Monday, January 4, 2021

A 1682 Quilt In Alabama #1: The Oldest American Quilt?


"Oldest known quilt in the Western World"
Textile history is not a case of oldest, first, only, etc.
Let sportscasters spout competitive statistics.

Checking "facts" like "the oldest American-made quilt" is often a piece of cake. It's too easy to debunk such competitive stories. Ten years ago we had a lot of fun with an Ebay post of the piece above, the "Oldest Known Quilt in Western World, with a buy-it-now price of  $3,200,000.


Well, sometimes it's not a piece of cake, it's more like arugula soup; you hate to serve up a bitter concoction, but.....

Here we have a 45" wide fragment of a whole cloth bedcover allegedly cut from the oldest quilt made in what would become the United States, allegedly made in Boston by Sarah Kemble Knight. It's not date-inscribed but the caption lists an estimated date of 1682. We also read that it's silk with a wool batting. Is this the back or the front? The other side looks to be dark blue.

A statement touting the country's oldest quilt in 1915 in the middle of the Colonial Revival slant on American history would have raised doubts in only a few skeptics who might have taken the Colonial attribution with a grain of salt. A statement like that in 2020 raises many questions.

The quilted fragment is in the collection of an Alabama historic home in Greensboro.

... pictured in the new book Alabama Quilts: Wilderness Through World War II: 1682 - 1950, mentioned in the book's subtitle.

Read a preview here about the quilt in question.

Magnolia Grove about 1940
Library of Congress
Alabama Historical Commission Property since 1980

An obvious fact:
That quilt looks exactly like bedcovers being made in the former colonies from the mid-18th century through about 1840---at least a century later than the caption.

Spencer Museum, University of Kansas

The Spencer Museum of Art where I volunteer to help with
the quilt collection has a beautiful example of a similar whole
cloth quilt based on a medallion format with florals and feathers.

It's wool rather than silk, estimated date 1775-1820.

The images are not stuffed but pop out due to diagonal lines of quilting, filler quilting. Sallie Casey Thayer, who shopped in New England in the early 20th-century, donated her collections to the University of Kansas.

 Collection of Independence Hall
Whole cloth, silk quilt with names of Philadelphia Quakers 
Hannah Callender, Sarah Smith and Catherine Smith and a date of 1761

American quilts from 1750 or later of silk and wool are found in many museums, particularly in New England.

Whole Cloth Quilt signed and dated Betsey Payne, 1808
Connecticut Historical Society.

This quilt dated in the middle of the fashion for such elegant wholecloth quilting is not silk but a fine wool that is polished to a shine to imitate more expensive fabric.

Detail of a pale blue silk quilted petticoat
associated with Abigail Smith Adams (1744-1818), 
wife of President John Adams. Peabody Essex Museum

The bedcovers are linked to extremely fashionable underskirts of the 18th century with similar imagery of feathers and tulip-shaped florals.

The "1682" quilt
An anachronism

Lynne Bassett's drawing of a wholecloth quilt, estimated date 1800, 
Molly Howard (1773-1852)

We're not going to spend much time here on style and fabric in the purported 1682 quilt, although we could see many similar examples with enough provenance and style to date them from about 1750-1850. Lynne Z. Bassett is the expert on the style. 

She has commented on our QuiltHistorySouth Facebook page:
"The 1682 quilt in the Alabama book attributed to Sarah Kemble Knight is clearly very old, and without examining it in person I can't say for sure if it could be what it's purported to be----but after studying New England's early whole-cloth wool quilts for more than 20 years, from the design I would say that it dates no earlier than the mid-18th century...[likely] the second quarter of the 19th century."
Pepper Cory agreed with her:
"I've seen several New England or New York wholecloth [quilts] from this period and that large tulip-Like central motif was popular then. Michigan State University has a beautiful indigo wholecloth with the tulip central motif. I am thinking the possible dates on the Alabama wholecloth ought to be 1820s-40s."
Read Lynne Z. Bassett's chapters in the book Massachusetts Quilts: Our Common Wealth in a preview:

This story gets so complex it's going to take all week to tell it. 
Next Post: How a New England quilt wound up in Alabama.


  1. Ooh, I will enjoy reading your posts this week!

  2. Interestingly, there is a historical society in the Boston, Massachusetts area that also claims to have the oldest American-made quilt in their collection. Their quilt is a pink wool whole-cloth.