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A Trip Through Quilting History: Antique American Quilt Patterns

We all remember the antique American quilt that we fell in love with.


The quilt I remember the most from my childhood certainly isn’t the most beautiful. It wasn’t even the most comfortable. I only remember it because it told a story.


The quilt was just a simple nine patch block pattern made of a bunch of fabrics my grandmother collected during the Depression: seed and flour sacks; denim from my grandfather’s overalls; bits of patterned fabric left over after sewing my mom’s dresses. It was a patchwork of history, stories and traditions--a depression quilt passed down from mother to daughter in my family to this day still.


In my imagination, the quilt was a story of love, family and tradition that we would (and did!) pass from daughter to mother for three generations. Of course, the creation of the quilt became almost mythological.


The story involved my grandma, Nana Taylor, setting aside fabrics throughout the year. I imagined her, and many other women before her, sitting by the fire and piecing the quilt together by hand. When it came time, I imagined she took it to a Quilting Bee and her friends helped her sew it all together.


My love of quilting--and more specifically, my love of quilting history in the United States--began with Nana Taylor’s quilt. Quilting certainly didn’t begin in the United States--it’s among one of the oldest traditions around the globe, regardless of culture.


Quilting has always been a way for women to creatively express themselves while still productively contributing to the welfare of their families. The fact that it used leftovers and scraps meant that most women could do it. During the formation and early years of the Republic, these two facts helped establish quilting as American folk art.


I’m going to give you the broad strokes of the history American patchwork and quilting. I’ll show you some of the antique quilt patterns that make America’s traditional quilts. Hopefully you’ll truly learn how to make an American quilt!

Antique Quilt Patterns: History of Quilting in America

Early American Quilts


I was sad to learn it, so I hesitate to tell you this: the old image of a colonial American woman sitting by the fire piecing together a quilt isn't at all what quilting looked like back then.


It isn’t even close.


From what we know of colonial American quilts, they didn’t resemble our modern patchwork quilts very much at all. Fabric was expensive in colonial America, and the Puritans weren’t especially fond of lively colors. Most of the fabric that people did have was black, brown, navy and white.


While a quilt comprising those colors could still be beautiful, fabric was also so dire that scraps were frequently needed for actual patches. Colonial women also didn’t have the time to quilt. Their hands were so full with simple survival that they saw time to quilt as a luxury.


Wealthy women quilted, and we have antique quilts from the period to see how they did it. They didn’t patch together a quilt top. They made whole cloth quilts which featured gorgeous embroidery and trapunto for decoration.


Very few of these artifacts exist from the early years of the United States. The Smithsonian does have some examples from the 18th century, like The Copp Family’s Indigo Wool Quilt.


Broderie Perse


Post Revolution Americans loved everything to do with France. This love of All Things French also spread to American quilters during the time too in the form of broderie perse quilts. Broderie Perse is French for “Persian Embroidery,” and they were India (and not Persian!) and some of the earliest printed (not embroidered!) fabrics available in Europe.


The French absolutely loved them. French quilters began cutting out some of the pattern pieces and sewing them onto their whole cloth quilts--a kind of historical appliquė, if you will. These are some of the first traditional quilt patterns historians see in the United States.


Americans went wild for the daring, new and--most importantly--FRENCH quilts. American quilters began doing the same on their whole cloth quilts. At first, they used scrap fabrics left over after the sewing project for which they purchased the fabric. Soon enough, though, broderie perse became the centerpiece.




The first evidence we have of American Medallion Quilts comes from this era, and the quilters used images they cut from bolts of broderie perse. Quilts from this era were still predominantly whole cloth, but we begin to see patterned fabric and appliquė.


Some of our earliest patchwork quilts come from the end of this era, too. Quilting historians believe that patchwork came into vogue when quilters began using patchwork borders on their medallion quilts.


Fabric, especially colored fabric, was still expensive, and embroidery was still the centerpiece, but modern quilting really began during this time period.


Baltimore Album Quilts


In the early 19th century, families kept a guest album in their parlors. Before they left, visitors would sign the book to commemorate their time together. Quilters adopted this idea and the album quilt was born.


Why Baltimore, though, is still a mystery.


These were a lot like a guestbook. Each “guest” was responsible for making their block. They also signed them (though, some embroidered their signatures, as well). The group would then get together to quilt everything together at a quilting bee!


Baltimore album quilts, aside from still being popular today, were some of the first quilts with a pieced top that became popular. The blocks were often embroidered like whole-cloth quilts. A lot of examples feature a lot of broderie perse, also. Nevertheless, the guest blocks were all pieced together, and that's responsible for the idea of a totally pieced quilt top.


Primacy of Patchwork


Patchwork quilting certainly existed before the 19th century. It probably existed in America before the 19th century, even. The 19th century is when patchwork became popular and making the quilts was no longer need-based. This is when quilting became an American folk art.


