QUILTS & FABRIC: PAST & PRESENT


Saturday, June 27, 2020

Sophia Coltrane: A Quilt & A House

Medallion quilt attributed to Sophia McGee Coltrane (1783-1882)
76” x 80”

The North Carolina project documented this medallion, brought in by one of Sophia’s many descendants.


The bedcover shows style characteristics of an early quilt, likely made before 1820. Patchwork design is typical of the time--- medallion format, simple patchwork, large-scale prints. That center design (14" square)  has been a popular pattern for two hundred years. We would probably call it a Sunflower.

Borders are the basic shapes, square, circle and triangle. The border of circles is not common but is seen in a few early quilts. 

See posts on the border designs here:
http://quilt1812warandpiecing.blogspot.com/2012/01/border-of-circles.html
http://quilt1812warandpiecing.blogspot.com/2012/01/chain-of-squares-borders.html

Fabrics: Limited colors of blues and browns (although some browns might have once been more colorful). Toiles and the reddish-brown foulard print in the central design are rather limited in print style and dyes. The maker may have had a good deal of each fabric but not much variety. Border shapes are cut from monochrome prints in blue and brown, toiles.

Outer borders

Reverse of a quilt dated 1804

Monochrome prints with classical, literary or country imagery were quite popular for decorating. Many scenic designs were made in France (toiles de Jouy), printed with large copper plates.

But England soon copied the style of scenic landscapes with roller prints.
The roller-printed repeat would then be about 15 inches from cow nose to cow nose.


It looks like Sophia's blue prints are more like this roller-printed floral, probably English prints,
which gives us a little more help in dating: After 1800 when Sophia was in her 20s, but before 1840.

Sophia McGee Coltrane (1783-1882)
She lived to be 99.

It's certainly one of the oldest quilts the North Carolina project recorded. If it was indeed made between 1800 and 1820 near Asheboro in what is now Randolph County in central North Carolina , it would be an landmark North Carolina quilt, but it's also possible it is a Maryland quilt..

Map from the application for a 
Local Landmark Designation for Sophia's house

Sophia lived north of  the town of Asheboro, about 50 miles southwest of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Both her quilt and her home have survived the centuries.

She was born in 1783 in Dorchester County in Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Rebecca Busick & Samuel Newton McGee. That year her father is listed as owning two 100 acre-parcels in Maryland but he seems to have owned North Carolina land too as he sold some of it when Sophia was about ten. The McGees may have visited North Carolina and made connections. Sophia married Daniel Coltrane of Randolph County, North Carolina on July 29th, 1808 when they were both in their mid-twenties. 

Did Sophia (and her family) make this quilt in anticipation of her 1808 marriage? The fabrics could easily be that early and so could the style. If so, it would be a very old quilt indeed---even for more sophisticated Maryland..


This medallion by Mary Eby dated 1803 on the quilt is the earliest quilt documented by the Maryland project. See it in their book A Maryland Album by Gloria Seaman Allen and Nancy Gibson Tuckhorn.

Sophia's quilt is similar in several ways to the 1803 quilt
 in medallion format, narrow range of colors in similar shades and 
borders of squares pieced on point.

The William Coltrane House
William deeded his house to son Daniel in 1811.

Because the William Coltrane house has survived (William was Sophia's father-in-law) we can learn a lot more about Sophia from the Local Landmark architectural application, which tells us:
"The William Coltrane House, built between 1785 and 1800, is the oldest known frame house still standing in Randolph County....Coltrane, a Scottish émigré, was a prosperous farmer, one of the county’s early leading citizens, and patriarch of a prominent family that remained in the residence well into the 20th Century."

Jazz-icon John Coltrane about 1930

The Coltranes owned slaves and it is interesting that the most famous Coltrane, saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) was born about 50 miles south of this house, perhaps a descendant of people owned by Sophia's husband's family. His grandfather, another William Coltrane, was born about 1860.

