Sunday, October 29, 2023

Mary Ball Washington's Blue & White Quilt


Metropolitan Museum Collection
Mid-18th century, India

Above, the type of blue and white print one might see in an early-18th century quilt owned by a wealthy American colonist. I have no photos of either cotton textiles or quilts dating to the early 1700s; most surviving 18th-century textiles here tend to be mid-18th-century or later. But we do have one account.

In 1720 Mary Montague Ball Hewes of Northumberland County, Virginia wrote her will, leaving bedding to her youngest daughter Mary Ball who was 13 years old.

"Item. I give and bequeath unto my said Daughter Mary Ball sufficient furniture for the bed her father Joseph Ball left her, vizt: One suit of good curtains and fallens [valence?], one Rugg, one Quilt, one pair Blankets."

Young Mary's father Joseph Ball (1649-1711) died when she was a small child, leaving her the bed furnishings that her mother again willed to her.

This early-18th-century quilt, although not described, was not patchwork but more likely a whole cloth quilt of silk, wool or perhaps cotton. It may be the same quilt that Mary Ball Washington left in her own 1788 will written the year before she died.

Mary Ball Washington (1708-1789)
George Washington's mother

"I give to my son, General George Washington....my best bed, bedstead, and Virginia cloth curtains (the same that stand in my best bedroom), my quilted blue-and white quilt, and my best dressing glass."

We assume that the description blue-and white means a whole cloth bedcover of an indigo cotton print, a popular luxury item. Was it the quilt Mary had owned since her father died nearly 80 years ago? More likely a later quilt from the years when Indian indigoes were more common in the colonies.

Mid-18th-century imported indigo print

George apparently did not pick up the blue and white quilt (he was a busy man.) Younger sister Betty Washington Lewis wrote him a letter the year after Mary's death reminding him of "several articles in my possession, that was left to you by my Mother which has never been sent for."

George's sister Elizabeth (Betty) Washington Lewis (1733-1797)
By John Wolleston, about 1750
Collection of Mount Vernon

Perhaps the quilt was among these "mementos of parental affection," as George called them. If he did not want the heirlooms Betty would be glad to keep them herself. "They can be of little or no service to you, and of very great to me, I will thank you for them...."

We don't know what that blue and white quilt looked like, but a couple of the Washington museums include a reproduction in the bedrooms.

Mary Washington House Museum
Fredericksburg, Virginia

 In 1772 George bought his mother a house in Fredericksburg, Virginia in which she spent her last 17 years living close to Betty Lewis's home Kenmore.

An interior shot at the Mary Washington house shows
a room with bedhangings, curtains and a wholecloth blue and white quilt
of a toile, a copperplate print using a technique developed in the mid-18th century.

Another Washington museum at Ferry Farm near Betty's Kenmore features a replica of the house where she and George grew up. Curator Meghan Budinger explained the process of dressing the "best bed."

"We were lucky enough to locate a blue and white printed cotton, reproduced from a mid-18th century French pattern by Chelsea Textiles in New York. The original version was block printed, but also used wax or paste in the resist method. The result was a detailed repeated floral pattern that also had the rounded edges of resist dying. It was perfect for our uses. The fabric was quilted onto filler and backing, and the entire quilt was cut in a T-shape, to fit around the bedposts of the Washington “best bed”, creating a fitted look which was also typical of the time. Visitors to the Washington house can now see Mary’s favorite blues on display in her bedchamber."

The best bed at Ferry Farm

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. My husband's family is related through the Montagues.