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

NEW ENGLAND'S EARLY
WHOLE CLOTH WOOL QUILTS

by Lynne Zacek Bassett

This article accompanied the "AllWool and a Yard Wide: New England Wool Quilts, 1750-1925" exhibitat the 2003 Vermont Quilt Festival. I would like to thank Richard Cleveland,former chairman of VQFand co-curator of the exhibit and Lynne Z. Bassett, chief advisor and author ofthis article, for  permitting me toreprint this information on whole cloth wool quilts from their program.

I wasable to attend this exhibit and to hear Lynne's gallery talk on whole clothquilts, her area ofspecial interest  and study.  We can look forward to the results ofher close look at quilting patterns on wool whole cloth  quilts in anupcoming research paper. Through the designs of the quilting stitches she can name thelikely region of origin and time it was made. 

The quilts on display were from a variety ofcollections, public and private. I have incorporated web links, within Lynne'sarticle, to provide pictures of quilt examples. Some link to quilts shown inthis exhibit, many are from the Bidwell House Museum's fine collection, and twoare from Old Sturbridge Village.

from the private collection of Sharon Briggs, Hemet CA

Romantic but unsubstantiated history creditsAmerican colonists with stitching the first quilted bed covers of colorfulpatchwork, salvaged from precious bits of cloth. Infact, the first quilts on colonial beds were made of whole cloth, in which thequilting pattern, highlighted by the gloss of elegant fabrics such as silk andglazed worsted (“calamanco”), created the visual interest. These quilts were rare and costly imports from India, England, or France,professionally made and available only to the wealthy until the 1700s. Over the course of that century, more and more New England women began tomake their own whole cloth quilts—often with faces of expensive Englishcalamanco and backs of locally produced wool.

These bed coversare popularly called “linsey-woolsey” quilts today, suggesting that theywere made of fabric with a linen or cotton warp and wool weft. However, the faces of these quilts are virtually always entirely wool,and the backs, too, are far more likely to be wool than linsey-woolsey. Although “linsey-woolsey” is a period fabric name, it was not a termused in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries in connection with quilts.

By the earlynineteenth century, whole cloth wool quilts were largely displaced by other bedcover fashions (including elegant whitework quilts — another whole cloth type)in prosperous urban households, but they remained popular in rural New Englandhomes until at least the 1850s. Inher 1883 reminiscence, New England Bygones,Ellen H. Rollins recalled of her childhood in the 1830s in Wakefield, NewHampshire, “The winter lull of vegetation was often spent by mygrandmother…in the spinning and weaving of woollen [sic] fabrics, to beafterwards fashioned into quilts.” [i]

Rollins alsonoted that “the most esteemed” quilts were made of “glossy, dark flannel,lined with yellow, with a slight wadding of carded wool.” [ii] Indeed, it was traditional in New England for the back of wool quilts tobe yellow, probably because it was an easy color to dye, it didn’t fade much,and it hid dirt well. It is also not unusual to find that the backs of the quiltsare pieced from a variety of locally woven fabrics of wool, wool with cotton, orwool with linen, thereby providing important documentation for the plain,everyday fabrics worn by early New Englanders. On top, these quilts display a wonderful array of colors, with dark blue being the most popular. Othercolors include brilliantpink, red, green, dark brown (called “butternut” or“London” brown), yellow, and eggplantpurple .

Fortunately forthe researcher, many of these early wool quilts have a moth hole or two throughwhich to examine the batting, which can be wool or cotton. Occasionally, one finds that a wool batting has been dyed to reduce theeffect of bearding on the quilt surface.  Cotton,though generally white, might also be brown. It is unlikely that New England quiltmakers used cotton battings insidetheir whole cloth quilts until the Industrial Revolution made cotton acost-effective alternative to locally grown wool in the early nineteenthcentury. By the 1830s,Massachusetts merchants could advertise that cotton batting cost only threecents a pound and was available by the bale.” [iii] The appearance of cotton batting in a New England quilt, therefore,probably dates it to the nineteenth century.

The stitches thatboth decorate New England wool quilts and hold their layers together are almostalways made with a hand-spun, plied worsted thread. Even as late as 1837, when factory-made cotton thread wasreadily available, Pamela Brown of Plymouth, Vermont, noted in her diary that"Mrs. Wilder spun me some worsted to quilt with."” [iv] Most frequently, the color of the thread was chosen to blend with thefabric  on the quilt's face, but sometimes women used thread in a contrastingcolor, perhaps in a conscious effort to make their quilting designs stand outmore clearly.

Although lackingthe multi-colored, graphic appeal of pieced calico quilts, New England’s earlywhole cloth wool quilts frequently display beautiful and imaginative quiltingdesigns. The artistic quality ofthese stitched patterns is easily overlooked, for after two hundred years theoriginally smooth and glossy fabrics are often dulled by repeated washings, faded from light exposure, and marred by the voracious attacks of moth larvae. Sometimes the most decimated and ignored quilt possesses the mostinteresting design!