Interior woodwork was quite elegant
 William Coltrane "built his well-appointed farmhouse between 1785 and 1800 (probably closer to the former) on 400 acres granted to him by the State of North Carolina in 1783. By the time of his death in 1814, he owned at least 2,800 acres of land in Randolph, Rowan and Orange counties, making him one of the largest landowners not just in Randolph County but in the Piedmont as well. 
Sophia's husband Daniel's tombstone.
He was a man of substance.
"William’s son Daniel carried on successfully his father’s footsteps. On Daniel’s death in 1835, he held over 1,500 acres of land and his estate was valued at $9,960.  
Daniel must have been married before as he brought two sons, David Branson Coltrane born in 1795 and John born in 1802, to the 1808 marriage. He and Sophia had eight more children after 1809, including a second David born soon after his half-brother died in 1815.

Flame grained mahogany door

When he was about 50 Daniel bought a grist mill on the Deep River. He and his sons ran the mill until November, 1835 when he was caught in the machinery, thrown into the mill pond and drowned, leaving Sophia with children ranging from about ten to grown boys who took over the mill. David (1816-1884) inherited the house.

Son Jesse in front of the Coltrane Mill, which has been covered by a reservoir.
He and brother David ran the family mill.

Sophia was dependent on her boys for the rest of her long life. She died in 1882 while living with son Jesse Franklin Coltrane (1821-1916) and his family.
MESDA collection

A walnut corner cupboard similar to this one by
local craftsman Henry Macy was once built into the house.

We cannot guess whether Sophia's quilt was made in Maryland before her 1808 wedding or in North Carolina or after. It certainly has the look of a quilt made in Tidewater Virginia or Maryland's Eastern Shore region, but Sophia could easily have carried that taste with her to North Carolina.

Similar style in a quilt top attributed to 
Martha Washington Dandridge Halyburton, Virginia, about 1805

Collection of the Ladies' Mt. Vernon Association

Read about the family home:
 L. McKay Whatley Jr., Randolph County Historic Landmark Preservation Commission 
http://www.randolphlibrary.org/coltranehouse.pdf

See Sophia's grave:
https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/9982577/sophia-coltrane

Top attributed to Frances Washington Ball, Virginia
Ladies' Mt. Vernon Association

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Sea Island Cotton

Fabric quality is an issue with utility quilts made in
the 1880-1930 era. But they weren't made to last forever.

Many years ago when I used to travel to give talks on quilts I'd listen carefully to what the older women in the audience had to say about vintage quilts. I learned some vernacular terms like ball cotton for Perle cotton twist, Portuguese pink for double pink prints and the big stitch for a fast quilting method.

Lower thread count per square inch meant cheaper fabric

More than once I heard someone refer disparagingly to flimsy cotton cloth as Sea Island cotton. This confused me as I thought of Sea Island cotton as a fine variety of cotton found in good quality cloth.

The backgrounds and sashing here is the kind of fabric they were talking about,
inexpensive solids

When I asked them why they'd call such cheap fabric Sea Island they didn't have any real answer. It just is.

But I recently remembered that term when thinking about the low quality cloth one often sees in Southern quilts dating from about 1880 to 1920. I'd also heard people call this commodity cloth and tobacco cloth.

See a post on tobacco cloth in which friend Lynn Gorges commented:
Tobacco cloth is grade 90 Cheesecloth. Growing up on a tobacco farm in eastern NC I know all about it. I have at least one quilt (and maybe more) that has several layers of tobacco cloth inside it rather than batting. This happened often with poor folks who made scrap quilts. It is a soft "batting" but the devil to quilt so the quilting stitches are pretty long. I have seen quilts that tobacco cloth was also used for piecing. It is a pretty poor substitute for regular muslin. Very thin!
End of farming lesson. Lynn Lancaster Gorges, New Bern, NC

So what we are looking for is a better grade of cotton than tobacco cloth.

