Friday, January 4, 2013

Gray is the New Black

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
The major difference between today's gray quilts and those of a century ago is that solid grays are important now, but the antique tops and quilts are full of gray prints. Solid grays didn't seem to be an option until about 1940.

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
Dated 1903-1914
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
Dated 1909


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.


Helen said...

Interesting that something we think of as modern today was also modern a hundred years ago.I enjoyed this post.
I really like the fifth quilt (the one with circles in gray and claret). Is there a larger image available? I'd like to try and recreate it.

kathyinozarks said...

This post was so interesting-thank you Kathy

WoolenSails said...

I don't think I have ever used gray in anything, but can imagine using it with brights or darks to give it more contrast.


Barbara Brackman said...

Helen---that's the only photo I have. The pattern is Steeplechase #1504c in BlockBase if that helps.

Barbara Brackman said...

Oops Helen. Wrong quilt. I was talking about the fourth image with the Turkey red circles. That fifth quilt is interesting. I don't have a bigger image. I'll see if I can find the pattern in BlockBase.

Rosemary Youngs said...

Really enjoyed the post, pictures of Quilts were wonderful

Janet said...

Such an interesting post! I loved the pictures!! Thanks!

smazoochie said...

I love the "Modern" esthetic, but they do tend to think they invented it all. Everything old is New again!

Jan said...

Great info, as always, and wonderful examples - love those greys!

abelian said...

I have a quilt made by my great-grandmother, which family history dates to around 1910. It has turkey red stars on a gray background. Here's a quick photo of the gray fabric:


I also like that 5th quilt!


Every Stitch said...

Mmmm some lovely quilts there! Grey is not my favourite colour but it does complement other colours so well and I have used some for that reason. It has no doubt been practical for everyday use too?
Every Stitch

taylorsoutback said...

As always - you continue to bring us fascinating information. My own stash offers few greys for piecing. And LQS's rarely have more than a few bolts. Perhaps we will see more offerings soon.

~Kris~ said...

Another interesting article. I will have to look at my old quilts and see if there are any of these grays. I noticed that the background on your blog is now dark gray. It is nearly impossible for me to read the print.

Barbara Brackman said...

Kris---that background is supposed to be white. It looks white to me.
I'll see what I can do

Michelle said...

Wow! what an amazing post! and yes, grey has been my black for awhile now, using it instead of white for backgrounds (black has always been too harsh for me.. except if you are Amish of course!) Thankyou for all your effort and information. I teach a beginners class here in Australia and I am passiionate about quilts and their history and always like to give little 'tid bits' of information along the way to the class (and they love it!). So again, thankyou

Unknown said...

I am desperatly looking for fabric from your Butternut Blue Civil war replica 1850-1870 collection, especially the blue colors. Can anyone help me or does anyone have any yardage that I could purchase.
Thanks, Sarma

gaye ingram said...

I always learn---sometimes relearn---things from this blog, BB.

Love the description of the grays as appropriate to "elderly women not in mourning."

Thanks for keeping on keeping on.

Bonnie Coleman said...

I have a tied quilt with 16 patches of indigo/maroon/turkey reds/plaids/everything but the kitchen sink. The sashing & back are this grey print. The quilt is in such pristine condition I kept trying to tell myself it was reproduction! However, the fabric is super soft & the batting is thin & lumpy. It is finished with a clean edge - no binding just turned in edge. So based on your excellent article, I believe it must be dated 1890-1920. I have photos is they would be useful to you. This quilt was purchased at auction for almost nothing! Thank you for your super educational blog! cole0319@bellsouth.net (Bonnie C.)

Linda said...

Do solid grays every appear before 1890 or so? I have an example of a solid gray background with a pink flower included in blocks loaded with manganese-bronze style fabrics. Thanks.