Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Calimanco Quilts

Wool bedcover signed & dated Lucy Arnold, 1815

Connecticut Historical Society.

We've been talking about quilted wool quilts at the QuiltHistorySouth 
Facebook group and saw a lot of posts about 
calimanco or calamanco quilts (not the least bit Southern.)

The cataloging on this graphic design says it's pieced of "plain-woven, satin-woven and twill-woven glazed and unglazed worsted, or calamanco; plain-woven linen; plain-woven printed wool." (I bet Lynne Zacek Bassett, New England quilt expert and curator of their current exhibit, is the cataloger here.)

She goes on to say:
"Pieced quilt consisting of worsted wool top, batting, and a plain-woven wool backing. The top consists of large square, rectangular, and triangular pieces of glazed and unglazed calamanco... The worsted that forms the top is a variety of glazed and unglazed calamancos including satin-woven striped, plain-woven domestically produced, and twill-woven. One triangular piece of the top is a printed twill-woven wool. The center of the quilt has two large square pieces of red calamanco....The backing consists of plain-woven undyed linen."
The scale on this bedcover is fascinating. Imagine it on the major
bed in an 1815 New England home.
There might have been some raised Connecticut eyebrows.

Many reader were not familiar with the word calimanco  or the fabric.

Calamanco Whole Cloth Quilt signed and dated Betsey Payne, 1808
Connecticut Historical Society.
Whole cloth calimanco quilts (especially indigo blue versions)
were quite the fashion. We've seen dozens---likely to date from about
1790 to as late as 1840.
"Betsey Payne (b. 1782), probably of Lebanon, Connecticut...likely made it in anticipation of her wedding, on 7 June 1808, to Jonathan Hatch (1777-1833), also of Lebanon....Calamanco was a fine, imported woolen fabric that was used for both furnishings, such as bed coverings and upholstery, and costume items, such as petticoats and waistcoats. The backing of the quilt is a coarse, buff-colored wool that was possibly homespun."
Pieced calimanco quilts are not so common. It's all a good excuse to look at some amazing compositions.

Calimanco pieced quilt
Collection of the American Museum of Folk Art
Gift of Cyril Nelson, who first showed us some of these
knock-out graphics in his Quilt Engagement Calendars
in the 1970s.

Leimomi Oakes (Mad Sewentist) summarizes the cloth in question in this post:
"Calamanco (also spelled callimanco, calimanco, and kalamink) is a thin fabric of worsted wool yarn which could come in a number of weaves: plain, satin, damasked, and was even brocaded in floral, striped and checked designs. The surface was glazed or calendered (pressed through hot rollers)."

Wool naturally takes a shine with friction. The consensus today
is that these striking fabrics were mechanically glazed rather than
treated with an additional surface chemical. 

Calimanco quilt, Stearns family of Worcester County, Massachusetts.

 DAR Museum. 
Combines plain weave & stripes alternating plain weave and twill. 
Backed in a natural color wool blanket.

As Costume Historian and DAR Museum Textile Curator Alden O'Brien wrote on the Facebook page:
"These wholecloth wool ones are also often calimanco, that calendered wool with a slight sheen from having heated heavy metal rollers press the fibers down to give it that shine. (We often say glazed but there’s no actual substance applied to create the glaze as far as I’ve ever read.)"
Center Star, unknown maker
American Museum of Folk Art
Another gift from Cyril Nelson
These quilts are often quite large 100+ inches

The Rhode Island project documented a checkerboard in Kingston.

Lisa Erlandson Collection
Julie Silber sold this quilt to Lisa. When Julie bought it
she was told it was Ontario Canada Amish.
One can see the parallels to later solid-colored Amish wool
quilts but the fabric is calimanco.

Looking at a lot of photos helps familiarize you with calimanco but once you see it in the cloth you won't forget it. As Xenia Cord wrote: "You'd probably recognize it if you saw it 'with both hands'..."

Bill Volckening's Collection, also from Rhode Island

Twentieth-century curators tended to call these all wool quilts Linsey Woolsey or Linsey quilts but a basic definition of linsey is a combination weave of linen and wool or cotton and wool.

Linsey Woolsey usually includes wool dyed in the yarn and undyed linen or cotton. Because wool and the cellulosic fibers linen & cotton take dye so differently, the contrast is easily seen in the weave. Linsey quilts tend to date from about 1870 to 1920---a completely different style from the South rather than from New England.

