Sunday, May 31, 2020

Sarah Miller's Quilt & How to Make A Tree of Life Chintz Quilt

Quilt with name Sarah F.C.H. Miller and date 1830,
Charleston, South Carolina,  Shelburne Museum Collection
109 x 125"

A chintz applique with the hollyhock bush in the center, flanked by a pair of pheasant and mango trees.

Cut from this chintz.

I think it once belonged to Florence Peto of New Jersey, collector,
dealer and quilt historian in the mid-20th century.

Many of the quilts Florence found wound up at the Shelburne Museum
where this quilt is today. She included it in her 1949 book Historic Quilts & Coverlets.

Under the central tree a name and a date
"Sarah F.C.H. Miller
Some read this signature as Sarah T.C. Miller.

The name Miller, the hollyhock bush and the format of the name under the central image would make one think we have another quilt related to the family of Mary C. Miller Taylor.

Mary spent several years in the Charleston area after her mother married John McNair of Stateville when Mary was about twelve. The Miller/McNair family included at least nine children who survived into adult hood but not one sister or sister-in-law named Sarah. Mary had five brothers who might have sired a Sarah Miller.

Peto tells us a little about "Sarah T.C. Miller," who lived with her brother Dr. Miller. " 'Sis Sally,' as she was known to her intimates, was sister of Dr. Miller who was minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Charleston; unmarried, she made her home with her brother and worked out a variation of the tree of life for the bed in the guest room."  I could not found a Dr. Miller in the records of the First Presbyterian but there were several Presbyterian Churches in Charleston.

Of course Miller is a common name so this Sarah Miller and Mary Miller Taylor could have been perfect strangers, living 100 miles away from each other in Charleston and Savannah. However, it is interesting how related the quilts seem to be.

But that may be because they follow a formula, a pattern so to speak. The tree-of-life applique quilts made north and south between 1800 and 1840 have a lot of variety but there is a typical style. If you were inclined to make a tree-of-life chintz quilt (and you had the right chintzes) here's how to make it look authentic.

The design conventions seem to be based on traditional compositions
seen in printed Indian palampores as in this one from the Charleston Museum

1) Applique a large tree or bush-like composition to a large white center square or rectangle perhaps 45 inches wide or larger. Cut arborescent tree limbs, florals and birds from various chintzes.

Edges turned under, appliqued with a blind stitch
Detail from a quilt in the Charleston Museum

Trim the images quite closely, leaving perhaps a bare quarter inch around the image if you are going to turn under the edges and stitch with an applique stitch. Or trim quite closely and stitch down the raw edges with a buttonhole stitch.

Raw edge, buttonhole stitch. Detail from a quilt in the D.A.R. Museum

1) Composition tips for the center

Worcester Historical Museum
Massachusetts project & the Quilt Index photo

1a) Use more than one tree trunk to fill out the composition, two intertwined trunks looks good.

Quilt attributed to Margaret Seyle Burgess, Charleston Museum
Dated 1833

1b) Place the tree on a small hill or landscape.

Debby Cooney's collection, photographed at a Paducah Rotary exhibit a few years ago

1c) Expand that landscape horizontally by placing a bird and/or more vegetation to the left and right.

Quilt attributed to Hannah Miller, Georgia project

From the Dillow Collection at the International Quilt Museum

British Quilters Guild collection

1d) Scatter a few butterflies or other insects to fill up some white space.

Center of Sarah Miller's 1830 quilt

1e) If white space still looks empty toss in a few small flowers or birds too.

2) Frame the Center

Quilt attributed to Margaret Seyle Burgess, Charleston Museum
Dated 1833

2a) Your easiest option is a frame of chintz print.

Also from the Charleston Museum

From Fourth Corner Antiques

Small quilt (63 inches wide) attributed to Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend,
South Carolina, National Museum of American History
A striped chintz adds more detail in one border.

2b) Another option: Borders of small floral or bird vignettes cut from chintz.

Quilt attributed to Frances Outerbridge
Pook & Pook Auction

Attributed to Mary Malvina Cook Taft
Metropolitan Museum of Art

International Quilt Museum

2c) Or combine both types of borders as Sarah Miller did.

And there you have a formula for a tree of life quilt.


  1. I've been looking for chintz fabric online for the past week and it's hard to find any. Any suggestions?

  2. Unfortunately I do not have any ideas. It's not popular right now so very few new pieces come out. I'd go to Etsy or Ebay and see what you can find in second hand quilt fabric chintz
    or use decorating fabrics.

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