Dating antique quilts

In colonial America, thread and needles were expensive. Cotton was not readily available - the cotton gin was not invented until - and so the majority of fabrics used in clothing were linens, wools and silks. What you might have seen prior to were quilted petticoats, worn for warmth. Quilts were almost always made of wool, unless they were remade from bed curtains or quilted petticoats.

However, the idea that all early quilts were made of worn clothing is a myth. Not to say that there weren't any, but it is far more likely that a quilt would be made out of fabric bought specifically for that purpose, possibly to match bed curtains.

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It might also use the extra fabric left over after making clothes. While it is true that many women were weaving their own fabrics in the early 's, the tremendous time and energy needed to produce hand woven goods was generally not put into a luxury such as a quilt. A home weaver would be more likely to weave a blanket or coverlet.

Generally, quilts were made by wealthier Americans on the Eastern Seaboard who had access to a tremendous variety of fabrics brought in by ship. Many early quilts still in existence today, therefore, are either made of imported fabric or have some imported fabric along with the American. Backings were often of linen, which was considered a utility fabric. Early 's quilts were usually large X , and often whole cloth quilts, or quilts of whole panels, such as the Tree of Life. It might be a medallion or a stripy style quilt. Sometimes you would find quilts made of plain blocks such as a simple Ohio star or nine patch alternating with a plain block.

Trapunto stuffed work quilts were made until the 's when their popularity waned. Glazed fabrics such as chintz see photo, left , roller prints and pillar prints were popular.


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Fabrics were glazed with egg whites or honey. Some quilt edges were finished with a fringe, particularly on the East Coast. Quilting was done in straight lines, often with double and triple quilting, although flowers, baskets, feathers and wreathes were not uncommon. The dye process was long and involved and colors changed depending on the mordents used. Home dyes used onionskin, nut shells and bark to create yellows, browns and greens, but they were not used as commonly as myth has it. Reliable permanent dyes were widely available in the mid 's.

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However, green was considered fugitive - it often washed out or faded. In the early 's, it was made by overdoing yellow with blue. Later in the century, the process was reversed, overdying blue with yellow. The applique quilts we now see with blue or tan leaves may have once been green. Another fugitive color, purple, could be made with lichens and seashells. Walnut hulls, hickory nut hulls, clay, or wood chips made brown.

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A deep brown with warm accents was made using manganese. Sumac, birch, oak, woodshed in general and iron made black. Indigo blue and turkey red were very reliable dyes as they were made by the process for which the color was named. Indigo blue was a deep blue, although Prussian Lafayette blue and light blue was also available. Pinks and dark roses were also seen most likely made from a madder dyes. The picture on the right shows Turkey Red. Quilts were heavily quilted, often echo quilted or double quilted.

Broderie Perse was an early 's fad. They were as large as ever, although as the century progressed they tended to become slightly smaller and sometimes had two corners cut out for bedposts. Colors were bright and varied. The picture below shows an ombre print also called a rainbow print in the middle of the Ohio Star. The setting block is a fugitive double purple. The civil war and its aftermath brought a lot of changes to American women. Men took quilts with them to serve as bedding. If they were killed, they were often rolled in their bedding and buried.

Quilts were also used to communicate the makers beliefs like abolition , smuggle messages and supplies through enemy lines and raise money.

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Research is still continuing on the belief that quilts were used to direct escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad. The quilts that did come home were often in terrible condition. Some of the finest quilts still extant from this period came from the families of soldier who retrieved them from encampments or purchased them from soldiers who were using them as if they were a common blanket. One quilt was retrieved from the back of a dead mule!

It was after the civil war that the scrap quilt became popular. Due to the inevitable shortages of war, quilts really were made of discarded clothing at that time. Silk prices had come down around due to trading with the orient and many women had at least one good silk dress. But it was not useful for the hard work and shortages of everyday living most were forced to endure. The silk quilts popular during this period were probably made more out of sentiment and a need to keep busy while the men folk were away.

The scraps of silk dresses and mens wear recalled happier times of balls and parties. The sewing machine, which was really invented in the late 's as a tool to make shoes, was redesigned and patented by Elias Howe, Jr. Howe's rival, Isaac Singer, received a patent in for an improved sewing machine, later adding a foot treadle for hands-free operation and a carrying case that doubled as a stand. Bubblegum pinks were used in solids as well as prints. Butterscotch fabrics often date to the middle of the nineteenth century and were frequently used as a background for a pieced pattern.

Butterscotch prints are often small, with the motifs closely packed together. Cadet blue is a light blue that was first used around and was most popular in the period from about to It is often paired with white in prints.

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Thus, this dye can help to both identify both the date and location in which a quilt was made. This dye was often made in the home from store-bought powder, however, the high lead content of the dye made it in retrospect a dangerous substance with which to work. Like, antimony or chrome orange, chrome greens and yellows were popular in the period from about to and were produced, often in the home, from highly toxic chemical dye powders.

Chrome yellows are brighter than butterscotch, another popular yellow from the same period.

Claret was a popular color in cotton fabrics from about to , and was often paired with white in prints. Both of these hues have warmer undertone than bubblegum pink, which emerged as a quilt fabric, often as a solid rather than a print, in the twentieth century. At the height of their popularity in the mid-nineteenth century, double pinks were often paired with madder or chocolate browns in quilts. Indigo dye has a long history in the United States, and was used in quiltmaking from the eighteenth century onward. In the period before , indigo blue dye was very dark, often appearing black or violet, especially in digital images.

Wool and flax were often dyed with this early indigo blue and used as a solid in wholecloth quilts and calamanco.

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Throughout much of the rest of the nineteenth century indigo blue was often seen as the background in prints, sometimes with the overlaying print in chrome yellow or orange. Indigo continued to be common in cotton fabrics through the Edwardian period. Today, indigo blue dyes very similar to those made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are still common in African quiltmaking and are sometimes used in contemporary American art quilts. They were popular in quiltmaking in the same period as the double pinks, roughly to Madder dyes come from the roots of the madder plant, also known as rubia, and along with walnut shells, clay, and certain woods, were used to dye quilt fabrics brown from the eighteenth century onward.

Madder browns often appeared in prints with browns of various hues. Madder red, also known as cinnamon red, was a bright red dye made from the roots of the madder, or rubia, plant, and was especially popular in the late nineteenth century. It is differentiated from another red dye made from madder, Turkey red, because of its dyeing process. Water was used to make madder red dye, while oil was used to make Turkey red.