Florence Mellowes Montgomery (1914-1998)
in the late 1940s, Yale University

Winterthur curator Florence Montgomery did a lot to change the terminology on bedcovers erroneously described as Linsey Woolsey to the more accurate calimanco. There are other words as textile terms are not consistent, particularly over time, but calimanco seems to be the standard today. She spelled it with an "i".

Collection of the Henry Ford Museum

Rhode Island Historical Society
Attributed to Lavina Welch Leavitt Staples (1808-1882), 
Auburn, Maine by her granddaughter Sarah in 1958.

This star quilt in the collection of the New England Quilt
Museum is pieced of different wool weaves.

Another in their collection, attributed to an ancestor of
Sarah Frances Stephens of Pembroke, New Hampshire,
perhaps Hannah Ann Head Stevens (1824-1896) who
lived in Pembroke.

The Indiana Project saw this one they thought was Linsey-Woolsey?; 
the photo is not good but the format
and quilting indicate calimanco style. The notes on color:
Brown/red/bright green and once a brighter pink.

Collection of the American Museum of Folk Art
Gift of Cyril Nelson
You can imagine why Cy Nelson collected these in the 1970s---
too modern for words.

Once belonged to Foster & Muriel McCarl 
of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, who associated

with Cy Nelson & Robert Bishop.

We know more about the collectors than the makers.

American Museum of Folk Art
Nelson gift. 

 Occasionally one comes across a bedquilt that was once the more common
calimanco petticoat. Out-of-fashion but too good to throw away.

Wool quilt from our Douglas County (Kansas) Historical Society,
recycled blue skirt filled in with pink calimanco.

What is the date on these? 
Lynne Z Bassett in Massachusetts Quilts: Our Commonwealth estimates mid 18th century as an early date.

Calimanco was quite the fashion for petticoats even among servants. Runaway Margaret McClenny had on a "light colour'd Calimanco Quilt" (a quilted petticoat) when she ran away in 1738.

The end of the style: Joyce Gross owned an indigo whole cloth calimanco bedquilt with the date 1839 quilted in as I recall. That seems late but 1840 really marks a big change in quilt style in general, so it may be that old-fashioned housekeepers or seamstresses were still making them that late before the explosion of interest in block style cotton quilts.

W.P.A. artist Julie Brush painted a watercolor of
a museum collection petticoat in the late 1930s.
Silk or calimanco?

Women of a certain class everywhere in the European world were wearing lustrous calimanco quilted petticoats in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

About 1750, British National Trust
Portrait by Arthur Devis of Englishwoman Mary Cawthorne Unwin
 in a silk robe à la Français
---too much European decadence for a New Englander?

Yet calimanco bedquilts seem to be a New England/New York regionalism.  Did women outside New England transfer the idea of calendered wool to bedcovers? The French and British might wear a skirt with an open front revealing a silk underskirt, the robe à la Français, but was wool more suited to the New England climate and taste? Or the regional quality of these as New England and New York quilts might simply be due to the availability of  British calimancoes---shipped into Massachusetts and New York, rather than Charleston or Baltimore.

And to compound all the questions---do recall that bedquilts and quilted petticoats were often the product of professional textile workers, men and women who marked, quilted and assembled them.

The professional stitcher might be the norm; the amateur at home the exception.

Old Sturbridge Village Collection
Calimanco and worsted bedquilt made of a recycled petticoat

Read Lynne Z. Bassett's essay on wool whole-cloth bedquilts in Kimberly Wulfert's blog post by clicking here:

And everything you ever need to know about quilted petticoats:


  1. I so enjoyed this post! We are fortunate to have quite a few of these in small museums and historical society collections here in Maine. You have showed a few that I have never seen and I thank you. I find the one that Julie sold to Lisa E. particularly interesting. Thanks!

  2. I knew nothing of these type quilts; and I live 40 minutes from the Henry Ford Museum! Time for a road trip when this pandemic is over. Thanks for this post.

  3. I saw one of these at an exhibit. I had no idea what caused the sheen. THANK YOU!

  4. It is amazing how they created that sheen. I was wondering how the rollers worked, by hand, by horse/donkey? Too early for steam!

  5. Decades ago, when I read historical novels, I first read about the quilted petticoat showing off at the front of the dress. Thank you for this history lesson.

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  7. All these references to read....thank you...I will enjoy the read!! Several times over my years of owning a small scottish imports shop in northern Alberta, new immigrants from Africa would ask if I carried calimanco. Disappointingly, my UK woolen mill suppliers knew nothing of it. I look forward to reading more about this intriguing fabric and subsequently hope I can re-connect with those lovely African ladies to let them know what I have learned.