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New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, www.antiquequiltdating.com

California Quilts 1840 - 1940
Written by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD

Quilts: California Bound,California Made 1840-1940
Exhibit curated by Sandi Fox
For the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising
In Los Angeles California
Written by Kimberly Wulfert for Blanket Statements, Spring 2003,
The American Quilt Study Group's quarterly newsletter

Pioneers traveled by wagon, horse, foot, boat,and eventually trains, to get to California's gold. Captain John Sutter, a Swissimmigrant, came to Monterey in 1839. By 1844, he had built a way station forpeople to gather, rest and restock supplies before crossing the SacramentoRiver. He named it Sutter's Fort. Some families settled there while otherscontinued on. January 29, 1846, the first documented quilting party took placenearby in New Helvetia, California. Documentation suggests 22 women attended thequilting, but quilts from that day have not been found.

Some quilts came west with the pioneers. Otherswere made once they arrived in California. Women could buy calicos and chintzthat came by way of the Pacific Ocean. Ships docked in the Monterey Bay, southof San Francisco, and mules carried supplies inland. The 19th century Californiaquilts looked much the same as those made in their home state. In the newcentury, quilts took on a more distinctive California flavor.

Sandi Fox, curator, author and scholar of quilt history, held an exhibit at TheFashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in downtown Los Angeles. Quilts:California Bound, California Made 1840-1940 ran October 1 - December 6,2002. Thirty-eight quilts and four dresses were on display. Museums, HistoricalSocieties and private owners from around the state loaned quilts for thisexhibition. Sandi led personalized tours, sharing additional information aboutthe quilts and her experiences putting this exhibit together. I feel fortunateto have seen it twice, and share what I observed here. The provenance is fromthe exhibit book.

Setting the stage 

Each gallery was painted in a different Amishtoned color corresponding to the era of the quilts hung within it. The earliestquilts of cut-out chintz and chinoiserie were hung on burgundy walls;mid-century red and green appliqués were laid against mustard walls; scrappyand Civil War era quilts stood out on teal walls; Victorian style crazies andcigar ribbon quilts hung against a rich medium brown; western style and cowboyquilts of the early 20th century were shown well on olive green walls; while ArtDeco and Redwork style fundraising quilts were at home on gray walls. Floors ofdark wood and lighting, set quite low at six or seven lumens, gave a feeling of"old" to this contemporary cement and glass building in downtown LosAngeles. Nineteenth century dresses added another feminine touch to the galleryrooms. They stood stuffed, headless, and puffed out with petticoats; enablingone's mind to imagine the strong courageous women who helped settle Californialand were standing there, too. There were many special quilts in this exhibit.Each one had a unique character, and often more than one.

The quilts 

German-born Rosina Catherine E. Hummel Widman,orphaned at nine, immigrated to Ohio with her aunt. At 16, she moved toCalifornia with her new husband William. He was eager to get to the gold in 1850and determined they could arrive faster by combining boat and land travel. Toget from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, they mounted mules to cross 26 milesof dense jungles, through the Isthmus of Panama. On this route, San Franciscowould be reached in six to eight weeks, whereas sailing around Cape Horn tookfive to eight months.

In spite of what may seem to us a difficultjourney, the newlyweds planned to make this Buds and Leaves Quilt whiletraveling. Rosina packed just enough red, green and white fabric for the quilt,with her marking pencil and a tiny knife for sharpening it. William drew aroundthe templates and cut the fabric for her to appliqué, which she did in thebroderie perse stitch. She also stuffed the flower buds. This is not the typicalquilt made by migrating pioneers. In fact, research tells us very few wereactually made while traveling west. Once in San Francisco, she set the blocks,thoroughly quilted it, and embroidered her initials in script. Rosina became adressmaker and likely a very good one, indeed.

Stars and Swags Quilt is a variation of the pineburr pattern, Rockingham's Beauty. Delicate chainstiches were used to appliquéthe border elements. They were meant to be decorative, as indicated by theirsize and color. Echo quilting finishes the border background. Crosshatching oftriple lines decorate the orange center block of each burr, and diamond piecesare outline quilted. The Kentucky maker pieced it in 1860, before she headedwest. It now lives in Sutter's Fort Museum. This pattern was repeated in endlessvariations in California.

Made in New York around 1895, the Storybook Quiltwas the most ornate of the crazy quilts in the show. Appliquéd upon the usualvelvet, silk, and cotton crazy blocks were mini-scenes of people interactingwith another person, animal or an object. The maker, Eudotia Sturgis Wilcox,worked a scene from the book Uncle Tom's Cabin, of Tom with Little Eva. Heidiand her Grandfather are depicted in their Swiss costumes. Little Women and otherbook's stories provided inspiration for this reader, quilter and grandmother.Her appliqué shows exquisite skill. These figures wore fancy three dimensionalclothing, embellished with trims, beads and lace. Their faces, legs, arms andhands were made from tan or white glove leather. Tiny facial features werepainted on with watercolors and ink. She had access to many prints and types offabrics. Popular motifs of that time were appliquéd on: playing cards, variousfans, flowers, a horseshoe, patriotic symbols and baskets of flowers. Variousembroidery stitches adorned the seams between predominately solid coloredbackground fabrics.

An American soldier (name unknown) made thiscolorful Star of Bethlehem out of silks and cottons during his convalescence, ca1901. He was injured in the Spanish American War. Just inside the red, white andblue bordered edges he appliquéd tiny individual woven American flags, possiblyribbon, to form a quasi-inner border. Between the flags and the star, he usedfancy stitches to appliqué Civil War corps badges on to it. These badgesidentified an Army troop division. He added international silk flags and othersymbols cut from silk: the Maltese cross, Christian cross, crescent, stars, andarrows, with tiny numbers sewn on each one. Most unique however, not just tothis Soldier's Quilt, but to any quilt, are the four cardboard backedsepia-toned photographs of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Grant,mounted on it. Originally mass-produced as political mementos, this quiltmakerglued each picture on to a slightly larger piece of white silk, which heappliquéd on top of the pieced star. Tiny quilt stitches in dark threadoutlined each diamond of the star. A descendant of John Sutter came to own thisquilt through marriage.