The Rococofashion for curved lines and stylized natural motifs permeated the decorativeand fine arts in the eighteenth century. Aquiltmaker in this period could see Rococo elements in the furniture, wallpaper,teapots and silver spoons in her home, and even in the gravestones of hercommunity’s burying ground. Thus,these same curvaceous lines, stylized flowers, and shell-like motifs appear in early New England quilts. This typeof design was possibly the earliest in New England quilting to break away fromthe traditional, often non-representational, framed center medallion designstypically seen in the imported bed quilts. Most typical of this quilting fashion are stylized floraldesigns (often bearing little or no resemblance to actual flora) cascading fromseveral undulating stems.  Thecurling vines and abstract flowers stitched on these bed quilts also sometimesappear as the “Tree of Life” design, defined by a central “trunk,”generally growing out of a vase or a heart.

Such imaginativefloral designs were woven or embroidered into a variety of textiles, withdecoratively stitched bedrugs,  crewelembroidery, and embroidered whitework bedcovers showing a particularly close relationship to the designs of the quilts. Fortunately, surviving bed rugs (heavy, wool covers worked with eitherlooped or flat, yarn-sewn designs on a plain-woven background) are often dated,and from them we can see that such fantastic flowering vines were popular motifsfor bed covers from about the 1760s to the 1820s. Whole cloth quilts stitched with similar patterns appear to have beenmade in New England for an even longer period, as examples with quilted dates orfamily histories have been found extending into the 1850s. By the nineteenth century, these curved lines and floral abstractionswere no longer part of high-style fashion, but New England women apparentlyconsidered the stylized Rococo motifs to be traditional for bed covers andcontinued to stitch many adaptations of the designs.

The new fashionat the turn of the nineteenth century was the Neoclassical, derived from ancientGreek and Roman architecture and art.  Linesand patterns became simplified, straight, geometric, and uncluttered. Quilt designs followed suit, with motifs such as hearts, flowers,pinwheels, and quatrefoils organized within a grid set on point. These trellis-like designs are frequently bordered by featherpatterns

Designs wereoften drawn, if not by the quilter herself, then by a talented neighbor or localartisan. Elizabeth Foote ofColchester, Connecticut, noted in her diary in 1775 that she “…drew a QuiltBorder…” (probably for a quiltedpetticoat) for a neighbor. [v] Similarly, Sarah Snell Bryant of Cummington, Massachusetts, wrote in an1822 diary entry, “…went to Mr. Briggses to draw a feather on a bedquilt.”[vi] John Brown Copp, a deaf stonemason in Stonington, Connecticut, was oftencalled upon to draw embroidery and, undoubtedly, quilting patterns.[vii] Many designs were drawn freehand directly on the quilt’s surface usingchalk or pencil, for there is seldom evidence of the regularity and symmetry ofa repeated prepared pattern before the grid designs of the Neoclassical period.

Beginning asexpensive, elegant examples of genteel needlework, whole cloth wool quiltsgradually came to be traditional products of rural New England. Later examples show simplified, larger, and more widely dispersedquilting patterns, often stitched into locally-produced wool fabrics that arecoarse and dull compared to the glossy calamancoes of the eighteenth century. Elegant or homely, though, these historic quilts demonstrate theirmakers' workmanship and fertile imaginations.

(Thisexhibit included wool quilts from the Bidwell House Museum collection)

[i] Ellen H. Rollins, New England Bygones (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1883), 237. 
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Massachusetts Spy (Worcester), 1 January 1834, 1.
[iv] Blanche Brown Bryant and Gertrude Elaine Baker, eds., The Diaries of Sally and Pamela Brown, 1832-1838, and Hyde Leslie, 1887, Plymouth Notch, Vermont (Springfield, Vt. William L. Bryant Foundation, 1970), 84.
[v] Elizabeth Foote diary, 8 October 1775. Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Conn.
[vi] Sarah Snell Bryant diary, 13 December 1822. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
[vii] Rita J. Adrosko, "The Copp Family," in Grace Rogers Cooper, The Copp Family Textiles (Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971), 2.

The New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, Copyright for this article belongs to Lynne Z. Bassett and to the Vermont Quilt Festival 2003 program. All Rights Reserved.

New Pathways into Quilt History written by Kimberly Wulfert, Copyright 2004 by Kimberly Wulfert, PhD for this rendition of the article, All Rights Reserved www.antiquequiltdating.com

Lynne Zacek Bassett is an independent scholar specializing in New England's historic costume and textiles.  From 1990-1994 she was the curator of collections at Historic Northampton in Northampton, MA, and from 1995-2000 she was the curator of textiles and fine arts at Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA.  Since going independent, Lynne has undertaken a number of large projects, including organizing and cataloguing the costume collection of The Connecticut Historical Society.  In 2002, she was the guest curator of the exhibit, "Telltale Textiles:  Quilts from the Historic Deerfield Collection" in Deerfield, MA.  Her exhibit, "Modesty Died When Clothes Were Born:  Costume in the Life and Literature of Mark Twain," was on view last summer and fall at The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, CT.  In addition to her exhibition publications, Lynne has been a frequent contributor to PieceWork magazine and has also written for The Magazine Antiques and White House History.  She is currently editor of a five-volume series on American costume history for Greenwood Publishing Group, and is writing the volume on the antebellum period herself.  Her lectures for institutions including Colonial Williamsburg, the Smithsonian Institution, Historic Deerfield, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society of Connecticut have covered a range of topics in the field of early costume, quilts and other bed covers.  

Read more about Lynne's background and motivation in her textilehistorian interview and Richard's "Quilt Bureaucrat" historian interview. See also: Whole-Cloth Quilts: Subtle Beauty in Texture found at the Womenfolk.com site. 

 

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© 2005 - 2016 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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