Like all folk art, though, nailing down specifics is really (really) difficult. Nothing was codified or written down. Antique block (and quilt) patterns were spread by word of mouth. Mothers taught their daughters, sisters taught their sisters and neighbors taught their neighbors. Quilting spread like this for generations.


Lucky historians will find a letter that describes a pattern. Others will sometimes come across a quilt book, which is a loop of roughly sewn blocks women used to record their patterns.


All this means that tacking down when quilting designs emerged is nearly impossible. No one wrote down their block patterns. Women from different regions knew the same pattern by different names. A pattern sometimes had dozens of names. For example, the bear’s paw was alternately called a bear’s paw, a duck’s foot, a hand of friendship, tea leaf, cat’s paw and, my personal favorite, “Illinois Turkey Track.” And that’s not even all of them.


Historians do know, for sure, that the log cabin, bear’s paw and lone star patterns emerged during this time period. Star quilts became especially popular in the West where the Lakota Sioux popularized it. Around this time, the Amish began quilting as well, and Amish Quilts became incredibly popular throughout the nation.


Perhaps the biggest reason that patchwork became so popular during this period was because of the fabric that became widely available. In the 1840s, textile manufacturers industrialized, and colored and patterned fabric became much more widely available, not to mention affordable, than it was previously.


Another reason would be the same reason women used patchwork throughout history: they needed to use everything. The American Civil War created fabric shortages both for the Union and the secessionists, and both armies needed blankets for their soldiers. Women in both the northern and southern states organized quilt ins to help the soldiers. Northern women created quilts for the Sanitary Commission, which distributed them to soldiers. Southern women sold their quilts and gave the proceeds directly to the army.


The mythology of quilting in America begins during this period, too. One of my favorite stories is about Underground Railroad quilts. The story goes that abolitionists hung quilts in their windows that served as guideposts to escaped slaves. Blocks on the quilt warned slaves about dangers on the road or directed them to places they would be safe.


I hate to tell you this, too, but the stories about Underground Railroad quilts are just that: stories. Historians haven’t found any evidence of quilts being used to help freed slaves except to keep them warm.


Modern Quilting


You may not believe this, but quilting fell out of vogue in the early 20th century. After a brief obsession with Crazy Quilts women didn’t quilt quite as much. There just wasn’t a lot of need to use every scrap of fabric after the Civil War ended and the West was finally won.


The Depression changed that, though. When the stock market crashed in 1929, America was plunged into its greatest recession up to that point. Quilting became popular--and necessary--again. Depression-era quilting, unlike the 19th century, is really well documented.


Unlike previously, it has actual written records about quilting patterns. The average American wasn’t the only person hurt by the Great Depression--so were newspapers and magazines--and in order to sell more magazines, publishers began to include quilting patterns (and sometimes fabric!) in their magazines.


Of course, we all know about how feed companies began selling their feed in beautifully printed fabrics. This also happened during the Great Depression, and for similar reasons. Though this fabric was mostly used for clothing, it would eventually wind up in quilts, as well.


Textile manufacturers also began creating brightly colored pastel fabrics. Quilters during this time period went wild for those fabrics. They used them for clothes and, more importantly, for quilts!


Because everything was so well documented, we know which patterns emerged during this time. Both Grandma’s Flower Garden and Jacob’s Ladder (believe it or not) rose to prominence in the Great Depression.


Modern quilting began during the Depression. A lot of what we believe about quilting--like the image of colonial women piecing together a a quilt beside a fire--comes from this time too. Historians have traced the Underground Railroad quilt stories to this time, also.


Your Own Vintage Quilt


Are you trying to make your own Civil War Quilt or American Revolutionary quilt? Or maybe you fell in love with 1920’s and 1930’s vintage quilt patterns. If you’re looking for advice to distinguish your project and make it look authentic, you want to use a historical quilt pattern. But what adds real authenticity is picking the appropriate fabric for the period.


19th century fabrics were colorful--well, more colorful than they were previous to that time. By our standards, we’d say that the fabrics are muted. They also feature tight, geometric patterns.


Moda’s Indigo Gatherings line of fabrics is a really great example of what 19th century fabrics looked like. For something a little less muted--or dark, for that matter--Moda’s Le Beau Papillon has some great floral motifs. My personal favorite period-appropriate fabric line is also by Moda: Lancaster.


Depression-era fabrics were also tightly patterned, though the patterns of the era varied considerably. The key difference here is also color. Pastel colors exploded in popularity during the Great Depression.


Perhaps because the world outlook time was so bleak, Depression-era quilts were bright and playful. A great example of a fabric that can do well in a Great Depression replica quilt is Windam Fabrics’ Storybook. Another great period-appropriate line is Henry Glass and Co’s Nana Mae III.


It’s more difficult to determine the fabrics and colors that distinguish quilts from the 1940s to the 1960s. Quilting suffered a dip in popularity around that time. Quilting didn’t popular again until the 70s, and I’m pretty sure anyone my age can remember the burnt orange and split pea soup green from that era.


Happy stitchin’!


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