Many of the quilts in this exhibit were signed insome fashion. Stenciled and inked signatures were on the oldest friendship andpresentation quilts. Elaborate stenciled and drawn pictures covered a mourningquilt made by Mary Pancoast Allen, dated 1847. A T-square quilt, made for aposter bed, contained over 80 signatures dating from 1841. Thirty-onePennsylvania and New Jersey Quaker families wrote their condolences to Mary onthis primarily Turkey red French Provencal and chrome yellow print quilt.Exactly who was lost is unclear. A portion of the messages might be seen in afriendship autograph book. One verse reads "When 'neath this quilt thy formreclines, Please think of him who penned these lines." The pieced pattern,named snowflake by Ladies Art Company, #277, offered many areas for the fancyinscriptions and drawings. The print chosen for narrow sashing between 55 blockson point was a complex robin's egg blue on white stripe. The main square was anappliquéd sunflower variation with leaves, applied with a tiny broderie persestitch. Mary's name and a verse were written in the center of a delicate andelaborate inked semi-wreath of sprigs and flowers. It reads "I will notmourn my griefs below, Nor all their baneful train, But hope at last to meetabove, My early Friends again." Mary's descendants brought this quilt west.

Another style of signature quilts in the exhibitwas embroidered fundraisers. The Hollywood Bedcover was made with dark bluefloss and pictured 205 celebrities famous before 1931. Outline stitchesembroidered faces or whole figures, often in costume with their co-star. Someblocks included the name of the movie the image was based upon. The unidentifiedLos Angeles maker used promotional materials and posters from movies madebetween 1926 and 1930 to design her blocks.

Around this same time, the Mount WilsonObservatory Quilt  was made by another unidentified quiltmaker. He or shemay have lived in Pasadena, which quickly grew at the base of Mt Wilson, as theobservatory was built. George Ellery Hale built his solar observatory nine milesup Mt. Wilson, after visiting this hilltop in 1903. Sandi wonders if perhapsthis quilt was made for the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago.Ninety-three pale yellow stars are appliquéd with tiny buttonhole stitches to ablue background made of blocks approximately 12" X 12". They were handsewn to look like one large piece of fabric with stars and quilt stitchesoverlapping the seams. The observatory building and the solar tower telescopewere made from a shiny silver synthetic-looking material. Cording was added tothe sides of the building and the dome roof to imply the structure. The roofappears opened for telescopic viewing, as indicated by another color of fabricplaced at the top. The moon, Saturn, and the Big Dipper, are represented in thequilting.

Exhibition considerations 

The early 19th century Chinoiserie Quilt was oneof the oldest quilts exhibited. With a strong English influence and many earlychintz fabrics, Sandi explains it may have come from England or the UnitedStates. Made in the central-medallion style, it had 12 borders. Cut-out chintzappliqué made four of the borders and the center. Pieced borders werehalf-square triangles made from a variety of early dress and furnishing prints,including a sepia pictorial toile. Narrower solid borders were made from madderor indigo monochrome block prints. A tiny diaper print in mustard gold was usedin the center panel and formed the final border. It must have been a beauty.

It had seen better days, however, and had to becarefully conserved and repaired to be in this exhibit. The Southern CaliforniaCouncil of Quilt Guilds, comprised of about 80 southern California guilds, meetsquarterly to discuss quilt and guild related issues. They donated $3,000 dollarstowards the conservation of three quilts in the exhibit. A local expert, SharonShore, was chosen to do the work. Sandi will not allow new fabric to be put ontop of old, only crepeline, a see through stabilizing fiber. This fragile quiltwas stabilized from behind with a natural colored archival material called Lindacloth. Areas completely worn through were barely noticeable. It was placed on aslanted wall using a special method to hold it. Some stains remained on it, asSandi does not recommend working a stain out completely because of the furtherdamage to the fabric.

The quilts were hung with no rod visible. Sandiexplained her method for hanging quilts sturdy enough to be hung. Velcro Brandtape, (she said other brands can stain the fabric) 2" wide, is machinedstitched onto a 2 ½" width of cotton twill. A special hand stitch with afine needle goes through all layers of the quilt and the twill, which is placed¼" to ½" down from the top. The Velcro never touches the quilt. Thematching Velcro strip is stapled to a wood strip, with the ends painted the samecolor as the wall, making this method invisible to the eye and safe for thequilts, as it keeps them from touching the wall. For removing the strip, sherecommends clipping every other stitch. Or, cover it with a strip of cotton, andfold to the inside for temporary storage.

The book, titled as the exhibit, served as theonly catalogue. It tells about California's history from 1840-1940 while sharingthe story behind each quilt. Each item is accompanied by clear photographs, fullshots and close-ups, in the 'Sandi Fox style' seen in her other books. Publishedby FIDM Museum & Library, Inc, it is available through the FIDM store at800-409-3436, ext. 3275 or www.fashionmuseum.org.For a video tour of the exhibit, Huell Hauser toured with Sandi, discussingparticular quilts, and showing most that were in the exhibit. PBS offers a videoof this program, "California Gold."


* Quilts

© 2003 - 2015 Kimberly Wulfert, PhD. Absolutely no copies, reprints, use of photos or text are permitted for commercial or online use. One personal copy for study purposes is permitted.

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