1873 Charlotte, North Carolina ad
Sea Island Cotton advertised with shirtings, prints and ginghams

I did a search for the words Sea Island Domestic on the Library of Congress's website for digital newspapers Chronicling America and got hundreds of hits like the above dry goods ad. 


Some of the articles were about Sea Island cotton referred to a variety of quality cotton grown along the Atlantic coast as in this 1865 reference to how short supplies were in the winter after the Civil War. At 85 cents a pound, it was extremely expensive (just about what cotton costs today---and it's not the Sea Island variety.)

See a post on cotton grades here:

1869 ad for Bleached Domestics and Sea Island Domestics
in Fayetteville, Tennessee

At some point the term Sea Island Cotton or Sea Island Domestic came to mean an inexpensive fabric of low thread count and thin yarns. In the ad above it seems comparable with Bleached Domestics.

Bleached domestic cloth as backing on a white work piece,
about 1820

Domestic cloth before the Civil War meant a fabric woven in the United States, often of coarse yarns, the kind of white fabric we see on the back of quilts that is sometimes referred to as homespun---it's not really spun at home, it's spun and woven in a domestic factory small or large.

 Tennessee ad from 1874 prices the different fabrics:
New Prints 5c
Best New Prints almost twice the price at 8 & 10c
Best Sea Island Domestics ranging from 5 to 10c
Best Bleached Domestics begin at 10 and go up to 15c
Stylish Dress Goods (maybe silk, wool or a mixed fabric) 12-1/2c to 15c

Sea Island Domestics again describes a type of fabric rather than the type of plant from which the cotton comes. Perhaps the Southern mills specializing in cheaper cottons than those imported from New England or Europe used the term Sea Island rather cavalierly---throwing in a word with quality connotations that had nothing to do with the product. 


In 1876 another Tennessee store offered several cottons of different quality
Good 4-4 Bleached Shirting  8c
Fine 4-4 Bleached Shirting 10c
Heavy 4 4 Brown Domestic 8 1/2c
Heavy 7-8 Brown Domestic at 7 1/2c
Extra 4-4 Sea Island Domestic 10c

The cheapest was a heavy Brown Domestic. Is this similar to our unbleached muslin or is it this brown cotton you often see used as lining in clothing?



The lining cottons range from tan to almost a chocolate brown.
Some are shiny (sateen weave?) 

Sea Island Domestic was not cheap; here it is as the most expensive item along with fine shirting cotton.

Another Tennessee ad, 1919

Sea Island Domestic came in various widths and grades (a yard wide: 17c to 22c)

Dress Ginghams were more expensive (solid colors, plaids, stripes and checks) at 29c.
Gingham tended to mean cotton dyed in the yarn and then woven into cloth as opposed to dyed later.
High quality plaids, Shirting Madras, were the most expensive clothing fabrics at 39c and Calico (light & dark prints) the cheapest at 12-1/2 c.

Arkansas, 1909

Most of the ads were from Tennessee newspapers, stores that served the whole South, but stores in nearly every Southern state were indexed. No Ohio ads, however, no Vermont ads, nothing in Minnesota. Sea Island cloth was a Southern commodity.

 The earliest ad I found was a year after the war in 1866 in South Carolina, presumably for a Charleston store on King Street. They had everything---if you had any money or credit.

Fine Sea Island, Brown Shirtings
Callicoes, in all qualities
Domestic Ginghams
Colored Muslin, in every variety
and Farmer's Brown Linen Duck

Note: they cater to Planters who are bartering with the Freedmen.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Whirl-Wind Virtual Author Tour


So I have a new book out in the midst of a stay-at-home order, which means no L.A., N.Y.C. or London interview shows (like that ever happened.) But we're all working on virtual ideas to communicate how absolutely fabulous the book is.


