Fabric quality is an issue with utility quilts made in
the 1880-1930 era. But they weren't made to last forever.
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,
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.
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,
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.
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
Colored Muslin, in every variety
and Farmer's Brown Linen Duck
Note: they cater to Planters who are bartering with the Freedmen.