Saturday, June 26, 2010

Clues in an Old Quilt

Becky writes from Virginia:  
Yesterday a friend blew me away with an OLD quilt she recently got from her sister. There is NO history - only that her sister's Mother-in-law was an antique dealer (many years ago). Seeing and touching quilts like these always makes me hold my breath while I try to absorb as much of it as I can. And I ALWAYS wish the maker had signed and dated her work. I got my camera for some really quick pictures.

Becky's got a good eye. Several clues made her think this quilt was really old. (In the quilt business I guess we say anything older than 1840 is REALLY OLD.) One clue to a pre-1860 quilt is the fringed edge. In my book Clues in the Calico I said this on page 121:
Fringe is another early edge treatment and one that correlates well with a specific period of time. Of 20 fringed quilts in the database [of 1000 date-inscribed quilts] 19 were dated 1860 or earlier, indicating that fringe (especially a white fringe----knitted, knotted, woven or crocheted) is a strong clue to a pre-Civil War quilt.

The fabric doesn't give us much information. Plain white cotton offers no clues. The blue print with the white floral sprig could be an indigo print, a dye used over such a long time period that it offers no clues. But the blue and buff stripe is helpful. It may be colored with the Prussian blue dye process developed about 1815. Buff and blue prints were quite popular in the 1840s and 1850s in the U.S. but they were available earlier.

Read more about Prussian blue in the sample copy of my digital newsletter The Quilt Detective by clicking here:

When we are dating old quilts we use comparative dating, that is we compare the fabric in question to similar fabrics we have seen before. The blue strip is so unusual I have very few similar fabrics in my memory bank.

The quilting pattern doesn't offer too many clues. Double lines in a grid as in the blue floral are indicative of the 19th century, but we knew that any way. The closeness of the parallel lines in the striped border is a weak clue to the 19th century too. 20th-century quilters tended to use wider spaces between their lines.

Using the Prussian blue/buff stripe, the heavy quilting and the fringe as our best evidence, I would guess 1820 as an early date and 1860 as the latest date.

It may be older and date to about 1800-1860.  I wish I had more examples of that blue and buff print for comparison.

More about clues in the pattern in the next post.


  1. I too wish more quilters had signed and dated their quilts. I always want to know about the quilter and her life and time.

  2. I see what you mean about holding your breath. I just want to touch it. I like touching fabric. Thanks for sharing. Making a note to encourage my friends to sign and date.

  3. Wow. That is so interesting. I've been quilting about 4 years and recently begun to research the history behind the art/tradition. I'm very glad to have found your blog. You are quite the authority.

  4. What a find. I loved your article on Prussian blue. I wish more companies would reproduce it today. I think I only have two pieces which really are the 'right' colour and one of those is a modern print. I might use it any way.

  5. Thank you for describing the colors in this quilt as buff and blue. I have used the word "BUFF" to describe that warm, not quite beige, color for years and no one seems to know what I'm talking about. I can now tell them I'm not crazy.

  6. Oh so intriguing. Much leared today! Thanks. *karendianne.

  7. My goodness! I never knew they used fringe on quilts! Beautiful.

  8. Thank you for giving this grand old beauty some well deserved recognition and the exposure for a large audience to enjoy it. Indeed, it certainly is something very special.