Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Quilting Thread #2: Written Documents

Mississippi, 1939
Library of Congress, Russell Lee photograph

Another way to look at the history of quilting for pay is through written accounts, published and in manuscript form. Searches in the Library of Congress's newspaper database for the word "quilting" close to the word "spool" yielded several results. Here are some ads with prices by the spool and by the quilt.

Mrs. Clarence Pace, late 1930s, Louisiana
Library of Congress

1880 Texas
60 cents per spool

The photos were found floating around the internet
with several credited to libraries.

1907 Texas
$1 per spool

1909 Illinois
$1.25 per quilt

Most of the spools in this photo tell you there are 100 yards per spool.
See a page on dating spools:

1916 Missouri
75 cents per spool

1921 Arizona
$1.50 per 150 yard spool

Sometimes you get the feeling there is a whole novel in these
classified ads. And on the topic of another textile cottage industry:
You could get Navajo rugs "Prices Reasonable."

From Florida Memory

1922 Indiana
 $1 per spool

From Florida Memory

Then there is Maria Jackson in Wakeeney, Kansas in 1894.
She wants two tops "to be quilted fancy" and she doesn't
want to pay money. She'll give you houseplants in barter.

Money talks, houseplants walk.

Virginia Berger has unpublished accounts in her collection:
"I have some of the records for the Union Club of Anita, Iowa. This is a women's club that quilted to raise money for 'good works'. I have one of the books out today and in the front it says '$1 per hundred for outsiders; 75¢ per hundred for members'. I'm assuming this is yards of thread. This is dated July 19, 1944.
Alvin, Wisconsin, Library of Congress
"On October 18th they were paid $2.40 for a quilt, and $3.51 for one on Nov 15. These appear to be 'outsiders'. A member paid $2 for a quilt on Nov 29. It looks like they had paid 76¢ for a bat and thread on Oct 4th. And on March 6th, 1946 they paid 10¢ for needles. Apparently you could pay for your quilting over time as I saw an entry where a lady had paid 75¢ 'on her quilt'. One of the good works they supported was an orphans home in Omaha, Nebraska giving them $3-5 for Christmas and Easter."

The Wisconsin Quilt Museum did an exhibit on Mary McElwain's
business and showed this 1941 sale bill with pre-printed prices.

Twin size quilting: $20 to $32.50 each
Full size $21 - $35

Special quilting cost more and they supplied the thread (Stiles Waxt Quilting Thread) for 15 cents a spool.

They advertised Stiles Thread---200 yards a spool.

McElwain with one of her quilters

The full-size  "gorgeous star" quilt they quilted required 12 spools, which gives you some insight into how many spools a quilt required. Using a spool with 100 yards at $1 per spool = $24 for a full size quilt with some pretty nice quilting.

See a Mary McElwain catalog at the Quilt Index.

Her competitors, the women who worked at Marie Webster's Practical Patchwork Company, also had a pamphlet giving prices.

They seem a little cheaper, as they provided everything but the top
for $25 to $30. In this copy someone has penciled in the note:
"We do not quote price by spool. Cost depends on size of quilt-& whether lining is white or color."

I guess because they supplied the lining or backing, colored cotton cost more.

Photographs also offer us much evidence,
showing how frames were constructed,
where you throw the thread ends
and how austere some church basements can be.

More on Stiles Waxt Thread from the Illinois town history Sycamore.
Invented by Mary B. Stiles in 1905 in Chicago.

Tomorrow: Secondary Sources

I've done quite a few posts on this topic I realize. Here are four from my blog Women's Work: Making a Living Making Quilts.



  1. I wonder how big the stitches were and I had a hard time finding any source of light for those ladies in the basement. Even the more expensive prices didn't pay well for the time spent.

  2. Both of these posts were so interesting, and the pictures are wonderful. Sometimes I browse through the Library of Congress files and the history there is so informative, so enlightening. Thanks for sharing your researches there, too.

  3. Love this post! I grew up running errands for our church ladies while they were gathered round the frame. So many times I was sent under the frame to fetch an item one of the ladies had dropped, or sent upstairs to fetch snacks, start/check the oven or refill the tea pot. My mother often told me of how her mother had hooks in the ceiling for the "frame ropes" but I never really understood (she wasn't a quilter and couldn't fully explain) so that concept is finally explained, thank you.