Monday, July 4, 2011

Green Calicoes: Antique prints

A quilt from about 1900.

 The color arrangement (bright color next to bright color) and the fondness for traditonal small scale calicoes at this late date indicate a possible southeastern Pennsylvania origin where these nostalgic prints remained popular into the 20th century.
Green calicoes were a mainstay of the 19th-century quilters' palette. Because they were so common they are among the most difficult quilt fabrics to date. We see similar fabrics in quilts from about 1810 to 1970.

Ann Robinson used a variety of green calicoes
 in her quilt dated 1813-1814 in the collection
 of the Shelburne Museum.

A green calico frames a hexagon rosette
in a friendship quilt dated
1842 and 1842. This may be the original shade of green,
 an example of an overdyed green off the bolt (so to speak).

The majority of the prints used in American quilts are related to two methods used to produce green in cottons. The older (seen till about 1900)  is an overdyed green produced with two different dyebaths of blue and yellow natural dyes. Later greens (after 1870 or so) were produced by synthetic dyes in a single-step dyeing process.

Overdyed green print in a quilt dated 1841
This print has faded to a teal or blue-green, probably because the yellow dye was more fugitive than the blue.  Both blue and yellow could fade, shifting the green to lime green or teal (blue-green). The red, brown and green combination in the print here is more typical of quilts before 1860 than those after.

Overdyed greens may have looked similar to begin with but different dye processes fade in different fashion so we can usually get many clues to the dyes by telltale color loss.

A sampler dated 1849 shows the two shifts likely in overdyed greens.
The blues tend to be more fugitive than the yellows
so we most often see overdyed green shifting to yellow-green.

Something dramatic happened to this top dated 1867-68.  In the overdyed solid on the left, the blue is more colorfast. Something (probably something with an acid pH) has pulled the yellow out of the green. The calico leaf seems to remain just as it was printed.

Two different green dye types in one quilt
Setting squares that look to have been overdyed have blotched to blue as the yellow disappears in areas. The calico in the block dated 1870 was probably dyed with the newer single-step green synthetic dyes and has faded to what dyers call a dun color. Dun is a gray-brown---a nothing color.

The most common green calicoes are printed with green backgrounds and small figures of yellow and blue-black as in the leaves in this quilt dated 1858. The color combination of yellow in some areas, blue in others and green where the two overlapped made practical sense in the two-step green process.

Because dyers had no good black dye for cottons till the 1890s they often used a dark blue (and perhaps a dark brown dye) that appear black. The detail is from a quilt is dated 1856.

Green calicoes with black and yellow figures continued into the mid-20th century even as the dye processes changed. The print above in a quilt dated 1873 is of a common print style sometimes called "oil-boiled calicoes" by the manufacturers, implying that they were done in an old-fashioned method dyeing method (although they weren't really boiled in oil).
A similar print in a quilt dated 1897. The green produced by synthetic dyes has almost completely disappeared leaving the black figure. It's no wonder that most 20th-century quilters stopped using greens until they became more colorfast in the 1930s.

The print in the star above probably once looked a little more like this.
Here the green is a figure and the black the background with yellow accents.

A classic reproduction print.
We forget that mills marketed reproduction prints in the past. Here's another "oil-boiled calico," an old-fashioned print manufactured from about 1870 to the recent past.

Readers ask where to get good reproductions of the green calicoes, a necessity for Civil-War-era and applique reproductions. In this post: the basics of the original green calicoes. Soon---what to look for in a reproduction.
See more of my blog posts about greens in antique fabrics by clicking here:


  1. I love the variety of greens in antique quilts. I just visited the Packwood House Museum in Lewisburg, PA. I posted photos on my blog of the antique quilts on display now--you'll find green in lots of them.

  2. I really love seeing the old quilts and learning more about them. Thank you for sharing with all of us and I hope you and your family have a wonderful Holiday.


  3. Antique greens are my favorite, especially poison green. Where did poison green get the name?

  4. See this post on poison green (which is NOT this color)

  5. Encontrei teu blog e adorei.
    Fiquei seguidora.

  6. when I buy dye for cotton at dharma.com ( a mail order supplier) they describe the black dyes as "discharges to brown" or green, or purple. This means that if you dye it black, and then use bleach, those colors will come out.

    It is still really hard to get a good solid black, although I'm sure commercial dyers have greater resources than us at home.

  7. All this information makes me wonder what our quilts will look like in a few hundred years or so - will the dyes degenerate in them too?