Monday, September 16, 2019

Martha Washington Teaches Quilting

Quilt begun by Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
 and finished by granddaughter
Eliza Custis Law. Collection of the Smithsonian.

Constance Cary Harrison (1843-1920)
from a locket in the collection of the 
Vriginia Historical Society

Constance Cary grew up in a house full of women, including two "aunts," probably great aunts, sisters-in-law of her grandmother Margaret Herbert Fairfax. Or they may have been cousins. If one was descended from the Fairfaxes of Fairfax County, Virginia, one kept careful track of relatives. But Constance only mentions these two as "two old maiden ladies everybody...called 'my aunts,' " ---no names. Before they moved in with the Carys they lived in Alexandria on King Street, "not far from the river."

The Potomac River

Her elder great-aunt "was rather an alarming old lady, we all thought. Her stern Roman profile resembled that of a warrior on a bas-relief, her hawk's eye seemed to be searching for juvenile depravity," but once she had been the "little pet" of family letters, which told of her visiting Martha and George Washington "at Mount Vernon, learning from her to make a quilt....She left that quilt to me, so I know the tale was true."

"A large tree with flowers, fruit and birds, all at once"
The aunt's quilt probably included a tree of life like this
one auctioned at Christie's
"She bequeathed to me ... the counterpane of transfer work made by her at Mount Vernon; one of the Italian cotton toiles de Gênes, so familiar to tourists on the Riviera, cut out and 'buttonholed' upon a heavier background, presenting to view a large tree with flowers, fruit and birds, all at once upon its branches."

We can assume a toile de Gênes is a chintz, named in French like a toile de Jouy but made in Genoa rather than France as on the cover of the French book above.

Constance calls the counterpane "transfer work," indicating perhaps the idea of transferring chintz images to a heavier background. She uses the verb "buttonholed" so we assume Martha Washington taught the child to secure the images with a buttonhole stitch.

Collection of Colonial Williamsburg

Some seamstresses left the chintz pieces with raw edges, closely
trimmed,covering any frays with a close buttonhole stitch.
This needlework is attributed to the Boyle Sisters of Petersburg, Virginia.

What became of Constance's family quilt after she died in 1920? 

At least two surviving quilts are attributed to Martha Washington.
This one with a monochrome toile center is called the Penn's Treaty Quilt
and is the collection of Mt. Vernon, the Washington home.

It was photographed over 100 years ago when it was in better condition.

A copper plate print featuring William Penn's acquisition of
land for Philadelphia is the centerpiece.

Both quilts are pieced with no "buttonholing" or chintz applique like
Constance Cary Harrison described.

The Smithsonian's

Update: I wrote that without noticing the appliqued circles or applique of toile sprigs. Those brown florals may be buttonholed.

A chintz applique quilt also in the collection of Mount Vernon, is pictured in First Flowerings: Early Virginia Quilts. The Dandridge family attributed this quilt to Martha but the curators have considered it so stylistically unrelated to the pieced medallions that they have been reluctant to describe it as anything further than a quilt descending in the Dandridge family. Perhaps Martha taught another girl to buttonhole and cut out chintz.
Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis 

There is much evidence that Martha Washington was adept with her needle. In 1851 granddaughter Eleanor Custis Lewis bragged about her own daughter's needlework skills in a letter to friend Elizabeth Borderly Gibson: " My darling child inherited a love of the needle and all its uses from my Beloved Grandmother."

Susan Schoelwer, executive director of historic preservation and collections at Mount Vernon, shows you details of Martha Washington's Penn's Treaty Quilt in this video:

And read a little more about Washington family quilts at this post:

Read Constance Cary Harrison' Recollections Grave and Gay at Documenting the American South:


  1. Very interesting video and it reminds me how much I love medallion quilts. Thank you!

  2. I did enjoy the video - and loved the pinwheel fabric. Those tiny dots in the lattice work! Very interesting post, thanks Barbara.