Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shirting Prints as the Neutral

Maltese Cross or Pineapple
About 1880-1900
This is not a block but the whole quilt, which was sold at Garth Auctions.
It's about 65" square. The maker balanced her darks, mediums and lights quite nicely, using a variety of shirting prints for the lightest fabrics.

Sherri at the Moda Cutting Table blog recently did a post on text prints or low-volume prints, which are today's equivalent of shirtings. Read it here:

Low-volume is an interesting description and fits the idea of a print as a neutral.

Shirting prints were a lightweight cotton, generally considered to have small, rather simple figures.
Shirtings could have any color background but here we are discussing white ground prints
which make such an effective foil for darker calicoes.

The term "shirting" is an old one.

Men often wore printed shirts. In his book The Growth of the British Cotton Trade: 1780-1815  Michael M. Edwards found a 1785 reference to 'the fashion of wearing calico shirting.'

Shirtings became popular for women in a fad for menswear fashion about 1910.
Women wore shirtwaists with dark skirts. Some shirtwaists were plain white cottons, linen or silk but many were printed cottons.

Patterned shirtings were a fashion necessity for men and women.
 This New York store advertised ten floors of shirtings in 1910.

We can see what look like bolts of shirting prints in this Minnesota dry goods store.

The sales clerk is wearing a striped dress, a category of shirtings.

... fabric similar to this.

Shirtwaist with added Turkey red embroidery

The 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog noted the "growing popularity of ladies' shirt waists." The cheapest prints at almost 7 cents a yard (30 inches wide) were stripes or polka dots only. For 8 cents you could get stripes, "dots or small figures on white ground; these are in black, blue or pink, also larger." (31 inches wide).
For 12 cents: extra wide (36 inches) "styles printed for high class trade...There are polka dots, stripes, exclusive figures, sporting patterns...drums, bicycles etc."

White as a neutral
Plain white fabric was the most popular neutral for antique quilts---maybe because it was relatively inexpensive as compared to prints.
(Still is.)

Here's a quilt from about 1840-1860.

Same idea about 1880-1900
with shirtings instead of plain white as the neutral.

Shirtings became a real craze about 
1875 to 1910 with the fashion for ladies' wear,

particularly in Pennsylvania
where they liked to use it as the background for applique.

Pennsylvanians made good use of the prints

But everybody was enthralled.

Some used yardage for a coordinated look.

Scrappy was popular too.

One influence on the trend was the fad for Log Cabin quilts in the 1870s, 

which relied very little on plain whites for contrast. 
A good scrapbag of light-colored prints was very useful.

Ocean Wave designs also required a variety of contrasting prints.

Another contributing craze was charm quilts, 
with their requirement that no two pieces be the same fabric.

Shirtings defined the era.

Because they are low-volume they don't shout at us on the bolt, but it's a good idea to keep an eye out for these very useful shirtings---or today's text prints and low-volume prints. 


  1. My dad was born in 1906. (And, no, I'm not ancient. I'm 57. He had me -- his oldest child -- when he was 50.) Dad had some old-fashioned notions. Among them was that he often referred to our long-sleeved blouses as "shirtwaists".

    And let us spare a thought for the women tragically killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. That event gave much-needed fuel to the modern labor movement.

  2. I always find your blog enjoyable and informative. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Thank you for this great information.
    Always wonderful learning things from the past.

  4. Thanks for another enjoyable and interesting post. It is great to see how shirtings were used so many years ago.

  5. Really enjoyed reading more about shirtings - always a favorite! They have often been hard to find & its nice to see new groupings coming into the shops.

    Could you identify the pieced block in the quilt with the soft rose/pink background? Checking your encyclopedia, thought maybe #3461 Pyrotechnics? Definitely a quilt to consider reproducing.

    Thank you for this great posting

  6. I love using shirtings and plan on using them in my next quilt.


  7. The pink wheel block: Like Pyrotechnics BlockBase #3461 and like
    3450 Hex Stars, but this block was a popular folk pattern with lots of variations. #3461 has curved pieces but it's close.

  8. great post, I love shirtings and have to admit I like using them so much better then solids even on applique quilts.
    I know I will be visiting this post over and over again.
    Love that pineapple block quilt have seen others like it and its on my list to make someday.
    Have you seen a lot of antique fabrics with words on them though?

  9. Kathie --there's an idea for a post. I love to see quilts with words on them.

  10. So informative! I just love reading your history lessons! This one is particularly fascinating!

  11. Enjoyed this article and your blog. Thanks for all your contributions to our quilting world.

  12. Barbara. I have a box of over 400 shirting prints. A gift to my mom and now on to me. They are all fantastic shirting prints. No two alike. Dragonflies. Men on horseback.flies. the list goes on forever it seems.thank you so very much for ALL you do with textiles. Your article here is my dating savior..Thank you again. I appreciate all that you do.