Sunday, March 17, 2019

Garnhart Group of Quilts #1: Revisiting Some Old Mysteries

Cover quilt, Detail of a quilt attributed to
Elizabeth Welsh, Warren County, Virginia. 
Brooklyn Museum, Gift of The Roebling Society.

The Brooklyn Museum organized an exhibit in 2013 with a catalog Workt by Hand: Hidden Labor and Historical Quilts spotlighting a spectacular eagle applique medallion in their collection.

The Brooklyn Museum's eagle quilt

Beautiful fabric, beautiful hand work

Remarkably the quilt has a twin.

Quilt attributed to Anna Catherine Markey Garnhart, private collection.
Photo courtesy of the D.A.R. Museum

The best way to tell these apart is that the family quilt 
here has a palm tree below the basket that is missing in the 
Brooklyn Museum's quilt. [It's a mango tree, read Deborah Kraak's
article in the current Blanket Statements from AQSG.]

Building on research that former DAR Museum Curators Gloria Allen and Nancy Gibson and independent researcher Dorothy Cozart have done on the almost identical quilt shown at DAR Museum on loan, current curator Alden O'Brien, Debby Cooney and I gave much thought to the similarities between the Welch quilt and its twin attributed to Catherine Garnhart by its owners, Catherine's descendants. Six years ago we looked long and hard for some Markey or Garnhart connection to Elizabeth Weltch or Welsh or Welch in Virginia and West Virginia.

Our major thread was a hope to link Elizabeth to Catherine Garnhart because many of the quilts attributed to her hand descended in the families of Catherine's 11 grandchildren by her first husband David Markey.  The best clue we had was Debby's recalling that William Dunton's notes contained a reference to a Welch in Frederick. Plate 89 in his book Old Quilts is probably the Brooklyn Museum's quilt then owned by collector Pauline Eppley Leiter of Hagerstown.

Alden organized the research on this pair of time-worn quilts that may have descended in another New England/Ohio family with no ties to the Markeys or Garnharts and none to Virginia.

And she spotted this quilt in a print done in 1938 by Nantucket
Artist Mary Turley Robinson, called "Nantucket Crickets" (ottomans)
probably one of the quilts above.

Just how many quilts are in the Garnhart group?
The number seems to be 11

Brooklyn Museum quilt

In the years since the Brooklyn Museum exhibit I've tried interpreting the Garnhart quilts from a number of angles. This amazing body of quilts often attributed to one woman sparked my skepticism that one seamstress working alone made all those attributed to her. The alternative theory involved looking at quiltmaking as a commercial enterprise rather than a hobby or an artistic labor of love.

The DAR Museum was given this quilt attributed to Garnhart
by a family member. The quilting is dated 1846.

I started the blog Woman's Work: Making a Living Making Quilts a little over a year ago to clarify my thinking about creating style, marketing fabric and selling quilts in an economic context.

Brooklyn Museum quilt

Five years ago I saw the prints as general "chintzes," game birds, baskets, and vague florals. I realized I'd have to learn a lot more about chintz. By categorizing details of early-19th-century quilts I found many popular designs used over and over in these applique designs often called Broderie Perse. Comparing fabrics gives us a much better idea of when the quilts were made.

Private Collection quilt

Fabric from which the basket above was cut

I also decided I needed to learn a lot more about Frederick, Maryland where Catherine Garnhart lived her long life, born just before the American Revolution and dying just before the Civil War. What was Catherine's social network like? If she indeed made all these quilts who helped her?  What was her economic status? Who was sewing for a pastime in Frederick and who was sewing for a living in Frederick? Who was selling chintzes?

Basket detail of a quilt on display for the rest of the year
at the D.A.R. Museum in Washington.

Learning about Frederick was realtively easy and learning something about Catherine, a middle class woman of her time, was also relatively easy (especially since Suzanne Antippas assisted with a good deal of genealogical work on her). But learning about the economics of sewing for a living there in the first half of the century has been one dead end after another.

I thought I'd post all this week about the Garnhart quilts, what I've found and how my thinking has changed.

In deciding how many Garnhart quilts there are we are relying on old images and it's hard to figure out if we are missing any or counting the same quilt twice. Here's an example:

The Brooklyn Museum quilt may have another doppelg√§nger. This is a watercolor of a quilt done by Charles Bowman in 1937 for the Index of American Design, a W.P.A. project. They asked artists to copy artifacts as closely as they could. Some were borrowed from museums; others from private collectors and family. This one looks just like the Brooklyn Museum's.

But the painting is not exactly the same as the Brooklyn Museum's quilt, which probably belonged to a Baltimore Collector Pauline Eppley Leiter in 1937. Proportions are slightly different---it is, however,  a watercolor and not a photograph.

The most telling detail is the upper left corner of the pair.

Bowman, presumably not a sewist, detailed a long top border seam in his painting. The photo of the Brooklyn Museum quilt shows a long side border seam. He may have accurately painted that seam, indicating there are three quilts. But then again...it's a painting not a photo.

UPDATE: Alden kindly emailed me:
"As for the Index of American Design watercolor—despite the discrepancies in where the artist put the seam, I think it’s pretty established that it’s the same as the Brooklyn. The IAD... says the quilt was owned by Mrs Frederick Leiter and that’s who Brooklyn says it was from too."

Twins not triplets!

More tomorrow and four more posts.

See a post on Women's Work about the Hummel/Markey/Garnhart's women's bad luck with husbands' longevity here:


  1. This is SO interesting! Thanks for your diligent research and the others mentioned too! You’ve shared with us so much history of quiltmaking over the years that we would never would have had otherwise! It could fill another book, or more, from just your blog posts!

  2. But blog posts are so much more fun than books. Thanks Cyndi

  3. You've contacted the Garnhart descendants of the DAR quilt? They have some interesting stories, which were told to me. Keep digging. Fascinating topic! Thank you for sharing.

  4. What I am doing with the Women's Work idea is completely ignoring family stories at first---making decisions about style, date etc from the quilts not the stories passed down. Then once I make some decisions I've been comparing the info to the family lore. Sometimes they were right; sometimes way wrong---bound up in myths and preconceived assumptions.

  5. Thanks for all the research & discussion. These quilts are favorites of mine and I never tire of learning more about them!