We get a little window into the past in dated quilts like the 1797 Sun Dial quilt on exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum right now.
In 1797 British and European manufactories had for decades been producing cotton calico prints, the small scale fabrics used for clothing, furnishings and quilts, so some of the fabric was domestic and some of it was probably imported from India. Although the roller printing machine was invented over a decade earlier, the majority of the prints would have been produced with traditional hand printing using wood blocks.
See a design for a cotton print in the collection of the Victoria and Albert by clicking here:
Who wore these prints in 1797?
1797 fashion plate featuring a striped cotton dress and a Spencer jacket
We can imagine 21-year-old Jane Austen dressed in "spotted muslin" writing at her home in the Steventon Rectory on a novel called First Impressions (later Pride & Prejudice).
In Northanger Abbey she has Mr Tilney impress Catherine Moreland with his knowledge of fashion by describing her appearance. She was wearing a "sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings—plain black shoes—appear[ing] to much advantage." In other words, a dress of cotton printed with small leaves and sprigs of flowers.
In London Mary Wollstonecraft, pregnant with the daughter who would become Mary Godwin Shelley, might have been stitching baby clothes of cotton prints.
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin 1759-1797
Her daughter Mary, who never knew her, wrote Frankenstien
Despite her belief in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the theme of the book she'd published about five years earlier, poor women like Mary Godwin remained tied to hand sewing.
The upper class shared the fashion for cotton prints. Princess Charlotte Augusta, daughter of Prince George, was christened in February, 1797. In line for the British throne, Charlotte would have had the best of clothing with fine cotton prints considered a luxury item.
Both she and Mary Wollstonecraft would die in childbirth, altering history in small and significant ways.
Princess Charlotte 1796-1817
After her death her cousin Victoria became heir to the throne.
In America, Abigail Adams assumed the role of the wife of the President of the United States when her husband John Adams was inaugurated that year.
Abigail Smith Adams 1744-1818
In her letters she wrote about the fashion for "muslin," which meant a better weave of cotton then than it does today. As wife of the President she tried to set a conservative style.
I wish any thing would persuade the Ladies that muslin is not a proper winter dress.
So far as example goes, I shall bring in the use of silks.
Abigail Adams, Letter to her sister, Dec. 4, 1799
And at the other end of the social scale, a girl was born to a slave in New York. Named Isabella Baumfree, she would carry on Mary Wollstonecraft's idea about human rights as Sojourner Truth.
Isabella Baumfree (Sojourner Truth) 1797-1883
As a slave Isabella may have worn some fine cotton prints cast off from older girls in the household, but the clothing of the slave was generally a coarse cotton weave called Osnaburg or "slavecloth." In the photo taken in the 1850s, many years after she bought her freedom, her dress appears to be a fashionable stripe of a wool blend.
In my Moda collection called Hartfield, which came out last year, I tried to capture the palette of pastels and brown that was so important about 1800. Inspired by the shades in the Sun Dial quilt I included teal blues, lilacs and pink.
A quilt I saw at the Road to California show
in the Quilters' Coop booth, made from the Hartfield collection.
See more about the exhibit Quilts:1700-2010 at the Victoria and Albert Museum by clicking here: