Collecting pieces of the past – quilts

A quilt is a very specific being. Technically, a quilt is made up of three layers: a top, which can be a solid piece of fabric, appliquéd, pieced or a combination; the back, which can be another solid piece of fabric, or pieced; and the batting, which is the center layer that can be cotton, wool, polyester, a blend of poly and cotton, or even silk.

Many vintage quilts are batted with an old blanket or even an old, worn quilt. The fabrics are usually cotton or wool, or fine fancy fabrics like silk, velvet, satin and taffeta. The layers of a true quilt are held together by the stitching, or quilting, that goes through all three layers and is usually worked in a design or pattern that enhances the piece overall. The term “quilt” has become synonymous with bedcover to many people, and we include tied quilts, comforters and quilt tops, none of which are true quilts in the technical description, in this book.

Quilts made from a seemingly single solid piece of fabric are known as wholecloth quilts, or if they are white, as whitework quilts. Usually such quilts are constructed from two or more pieces of the same fabric joined to make up the necessary width. They are often quilted quite elaborately, and the seams virtually disappear within the decorative stitching. Most wholecloth quilts are solid-colored, but prints were also used.

Whitework quilts were often made as bridal quilts and many were kept for “best,” which means that they have survived in reasonable numbers.

Wholecloth quilts were among the earliest type of quilted bedcovers made in Britain, and the colonists brought examples with them according to inventory lists that exist from colonial times. American quiltmakers used the patterns early in the nation’s history, and some were carried with settlers moving west across the Appalachians.

Appliqué quilts are made from shapes cut from fabric and applied, or appliquéd, to a background, usually solid-colored on vintage quilts, to make a design. Early appliqué quilts dating back to the 18th century were often worked in a technique called broderie perse, or Persian embroidery, in which printed motifs were cut from a piece of fabric, such as costly chintz, and applied to a plain, less expensive background cloth.

Appliqué was popular in the 1800s, and there are thousands of examples, from exquisite, brightly colored Baltimore Album quilts made in and around Baltimore between circa 1840 and 1860, to elegant four-block quilts made later in the century. Many appliqué quilts are pictorial—with floral designs the predominant motif. In the 20th century, appliqué again enjoyed an upswing, especially during the Colonial Revival period, and thousands were made from patterns or the mainly appliqué kits that were marketed and sold from 1900 through the 1950s.

Pieced, or patchwork, quilts are made by cutting fabric into shapes and sewing them together to make a larger piece of cloth. The patterns are usually geometric, and their effectiveness depends heavily on the contrast of not just the colors themselves, but of color value as well. Patchwork became popular in the United States in the early 1800s.

Colonial clothing was almost always made using cloth cut into squares or rectangles, but after the Revolutionary War, when fabric became more widely available, shaped garments were made that left scraps. Frugal housewives, especially among the westward-bound pioneers, began to use these cutoffs to put together blocks that could then be made into quilts. Patchwork quilts are by far the most numerous of all vintage-quilt categories, and the diversity of style, construction and effect that can be found is a study all its own.

Many collectors focus on one type of quilt, based on the technique perhaps, or within a color range or a particular time period. Others are entranced by variety and assemble highly eclectic collections covering many areas of the quiltmaker’s art. A study of any aspect of the subject that interests you will pay dividends as you add items to your own collection.

Detecting fakes and repairs

Sadly, as in most areas of collecting, the unscrupulous exist and try to pass off quilts as being something that they are not. However, I believe that this happens less often than cases in which a dealer or private seller simply does not have the information they need to describe a quilt accurately. Dating a quilt is always tricky, and it is here that the uninformed or unwary purchaser can be most easily misled.

One thing to look out for is the use of reproduction fabrics, which abound, and can fool even the eagle-eyed on occasion. Repro prints from the Civil War era and the 1930s are particularly popular, and while it can be hard to age new fabrics sufficiently to pass them off as being 150 years older than they are, it is possible. It is easier to deceive with the 1930s prints, especially if they are washed a few times, or if it is claimed that pieces are “unused” and “never laundered.”

The Pinwheel variation quilt shown bottom left contains typical repro prints in a pattern that was made during the ’30s and could be mistaken for an older piece. It was in fact made in 1999, but the maker has been careful to explain its origin and date fully on her label on the back.

Pay particular attention when buying a crib-sized quilt. There are countless quilts around that are categorized as “cutters.” These are bed quilts that are stained or damaged too badly to retain much value, and quiltmakers and other crafters often cut out the usable parts and make them into pillows, stuffed toys, and smaller quilts. A true vintage crib quilt is usually more expensive inch for inch than all but the finest of bed quilts, and the unwary might be sold a cut-down piece at an inflated price.

The pattern on a crib quilt should be scaled smaller than it would be on a full-sized example. A frequent giveaway to a cut-down is that it contains a few large blocks and has no border, such as the pink and white hearts quilt shown here, which was cut down by the owner, who tried to repair the large quilt but found it was disintegrating in too many places to save. The other crib-size piece shown was cut down and is not yet finished. You may decide to purchase anyway if the price is right, but you should know what you are getting.

Another practice to watch for is the finishing of a vintage top. Many collectors purchase vintage tops in order to finish them, which means that they can be used and that they are stabilized for future generations to enjoy. Using age-appropriate vintage fabrics that provide the right visual balance to create borders, binding and backing means that the finished quilt will look vintage, but the seller should always tell a prospective buyer the history of the quilt. Remember that the quilting will not have been done by the original quiltmaker either.

Sets of vintage blocks that have never been assembled can also be found in large numbers, especially on Internet sites. Putting them together and finishing a quilt is another way of saving them for posterity, but again, purchasers should always be informed of the quilt’s past.

The Fan quilt shown next was made from vintage fabrics that had been cut into the fan blades, and about 50 of the fans had been assembled. The collector who owned them added handles and backgrounds using vintage fabrics, and made the border from vintage feedsacks. A typical ’30s quilt made in the 1990s, this owner has also labeled the piece so there is no mistaking its provenance.

Damaged quilts are often repaired by collectors who are also quiltmakers. If repairs are made skillfully with age-appropriate fabric, they can be virtually undetectable, but again, sellers should inform interested buyers of the facts. Well-made repairs can stabilize a quilt and give it a whole new lease on life, and in some cases may even enhance the value of the piece, but honesty is still the best policy.

Provenance can also be an issue. Many quilts were handed down through families with their stories told and retold for each new generation. Written documentation from original makers is usually hard to come by, however, and inaccuracies can occur in retelling the history of Great Aunt Sally’s wedding quilt. Serving an internal pinch of salt with any purchase you are considering is an excellent idea.

Be particularly wary of any item that purports to be an “underground railroad” quilt. The romantic story of quilts being used to mark the safe houses and routes used by escaping slaves in the mid-1800s is disputed among scholars, and if such quilts existed, they would have turned up long ago. Many quilts made during the right timeframe, and even more since, are patterns that are claimed by the single source for the theory to be designs that were used, but until more evidence is found, this is an area to beware.