the Atlantic seaboard.
      Extensive investigation has shown that the introduction of the arts of patchwork and quilting to the American continent is due entirely to the English and the Dutch. No evidence has been found that Spanish or French colonists made use of quilting. The Spaniards in the warm lands of  the South had little real need of warm clothing, and—outside of possible appliqué heraldic devices on the coats of the early explorers—may be considered as having brought to the New World none of the art so popular in Spain at the time. The French who opened up Canada brought none of the quilting or patchwork of France with them. While needlework was taught at a very early date in the convents of Quebec, it was apparently only the more fanciful kinds of embroidery. As a protection against the biting northern winters, the early French settlers sought protection under furs, which could be obtained quite readily in the great woods. To secure more bed clothing, it was very much easier to engage in a little hunting than to go through the laborious processes of piecing and quilting. To both Spanish and French, the new world was strictly a man’s country—to adventure in and win riches upon which to retire to a life of ease in their native lands. With them, therefore, the inspiration of founding a home and providing it with the comforts of life was lacking; and without such inspiration the household arts could never flourish.
      The English and Dutch planted their colonies  along the coast from Virginia to Massachusetts with the primary object of founding new homes for themselves. With them came their wives and daughters, who brought along as their portion such household comforts and conveniences as they possessed. Under their willing hands spinning, weaving, and the manufacture of garments began immediately. Their poorly heated log houses made necessary an adequate supply of bedding and hangings for protection against the winter cold. Substantial, heavy curtains, frequently lined and quilted, were hung over both doors and windows and were kept closely drawn during the bitter winter nights. In the more imposing homes were silk damask curtains with linings of quilted silk to keep out the drafts of cold that swept through the rooms.
      In Massachusetts in the early colonial days quilted garments, especially petticoats, were in general use. It is a curious circumstance that we owe this bit of information largely to the description of runaway slaves. The Boston News Letter of October, 1707, contains an advertisement describing an Indian woman who ran away, clad in the best garments she could purloin from her mistress’s wardrobe: “A tall Lusty Carolina Indian Woman, named Keziah Wampun Had on a striped red, blue and white Home-spun Jacket and a Red one, a Black and quilted White Silk Crape Petticoat, a White Shift and also a blue with her, and a mixed Blue and White Linsey Woolsey Apron.” In 1728 the News Letter published an advertisement of a runaway Indian servant who, wearied by the round of domestic drudgery, adorned herself in borrowed finery and fled: “She wore off a Narrow Stript pinck cherredary Gown turned up with a little floured red and white Calico. A Stript Home-spun quilted petticoat, a plain muslin Apron, a suit of plain Pinners and a red and white flowered knot, also a pair of green stone earrings, with white cotton stockings and leather heel’d wooden shoes.”
      A few items in a list of articles ordered from England for a New England bride, Miss Judith Sewall, who was married in 1720, give some idea of what was considered as a suitable wedding outfit during that period. The bride belonged to a rich family and no doubt had furnishings much more extensive than usual: “A Duzen of good Black Walnut Chairs, A Duzen Cane Chairs, and a great chair for a chamber, all black Walnut. One Duzen large Pewter Plates, new fashion, a Duzen Ivory-hafted knives and forks. Four Duzen small glass salt cellars, Curtains and Vallens for a Bed with Counterpane, Head Cloth, and Tester made of good yellow watered camlet with Trimming. Send also of the same camlet and trimming as may be enough to make cushions for the chamber chairs. A good fine larger Chintz quilt, well made.” This list also includes such items as kitchen utensils, warming pans, brass fenders, tongs, and shovels, and “four pairs of large Brass candlesticks.”
A "Pink Rose" Quilt Design
      As the resources of the new country were developed, the women were given some respite from their spinning, weaving, and garment making. Much of their hard-won leisure was spent piecing quilts. In the rigorous climate of bleak New England there was great need of warm clothing and bedding, and the spare moments of the housekeeper were largely occupied in increasing her supply. To make the great amount of bedding necessary in the unheated sleeping rooms, every scrap and remnant of woolen material left from the manufacture of garments was saved. To supplement these, the best parts of worn-out garments were carefully cut out, and made into quilt pieces.
      Beautiful, even gorgeous, materials were imported for costumes of the wives and daughters of the wealthy colonists. There may be a greater variety of fabrics woven to-day, but none is more splendid in texture and color than those worn by the stately ladies of colonial times. The teachings of the strict Puritans advocated plainness and simplicity of dress; even the ministers in the churches preached against the “sinfulness of display of fine raiment.” Notwithstanding the teachings and pleadings of the clergy, there was great rivalry in dress among the inhabitants of the larger colonial towns. “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,” was unnecessary advice to give to the rich colonist or to his wife. Men’s attire was also of costly velvets lined with handsome brocades; beautifully embroidered waistcoats, silk stockings, and gold lace trimmings were further additions to their costumes during the pre-Revolutionary period.
      After these gay and costly fabrics had served their time as wearing apparel, they were carefully preserved and made over into useful articles for the household. The pinch of hard times during the struggle for independence made it imperative for many well-to-do families to economize.  Consequently, in many old patchwork quilts may be found bits of the finest silks, satins, velvets, and brocades, relics of more prosperous days.
      Alice Morse Earle, in her charming book on “Home Life in Colonial Days,” gives us a rare insight into our great-grandmothers’ fondness for patchwork, and how highly they prized their bits of highly colored fabrics:
      “The feminine love of color, the longing for decoration, as well as pride in skill of needlecraft, found riotous expression in quilt making. Women revelled in intricate and difficult patchwork; they eagerly exchanged patterns with one another; they talked over the designs, and admired pretty bits of calico and pondered what combinations to make, with far more zest than women ever discuss art or examine high art specimens together to-day. There was one satisfactory condition in the work, and that was the quality of cottons and linens of which the patchwork was made. Real India chintzes and palampores are found in these quilts, beautiful and artistic stuffs, and the firm, unyielding, high-priced, ‘real’ French calicoes.

Part IIPart IIIPart IV

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