Quilt top from about 1910
Gray is hot today---or is it cool?
One hundred years ago it was also fashionable for quilts.
Quilt top from about 1910.
All these pictures from online auction are dated
about the same time.
A Modern Quilt
Pretty Square by Denyse Schmidt
in the Fog colorway
You often see gray prints combined with shirting prints (white prints with small figures), indigo blues and bright Turkey reds in a color scheme that was a fad for scrappy quilts.
Claret, a wine red, was also used with grays.
The silver gray prints feature black figures and fine black lines and dots on a white background. They read as gray from a distance.
The gray prints are so distinctive that they are one of the best clues for dating antique quilts:
Black and white prints with fine black lines that appear to be gray are a good clue to a quilt from about 1890-1925.
In my 1989 book Clues in the Calico I summarized what I had seen in textile history books and mail order catalogs:
"The prints were known by several names. Fabric historian Florence Pettit recorded the name Shaker Grays although she notes that there is no record that the Shakers acutally wore them. A catalog from the American Printing Company mill listed them as Silver Grays. The Sears, Marshall Field and Montomery Ward catalogs called them Mourning Prints. Montgomery Ward in the 1889-1890 catalog advertised Half Morning Prints, 'very suitable for elderly ladies not in mourning.' "
The terms Mourning Print and Half-Mourning print are older than this print style, published early to mid-19th century in England and America.
This 1864 ad in an English periodical advertises dress for the bereaved including,
"Black Shawls and Mantle Cloths, Mourning Prints and Fancy Dresses, Black and White Ginghams..." (Ginghams might be prints back then too)
In the 1840s Harriet Farley writing in the Lowell Offering described a fictional character, a sad, elderly neighbor who wore a woolen gown in winter and in summer, "one of mourning print."
So the term definitely predates the gray prints of a century ago. Earlier references might be to black wools and cottons that didn't look like the gray cottons in question here.
Quilt top from about 1870-1900
Much of what looks gray is a shirting print,
a white with black figure.
Note the gray with a brown figure in the corner squares.
Quilt collectors also call this gray a mourning print but it's different from the silver grays. It has a blue gray ground with a brown figure and dates from the 1870s.
Gray Swatches from my book
Making History: Quilts & Fabric from 1890-1970
The Shaker Grays or Mourning Prints from the turn of the century feature a true black and are related to the invention of a good black for cotton that didn't fade or rot the fabric, something you don't see until the 1890s.
I looked through my digital file of date-inscribed quilts looking for the earliest quilt that looked to have the black-based gray prints
Quilt dated 1887
Here's one from the late 1880s---which seems a little early based on the swatch books and catalog ads I've seen. Perhaps the dated block was done in 1887 and others were added in the 1890s.
Swatch books from the 1890s and the oughts are full of the innovative grays.
A block from Mamma, 1898
Perhaps with some first words embroidered.
Robert & Dollie
Most of the date-inscribed quilts with gray prints like these date from the first two decades of the 20th century.
Friendship quilt dated 1905
The look was so fashionable from friendship quilts that I have pictures of two with the same block, one set with gray squares, the other with gray sashing.
Same block, same color scheme
This one dated 1921 is the latest date-inscribed example I could find. Surviving examples are only a small proportion of quilts actually made. The gray prints were inexpensive and often used for scrappy quilts that were used and used up.
Which is one reason that most of my examples are
tops rather than quilted pieces.
Although I wrote Clues in the Calico over twenty years ago I wouldn't argue today with my old self. When I wrote Making History, which updated Clues a few years ago, I didn't go into mourning prints in any detail as I still felt the information in Clues was accurate. When you see a quilt like the great brickwork quilt above with its silver gray prints--- think 1890-1920.
Both Clues in the Calico and Making History are out of print. You can buy used paper copies on Amazon.com. See the buttons over on the left (but you have to pay too much for a bound book of Clues). A better option there is the digital version.