Domestic Affairs: From Bengal to Baltimore, Linda Baumgarten and 400 years of American Quilts

McCarl Gallery color corrected 07-2012

Where do you begin when you have only an hour to cover 400 years of quilting history in the United States? Linda Baumgarten, curator of costumes and textiles for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, began with the story of one quilt. Citing diary entries by the quilter, showing close ups and full length images of the quilt, and last a photograph of the quilter with the quilt: Linda’s mother in law, who made the quilt for Linda and her husband.

A perfect introduction to the history of a textile that is as intimate and personal as it is beautiful and artistic. And a perfect match to the “mini-exhibition” that preceded the lecture, which was in fact the sharing by various members of the American Decorative Arts Forum of family quilts, and hopefully getting a clearer picture of the ages and origins of their heirlooms.

The lecture coincides with an exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg of several quilts from Baltimore, on display through May 2014. As well as with the publication of Linda’s latest book on the Colonial Williamsburg (CW) collection of quilts, out next year.

What was equally wonderful about Linda’s lecture is that instead of simply following a chronological history of quilts, she instead focused on aspects of quilting history that were completely new to me, at least. I have always known that quilting was an international craft, as evidenced by the “melting pot” — if you will — of American quilt designs such as the Norwegian star, Amish designs, and others. But I did not know that in the earliest days of the American colonies, quilts from Eastern India were regularly imported by colonists as luxury items. After showcasing the wonderful Flying Geese quilt her mother in law had made for her, Linda cycled through several pieces from the CW collection discussing the lecture’s main question of “what is an American quilt”, finally reaching a quilt from the 1650s, with a gold tambour embroidery pattern on a cream ground, clearly from India. Which emphasized the point: how do you define an “American” quilt when all of these are part of the textile’s history.

I hadn’t realized until then that I had a stereotype about quilts and quilting. I had always imagined it as something “pioneer” women did during the evening, together, to save fabric from discarded clothing, or scraps, to keep their families warm. Quilts in my mind were synonymous with “home made”. And yet Linda shared ship manifests, import records, and newspaper advertisements for ready-made quilts from East India and Britain. All of the quilts were hand made, but not at home. Those imported from Britain, at least, were made by upholsterers’ shops to go with the beds and other furniture they sold. Not that quilts weren’t made at home, but until about 1800 or a little later, they were made by middle and upper class women as a luxury item, and way to show off their skills, and as a way to socialize, since typically more than one person worked on a quilt. Even men made quilts. Later in the lecture Linda showed paintings of men in hospital during World War I working on quilts as part of their therapy.

Quilts also followed fashion to a certain extent. At the beginning of the colonial period and through the eighteenth century, plain ground quilts made of glazed wool were particularly popular. Later on appliqué became popular, especially as the nineteenth century progressed when “autograph” quilts, or quilts such as those in the image above, became all the rage. In an autograph quilt, each woman contributes one square before the quilt is finished (placed over the quilting in the middle and given a back), usually as a gift for someone who might be leaving town. This might be because the woman married, or a young man was going to college, but the story of one quilt was quite bittersweet: a minister’s wife whose husband was sent to a new parish nearly every two or three years would request a quilt square from friends she had made during her stay and now had to leave. A way to remember people and be remembered.

The autograph quilts brought forward something else I had not realized — the near-identical designs in several of the squares revealed that there were in fact “kits” of squares where all the appliqué pieces were pre-cut and even pinned in place so that all the purchaser had to do was sew them together. I had always thought of the craft kits you see in various stores or online — whether entire knitting  projects with pattern and yarn, maybe even needles, or sewing projects with all the pieces and the instructions for how to put it together — were a completely modern invention. A novel way to teach skills everyone used to have but now are somewhat rare. The more I study art and dress history the more I realise nothing is new.

Another revelation was that many of the patterns used in the quilting stitches were created by professional pattern designers as well, not necessarily passed down through the generations. Once popular these designs would last for generations no matter how general aesthetics had changed — hence the Baroque designs you see on quilts made during the height of the neoclassical period.

And this brings me to the most amazing part of Linda’s lecture, and what I am sure will be the highlight of her upcoming book. She would show us quilts, sometimes very simple Amish quilts, and then she would show us a graphic in white that showed the amazing, elaborate quilting stitches in the background, otherwise invisible in the photograph. This was incredible because it enabled me to see things I don’t even know if I would have seen in a museum with the quilts on the wall in front of me. It highlighted a very particular aspect of historic quilts: they were designed to be seen on beds, in the bedroom, where the sunlight from a window could catch the change in the texture and other patterns on a horizontal surface you otherwise would not be able to see.

These patterns also help you to determine a quilt’s place of origin. Linda placed two quilts side by side, each seemed to use the same triangular appliqué or patchwork pattern, the same dark colours that one would expect from an Amish quilt. Then Linda showed the patterning of the quilting stitches which were completely different and revealed that one was indeed Amish, the other was Welsh. Vital in the textile history world to be able to tell the difference, or even if you are a quilt collector.

Another incredible discovery is the literary history that can be found inside the quilts themselves. Women would cut out out pattern pieces from old books, papers, newspapers, letters — like the unfinished quilt by Francis Scott Key’s wife at the San Jose Quilt and Textile Museum, where Key’s love letters to his future wife are found under the quilt as pattern pieces. Who knew quilts could reveal what the average household might have read — or no longer wanted to read.

Quilts as a luxury item made by and for upper and middle class families didn’t last. As the nineteenth century wore on and the industrial revolution led to more, cheaper fabric, quilts took on their current perception of being how families preserved scraps and bits of fabric. It is also when the African-American tradition of quilting began to emerge. And now quilting has returned to the earlier tradition of being a luxury, a craft. And one which has retained its social aspect.

In the eighteenth century their were quilting parties or “quiltings”, where young women would socialize not only with each other but perhaps brothers of friends, and other potential partners. Many even ended in impromptu dances once the daylight faded and the quilting materials were put away. These evolved into the quilting bees of the nineteenth century, where women would congregate to work on a quilt.

What I came away with was a history as rich and varied as America’s own. The quilt has been with us since the beginning, and it changes and evolves with us. From luxury to necessity to art form to cherished tradition.

There was not enough time to cover everything. An hour for 400 years is not enough. Still, there was so much information. Crazy quilts of the nineteenth century were barely touched on, as were several other fads and traditions.

I guess I’ll just need to buy Linda’s book next year.

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