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Winterthur Primer: A Look at Fabrics on Early American Quilts by Linda Eaton
Winterthur Primer: A Look at Fabrics on Early American Quilts by Linda Eaton
LEFT: Fig. 1: Printed wholecloth quilt depicting images from Oliver Goldsmith's poem "The Deserted Village," American, 1815-1825. Cotton. 82-3/4 x 74-1/2 inches. Museum purchase, 1957.125.1.; CENTER: Fig. 2: Pieced quilt with commemorative handkerchief in center, American, 1790-1810. Cotton. 94 x 74 inches. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont, 1969.566.; RIGHT: Fig. 3: Pieced quilt by Fanny Johnson McPherson, Frederick, Maryland, 1835-1850. Cotton. 117 x 112 inches. Gift of Mrs. John W. Avirett, 1972.57.

by Linda Eaton

Quilts are collected for many reasons. Some people value them as colorful examples of folk art -- either period or contemporary -- others, as documents commemorating aspects of women's history or displaying characteristics associated with a particular cultural group or geographic region. Whatever their focus and whether consciously or not, quilt enthusiasts are collecting examples of textile history, for it is the fabric that provides the color, design, and often historic context for the quilt itself.

Winterthur Primer: A Look at Fabrics on Early American Quilts by Linda Eaton
Fig. 3a: Detail of backing for McPherson quilt.

When we think of quilts we usually think of beautifully-sewn pieced or applique quilts, but throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries quilts were commonly made of whole cloth. Some were made with wool (imported or homespun) or silk, dyed in luscious colors, and quilted with elaborate designs; others were made from printed cottons quilted in basic patterns using chevrons or grids of diagonal lines. The decorative element in these quilts was the fabric itself, which could be a floral design, a trompe l'oeil imitation of a pieced quilt (but so much quicker and easier to make), or scenes from a well-known poem, novel, or play as in figure 1. This example depicts two scenes from the epic poem "The Deserted Village" by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774). Originally published in England in 1770, the poem featured inhabitants who were forced to leave their homes for distant shores. It was a best seller in America, and many towns were subsequently named Auburn after the village described in the poem.

Despite the fact that women were not given the right to vote until 1920, some fabrics used in early quilts expressed the political opinions of their makers. One such example (Fig. 2), made between 1785 and 1800, features an imported handkerchief celebrating George Washington and other heroes of the American Revolution. Though it may seem strange that British manufacturers produced goods commemorating the American victory in 1795, the American market accounted for over half of Britain's exports of printed cotton, so the commercial impetus is obvious. As American companies gained a foothold in the textile industry, they accounted for a larger market share. The vituperative 1828 presidential campaign of Andrew Jackson, which was echoed on numerous printed cottons, coincided with the rapid growth of the American cotton printing industry. From his presidency (1829-1837) until the late twentieth century, most campaign fabrics were American made.

Winterthur Primer: A Look at Fabrics on Early American Quilts by Linda Eaton
Detail of quilt in figure 1.

Some early American fabrics were not intended for decorative purposes and were frequently used in a secondary manner. When Fanny Johnson McPherson (1799-1893) made a quilt in the late 1830s, she combined fabrics from different sources (Fig. 3). For her pieced quilt top she used high quality imported English cotton chintzes. Piecing a pattern sometimes known as "orange peel" -- made by drawing overlapping circles -- she used English fabric printed in imitation of the Berlin wool embroidery that was just becoming fashionable. For her outer border Fanny used another English printed cotton, this one made to imitate fabrics woven using patterned warp yarns, a technique known as "clouds" in Britain and chine in France. Of equal interest is the plain woven, undecorated cotton fabric that Fanny used to back her quilt; it is stamped with a factory mark indicating that it was made at Boott Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, incorporated in 1835 (Fig. 3a). Such utilitarian fabric was the staple of the early American textile industry. Examples are rare today, but eagle-eyed collectors may find it as backing fabric on antique quilts.

Winterthur's first quilt exhibition, Quilts in a Material World: Selections from the Winterthur Collection, will run from March 10 to September 16, 2007. An accompanying catalogue, written by Linda Eaton, will be published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. in January 2007. For more information, visit www.winterthur.org.

Linda Eaton is curator of textiles, Winterthur Museum and Gardens, Winterthur, Delaware.

All photos are courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

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