The women at CreateWhimsey.com interviewed me and asked some good questions (like my New York Times Book Review favorite: Who would you invite for dinner?) Check this out:






Monday, June 15, 2020

Indiennes: Antique prints & Rather New Repros


While going through my old paper files to donate to the Quilt Research Center at the University of Nebraska Libraries I came across a "tear sheet" from Quilters Newsletter in 2002.



I wrote a series about reproduction prints back when they were fairly new to the market. This one is about French Indiennes, the style of print we might call French Provincial. Other names are foulards and mignonettes.

I hope you can read the text.


But if nothing else enjoy the pictures.
I d been to France and checked out the French Provincial fabric situation
(About 20 years ago)




I coordinated these articles with a book 
America's Printed Fabrics: 1790-1890,
published in 1994.

Repro prints from the book

It's still available from C&T Publishing.
as a print on demand edition---looks like a book, reads like a book, etc.
 but they don't print it till you order it.

Five years ago I did an online reprise with the prints available then:

Here's one from Bettina Havig's stash of repro prints.

The problem with publishing about reproduction prints is that they eventually
become antiques themselves.

Are there any good Indiennes in the quilt shops now?

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Polka Dots: From Whence the Name?

Katherine Hepburn

Polka dots are assumed to have an association with the Polka dance, which became a European rage in the mid 19th century.

The Polka from 1844 sheet music.
The music is 2/4 time.

Although there is some dissension among Eastern European folklorists, most writing on origins of the dance indicate the name comes from the Czech word půlka for half, referring to the half-steps or hops dancers take.

An 1881 humorous essay from the Columbus, Ohio Capital
"From whence comes the polka-dot...?"

Gloria Swanson

But no one can tell us how polka became the name for a dotted pattern other than the generalization that Polka-mania inspired terms for fashion like Polka Skirts. Women dancing the Polka sometimes wore specific dress inspired by folk costumes. 

1850s by Franz Antoine

The conventional wisdom on the internet is that the earliest printed reference for Polka Dot is said to be an 1857 caption in Godey's Lady's Book, a “Scarf of muslin, for light summer wear, surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots.”


I have not been able to find the actual reference. The closest thing might be this July, 1857 plate showing children's clothing in July, but that is a bonnet not a scarf.

Never mind, the internet is wrong. 1857 is not the earliest printed reference. A fifteen-minute search through Newspapers.com reveals several earlier advertisements.

In September, 1850 the ladies of Charleston, South
Carolina could find "New Styles Polka Dot Muslin De Lains" 
at Ketchum & Taylor.

Perhaps something like this wool/cotton combination purple
dot in a later log cabin block.
Delaine was a printed, mixed-wool fabric.

Over a year earlier one could buy similar fabric in silk in New Orleans.
This ad from April 21, 1849 advertises
"Changeable Polka Spot Silks"
and "Very Rich Polka-spot Foulard Silks"

Unknown couple, 1861-1865
A foulard print meant a specific type of design repeat,
a simple figure dropped half way as it progressed across the surface,
creating a diagonal pattern.

Polka spots & polka dots.

Polka spots also found in an 1849 reference when the Richmond, Virginia's Southern & Western Literary Messenger's fictional Edgar was looking to improve his wardrobe. The tailor dressed him in a "Cravat, Polka spot— vest, white ground, sprinkled with gnats. Edgar looked handsome in his new suit."

Alice B Haven's fiction in Godey's in 1859:
Mrs. Archer ...said: “Will you show me something for a child's dress medium colors for fall wear, a polka spot, or very small chintz figure on a plain ground."

The half-drop repeat on the left is a Polka Dot.
The full-drop repeat on the right is a dotted fabric.
Some may call that full-drop dot a Polka Dot but I have my standards.

Polka dots on the left. Bubbles perhaps on the right.


The key to the term polka dot may lie in the word půlka for half.
A half-drop repeat like the little jump in a polka dance.

From the Rocky Mountain Quilt Shop

Girl and dog about 1850

Library of Congress

I made up that last part about the half drop and half půlka but it sounds good to me.

I have had a lot of time to think lately.