Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Brown: In and Out of Fashion

Lost Ship by Barbara Brackman, 2002

Bonnie bus asked:

How did repro fabric get to be so brown?

Unknown pattern, about 1890

Antique quilts were brown. There was a real fad for brown calicoes from about 1860-1890.

From my book America's Printed Fabrics 1770-1890:

Historian Lewis Mumford called the last years of the century The Brown Decades. “The color of American civilization abruptly changed. By the time the [Civil] war was over, browns had spread everywhere: mediocre drabs, dingy chocolate browns, sooty browns that beiged into black.” His perspective, looking backward, reveals a twentieth-century disdain for the color, but in the gilded age, the era of brownstone buildings, walnut furniture and chestnut-haired beauties, brown truly reigned.

We see two main shades of brown in the 19th-century color palette: reddish brown and greenish brown.

Sawtooth variation, about 1875 from Cowan's Auctions

Many of the reddish-browns, the warmer brown  prints, were dyed with madder dye which produced dark browns, burnt oranges, peachy browns, tans, and cinnamon reds.
Madder-style prints were very popular from about 1860 to 1890, but we also see them in patchwork dating back to the 1780s.
The greenish-browns or khaki shades came from a synthetic dye that produced olive, bronze and cooler browns. This color palette appeared about 1875 and remained popular until about 1890.
Small star top using lavenders and bronzey browns about 1880
Pale blue and pink were often part of this bronze palette

 After 1890 brown was passé and black, blue and gray quilts were the thing.
Four-patch, about 1910
When Mumford was writing about brown in 1931, it was considered hopelessly old fashioned. Quilters loved clear pastels and red and grayed green. But color fades in and out of style.

Hexagon medallion about 1940 from Laura Fisher

Brown quilts were again the thing in 1970. At the turn of the 21st century brown was the hot look in primitive, folky quilts.

Pomegranates and Berries by Jan Patek, 2008
Jan Patek's use of brown and her interpretation of antique quilts
has been quite influential in creating the "prim-folk look".
See her kit here:

In the central United States where I live everyone was crazy for brown--- brownish reds, brownish greens, flat blues, tan, tan, tan. There was no true white. We always said brown was a Christmas color. The brown fashion was one reason reproduction prints became so popular. The late-19th-century aesthetic shaped our taste.

Decorating magazine picture from about 1980

Union Square by Pamela Mayfield, 2001
Buy a copy of Pam's Union Square pattern here:

Taste changes and now everyone (like Bonnie) is talking color--- true, clear colors.

So all those browns, whether antique prints or turn of the 21st-century reproductions, might look dull to fans of chartreuse and shocking pink (a revival of the colors of the 1950s and '60s).

The brown color palette was just one style in the 19th century. There were plenty of other fashionable looks.

Basket about 1880

And today browns remain important as authentic reproductions. Without browns, reproduction quilters would be at a loss. Plus those toned down colors are a great decorating palette. Brown is a classic neutral that goes well with wood.

Browns from my current Civil War Homefront collection for Moda

Triple Nine Patch by me and the Sew Whatever group, 2003
The pattern for this and the Lost Ship are in America's Printed Fabrics, which has some lovely brown quilts and fabric on the cover.


  1. Brown is (was?) a Midwestern Christmas color??
    If you say so, it is so.

    Do you know when red, green and white/cream came to be universal Christmas colors in the US? So many people think 19th C. red-and-green-on-white quilts are "Christmas" bride's quilts, but I doubt if any of them were referencing Christmas. My guess (purely a guess, but I think it has something to do with retailing and the commercialization of Christmas around 1900) is that the red, white and green thing post-dates 1900. Am I all wrong?

  2. I've always wondered about that Christmas color thing. And blue for boys and pink for girls. When did that happen?
    Research topic for somebody.

  3. Fascinating reading, as always. Every post is a wealth of information, photos, and links, and thank you for that.

  4. My first quilt class was a 6 week sampler. I came with a stack of browns. Everyone else had stacks from collections. Years later I called the teacher to ask her a question, she said "I remember you, you're the one who quilts with browns" I needed one more piece to work with my browns and it was a struggle to find it in their shop. I still love browns!

  5. The commercialization of Christmas actually started in 1815. According to some study, red and green for Christmas have their roots in the medieval miracle plays. Check this:


    One of the things which I believe played a part in the use of browns in the mid-18th century, particularly in cotton day wear, is the ability of these (and other) dark colors to hide dirt. Washday was a major undertaking with having to boil vats of hot water, and often the close, wrenching the clothes on a scrub board, etc. The longer you could go without having to wash the better.

    Blacks were also popular in the period during and after the Civil war because so many people were in mourning...and some in extended mourning, but again, you don't see the dirt quite so much on a black print.

    When I was a curator in a small New England historical Society I did a lot of work with the voluminous manuscripts of one particular family. Her description of having to do laundry with boils under her arms really made me cringe. The poor woman was a widow and took in laundry for others as well as caring for her own three children.

  6. I love good brown shades, but hard to find in our stores.


  7. Lovely post Barbara, and very interesting.
    Did you know?
    Pink was the colour assigned to boys and light blue to girls. I was watching the British show, Q and A, and compare Steven Fry was a wealth of information on colour and gender in the past. Unfortunately I was flitting in and out of the living room so I missed the exact era he referred to. Colour is so fascinating. Thanks, Ann :)

  8. THanks for a great answer and thank for writing such a great post. I think my bias was always for the red-brown colors and madder prints and right now the repros are going towards the duller browns.
    Got out some older yardage I bought to make CW era dresses (and never did). Lots of "dull" browns, but very suitable for day dresses for a middle-aged woman. I even overdyed a fabric to get a lavender half mourning print.
    My heart lies with madder prints and not many are being produced right now.
    You are right too, I have had a change in my taste in fabrics and love the new "modern" fabrics. Many of them remind me of the 50's and the colors are brighter versions of 30's pastels. Am always curious how long this style will last and what's next?
    Thanks for the post and I do love your examples. Bonnie Bus

  9. So much to think about! Indigo was cultivated here on the island where I live, also Sea Island Cotton here... I have always wondered about why the colors, it's so fascinating! Thank you, Thank you!

  10. My theory for the popularity of brown after the Civil War is that both blue and gray had such horrible connotations...no matter which side you were on, those colors meant heartbreak. Not using those colors (until a generation had passed) would be a way for women to put the war behind them.
    I love those Moda browns of yours, btw!
    Great post....thanks, Barbara.

  11. Another informative post, one that is close to my heart. Brown has always been my second favorite color, next to blue. I've had to defend it in the past because so many people don't care for it. I'm not certain that I would be a quilter if not for brown. I enjoyed reading the history behind the color; thanks, yet again!

  12. I really enjoyed reading your post. I had a little chuckle about brown coming back in the 70's. Our first home was brown - brown bricks, brown roof, brown windows and trim, everything brown! By the time we built our next home, there was not allowed to be brown anywhere!

    I love all the different "modern" colours and styles of quilts but I am always drawn back to the antique colours and styles. I think they got it right very early on in quilting history.