Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Sea Island Cotton

Fabric quality is an issue with utility quilts made in
the 1880-1930 era. But they weren't made to last forever.

Many years ago when I used to travel to give talks on quilts I'd listen carefully to what the older women in the audience had to say about vintage quilts. I learned some vernacular terms like ball cotton for Perle cotton twist, Portuguese pink for double pink prints and the big stitch for a fast quilting method.

Lower thread count per square inch meant cheaper fabric

More than once I heard someone refer disparagingly to flimsy cotton cloth as Sea Island cotton. This confused me as I thought of Sea Island cotton as a fine variety of cotton found in good quality cloth.

The backgrounds and sashing here is the kind of fabric they were talking about,
inexpensive solids

When I asked them why they'd call such cheap fabric Sea Island they didn't have any real answer. It just is.

But I recently remembered that term when thinking about the low quality cloth one often sees in Southern quilts dating from about 1880 to 1920. I'd also heard people call this commodity cloth and tobacco cloth.

See a post on tobacco cloth in which friend Lynn Gorges commented:
Tobacco cloth is grade 90 Cheesecloth. Growing up on a tobacco farm in eastern NC I know all about it. I have at least one quilt (and maybe more) that has several layers of tobacco cloth inside it rather than batting. This happened often with poor folks who made scrap quilts. It is a soft "batting" but the devil to quilt so the quilting stitches are pretty long. I have seen quilts that tobacco cloth was also used for piecing. It is a pretty poor substitute for regular muslin. Very thin!
End of farming lesson. Lynn Lancaster Gorges, New Bern, NC

So what we are looking for is a better grade of cotton than tobacco cloth.

1873 Charlotte, North Carolina ad
Sea Island Cotton advertised with shirtings, prints and ginghams

I did a search for the words Sea Island Domestic on the Library of Congress's website for digital newspapers Chronicling America and got hundreds of hits like the above dry goods ad. 

Some of the articles were about Sea Island cotton referred to a variety of quality cotton grown along the Atlantic coast as in this 1865 reference to how short supplies were in the winter after the Civil War. At 85 cents a pound, it was extremely expensive (just about what cotton costs today---and it's not the Sea Island variety.)

See a post on cotton grades here:

1869 ad for Bleached Domestics and Sea Island Domestics
in Fayetteville, Tennessee

At some point the term Sea Island Cotton or Sea Island Domestic came to mean an inexpensive fabric of low thread count and thin yarns. In the ad above it seems comparable with Bleached Domestics.

Bleached domestic cloth as backing on a white work piece,
about 1820

Domestic cloth before the Civil War meant a fabric woven in the United States, often of coarse yarns, the kind of white fabric we see on the back of quilts that is sometimes referred to as homespun---it's not really spun at home, it's spun and woven in a domestic factory small or large.

 Tennessee ad from 1874 prices the different fabrics:
New Prints 5c
Best New Prints almost twice the price at 8 & 10c
Best Sea Island Domestics ranging from 5 to 10c
Best Bleached Domestics begin at 10 and go up to 15c
Stylish Dress Goods (maybe silk, wool or a mixed fabric) 12-1/2c to 15c

Sea Island Domestics again describes a type of fabric rather than the type of plant from which the cotton comes. Perhaps the Southern mills specializing in cheaper cottons than those imported from New England or Europe used the term Sea Island rather cavalierly---throwing in a word with quality connotations that had nothing to do with the product. 

In 1876 another Tennessee store offered several cottons of different quality
Good 4-4 Bleached Shirting  8c
Fine 4-4 Bleached Shirting 10c
Heavy 4 4 Brown Domestic 8 1/2c
Heavy 7-8 Brown Domestic at 7 1/2c
Extra 4-4 Sea Island Domestic 10c

The cheapest was a heavy Brown Domestic. Is this similar to our unbleached muslin or is it this brown cotton you often see used as lining in clothing?

The lining cottons range from tan to almost a chocolate brown.
Some are shiny (sateen weave?) 

Sea Island Domestic was not cheap; here it is as the most expensive item along with fine shirting cotton.

Another Tennessee ad, 1919

Sea Island Domestic came in various widths and grades (a yard wide: 17c to 22c)

Dress Ginghams were more expensive (solid colors, plaids, stripes and checks) at 29c.
Gingham tended to mean cotton dyed in the yarn and then woven into cloth as opposed to dyed later.
High quality plaids, Shirting Madras, were the most expensive clothing fabrics at 39c and Calico (light & dark prints) the cheapest at 12-1/2 c.

Arkansas, 1909

Most of the ads were from Tennessee newspapers, stores that served the whole South, but stores in nearly every Southern state were indexed. No Ohio ads, however, no Vermont ads, nothing in Minnesota. Sea Island cloth was a Southern commodity.

 The earliest ad I found was a year after the war in 1866 in South Carolina, presumably for a Charleston store on King Street. They had everything---if you had any money or credit.

Fine Sea Island, Brown Shirtings
Callicoes, in all qualities
Domestic Ginghams
Colored Muslin, in every variety
and Farmer's Brown Linen Duck

Note: they cater to Planters who are bartering with the Freedmen.


  1. I met a quilter once at a class or meeting of some sort. She was from North Carolina. Her mother had been raised on a tobacco farm.

    They used big sheets of strong cloth in harvesting the tobacco — I imagined pieces of canvas the size of bed sheets.. As I understood it they’d lay a cloth on the ground, pile tobacco on it, then gather it into a sort of giant bundle and transport it to the tobacco barn to be cured.

    In years when the harvest was unusually good, they’d run out of these cloths so my acquaintance’s grandmother would take the quilts from the beds to use in the harvest. She said that she could always make more quilts, but tobacco was a cash crop and needed to be harvested. My acquaintance and I smiled sadly at the though of quilts lost to this rough use.

    My acquaintance had a number of family quilts with whole cloth plaid backings that were typical of that part of NC in that time, with inexpensive cotton plaid fabric woven in local mills available to local quilters.

    I’m sorry I don’t have my acquaintance’s name or contact information.

  2. Barbara, thanks for the history lesson today. I just read your link on cotton grading as well and again I am a better informed quilter.
    Kind regards

  3. I too re-read the previous post on Sea Island Cotton. I sure wish it was available now. I appreciate your research and your sharing it with us.

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