Friday, July 13, 2012

The Quilt in America: Part IV

      In England during the middle of the past century, the Victorian period was known chiefly for its hideous array of cardboard mottoes done in brilliant wools, crochet tidies, and wax flowers. It is particularly fortunate that at this time the women of the United States were too fully occupied with their own household arts and industries to take up with the ideas of their English sisters. By far the best needlework of this period were the beautiful quilts and bedspreads, exquisite in color and design, which were the product of American women. The finest quilts were wrought along designs largely original with the quilters themselves, who plied their needles in solitary farmhouses and out-of-the-way hamlets to which the influence of English idea in needlework could not penetrate. In no locality in our country can so many rare and beautiful quilts be found as in the Middle West. Many of the best were made during those early days of struggle for mere existence, when they served the busy housewife as the one precious outlet for her artistic aspirations.
      The type of quilt that may be called distinctively American was substantial in character; the material that entered into its construction was serviceable, of a good quality of cotton cloth, or handwoven linen, and the careful work put into it was intended to stand the test of time. The colored materials combined with the white were also enduring, the colors being as nearly permanent as it was possible to procure. Some cottons were dyed by the quilt makers themselves, if desirable fast shades could not be readily procured otherwise. The fundamental idea was to make a quilt that would withstand the greatest possible amount of wear. Some of the artistic possibilities in both color and design were often subordinated to the desire to make quilts as nearly imperishable as possible. The painstaking needlework required to produce a quilt deserved the best of material for its foundation. Silks, satins, velvets, and fine linen and cotton fabrics of delicate shades were not favored as quilt material by the old-time needle workers, who wrought for service first and beauty afterward.
Traditional Poppy Quilt.
This is applied patchwork and therefore much
more easily made than pieced work;
very simple quilting gives prominence to
the design
      A most beautiful example of the American quilt at its best is found in the “Indiana Wreath.” Its pleasing design, harmonious colors, and exquisite workmanship reveal to us the quilter’s art in its greatest perfection. This quilt was made by Miss E. J. Hart, a most versatile and skilful needlewoman, in 1858, as shown by the small precise figures below the large wreath. The design is exceedingly well balanced in that the entire quilt surface is uniformly covered and no one feature is emphasized to the detriment of any other. The design element of the wreath is a compact group of flowers, fruit, and leaves, which is repeated ten times in making the complete circle. The vase filled with drooping sprays, flowers, and conventionalized buds forms an ideal center for this wreath. Curving vines intermingled with flowers make a desirable and graceful border. This quilt is a little more than two and a half yards square, and the central wreath fills a space equal to the width of a double bed, for which it was evidently intended.
      Miss Hart displayed unusual ability in choosing and combining the limited materials at the disposal of the quilt maker in a newly settled region. The foundation is fine white muslin; the colored material is calico, in the serviceable quality manufactured at that time, and of shades considered absolutely fast, then known as “oil boiled.” Only four colors are used in the design: green, red, yellow, and pink, the latter having a small allover printed design in a darker shade.
An early snowflake quilt design.
      Miss Hart planned her quilting quite carefully. In the large blank spaces in the corners are placed special, original designs that have some features of the much-used “feather” pattern. Aside from these triangular corner designs all the quilting is in small diamonds, which form a very pleasing background for the effective colored designs. The maker’s name and the date are closely quilted in white in plain bold-faced type just below the wreath. In the center of the wreath, in neat script in black thread, is quilted the name “Indiana Wreath,” and all the stitchery of top and quilting is the very perfection of quilt making.
      The beautiful white quilts that are treasured as relics of past industry by their fortunate owners deserve special mention. They are rare because nowadays no one will expend the large amount of time necessary to complete one. The foundation of such a quilt is fine white muslin, or fine homespun and woven linen, with a very thin interlining. The beauty of the quilt depends upon the design drawn for the quilting and the fine stitches with which the quilting is done. There is usually a special design planned for these white quilts which includes a large central panel or pattern, with smaller designs for the corners embodying some of the ideas of the central panel. Around these decorative sections the background is so closely quilted as to resemble a woven fabric. This smooth, even background throws the principal designs into low relief. After the entire quilt is quilted and removed from the frames, the main design is frequently further accentuated by having all the most prominent features, such as the leaves and petals of flowers, stuffed. To accomplish this tiny holes are made on the wrong side of each section of the design and cotton is pushed in with a large needle until the section is stuffed full and tight. This tedious process is followed until every leaf and petal stands out in bold relief.
      The fashion which has prevailed for many years of dressing beds all in white has no doubt caused the destruction of many beautiful quilts. The white quilts that have been preserved are now considered too valuable to be subjected to hard wear. The most exquisite ones were made in the last of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries.
      It was the rage for white bed coverings that shortened the lives of many old pieced and patched quilts of good coloring. The “Country Contributor” tells of her experiences in dressing up the white beds:
      “I remember with regret the quilts I wore out, using them white side up in lieu of white Marseilles spreads. The latter we were far too poor to own; the ‘tufted’ ones had worn out; and I loathed the cheap ‘honeycombed’ cotton things we were forced to use unless we were going to be frankly ‘poor’ and cover our beds with plain patchwork, made up hurriedly and quilted in simple ‘fans’ in plebeian squares, as poor folk who haven’t time for elegant stitches did theirs. So I used the old quilts, making their fine stitches in intricate patterns serve for the design in a ‘white spread,’ turning the white muslin lining up. A beautiful white spread it made, too, I realize now, more fully than I did then, though I now would know much better than to turn the wonderful appliqué stars and flowers and wheels from view. Strange, is it not, that we relinquish so much of life’s best joy and pleasure before we know what actually is good?” This fashion prevails to-day, in some instances insisted upon for sanitary reasons, but it has lost to us many of the finest examples of quilting that existed because where there were no colored patterns to relieve the white expanse, the quilting had to be perfect. If you have a white quilt treasure it, for competent quilters are no longer numerous and few there are who can reproduce it.

Quilts hung out to dry on a sunny afternoon.

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