Monday, February 7, 2022

A Pair of Eagle Quilts


64" x 70"
A rather tattered eagle medallion quilt in the collection of the
Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber Arts.
Worn but definitely worth saving. 
I saw this quilt, photographed by the Wisconsin Project,
at the Quilt Index.

An eagle surrounded by grapes, roses and birds.
Unusual in that the background is a yellow print.

You can see scraps of the gold print that have survived here, looks like a chrome orange
print from the mid- to late-19th century.

Attributed to Mary (Polly) Bell Shawvan (1824-1900)
of Southeastern Wisconsin.
An almost identical quilt with a yellow-gold print background.

And also, interestingly enough, from Wisconsin.

The quilt on the cover of the first edition of the Wisconsin Quilts book has
been sold twice in recent years, bringing quite a bit of money to the family in the first sale.

Layering one over the other with the central shield the same size
reveals how similar the general designs are with looping vines and layered roses. The
tattered version is smaller and may have had the edges cut down as it wore out.

The birds are roughly the same but placed differently and those
in the Shawvan quilt do not have berries in their beaks.

The shields on the eagles' breasts
are identical except that the worn version has three embroidered stars.

Another difference: a bow knot at the bottom in the Museum's quilt.
Both are quilted in an overall pattern with the Museum's looking to be a 
diagonal grid and the other done in shell shapes.

In the photos the eagles are facing different directions but are essentially
the same bird. The Shawvan quilt lacks the stars in an arc over the head.

What are we to make of this? The Shawvan quilt has been sold as a unique piece of folk art stitched by a Civil War-era mother of 7 children waiting in vain for her husband to return from the War, a "heart-breaking" history.

"Traditionally, this kind of thing was done by one person. There’s no reason to believe she had help. Mary Shawvan shows herself at her most artistic. She didn’t follow a pattern. This is a fully freehand design." Interview:

It's easy to criticize the auctioneer's spokesperson but he is just telling us the conventional wisdom about quilts as folk art.  

True, the two quilts are extraordinary examples of the textile arts of the time---but are they folk art or commercial art?  

Mary with five of her children
Late 1870s

I have an easier time believing Mary Bell Shawvan stitched quilts to earn a living for her children rather than imagining her spending the first two years her husband was in the Army sewing such a piece in her leisure time on their farm---the family legend.

We can find out quite a bit about Mary Bell Shawvan. See a post here:

The other quilt is not so well-documented. It was donated to the Wisconsin Museum at the bequest of Nancy Rabe who gave her parents' names as Ivan and Gertrude Fay. Perhaps it was a family quilt. She said it was made in Diamond Lake in northern Wisconsin.

I'll be talking about the topic of commercially produced quilts at the American Quilt Study Group's online Study Centers at the end of the month. I'll be thinking more about this pair of quilts and the mythmaking that goes into our national narrative on quilts.



  1. Isn't it surprising that a lot of quilts made for commercial purposes get dubbed heirloom's by family members who have no clue. I had one given to me -Family heirloom- but on closer inspection there was a --made in china--tag. OMG