The huge world's fair in Chicago, 1933, called appropriately "Century of Progress", featured among much else, the enormous Sears quilt competition. Sears, the country's biggest mass merchandiser at the time, with it's stores all over the country and catalogs reaching even the most rural areas, offered $7500 in prizes for quilts. The grand prize was $1000 and the rest was for runners-up. Of course 1933, the depth of the Depression, meant those prizes were enough to make any quilter's heart beat faster. Directions said simply, "Quilt designed and made by you." And suggested quilts that echoed the fair's theme were wanted -- the one in the picture is a good example.
Some 24,000 women made quilts! They only had four months from the announcement until quilts were submitted to local stores for local judging. Winners there were sent for regional judging. Finally 33 were sent to the nationally known judges and all 33 were displayed at the fair. The judges happened to prefer traditional designs and did not award prizes to the "theme" quilts. The winner was Margaret Caden, from Kentucky, a woman who had a shop that sold antiques including quilts (some she sold were not antiques but made by women she employed.) The winning quilt was presented at the end of the fair to Eleanor Roosevelt and now is in the White House collection of presidential gifts. I have not been able to find a photo of it.
Not until sometime in the '50s did some of Margaret Caden's former employees speak up and tell the world that they, not Margaret, had sewn the quilt. At the time of the competition they were afraid of losing their jobs which would have been financial disaster for them. Also one of the makers of theme quilts was so outraged that none were chosen she did speak up - in fact so loudly that when the Fair's presenters decided to open it for several months the next summer (in order to increase their total income) they did display some of the theme quilts.
By the beginning of the '30s the pundits of the magazine world which had, for the past 20 years, featured quilt designs and information, had announced as the style critics are apt to do, that the quilt mania had had its day. (Especially crazy quilts.) They announced quilts were passe and emphasized the clean, new idea of art deco in home decor. The 24,000 quilts contradicted that assumption. However, something far bigger than magazine editor's tastes was afoot: first came WWII, and after that the burst of affluence of the '50s when, indeed, quilt making seemed (in the urban areas at least) truly passe.
This Bear Paw quilt pattern (which happened to be the first quilt pattern I ever made, circa 1974) was one of the patterns said to be used as a signal in homes that participated in the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves before the Civil War. That quilts were used as signals is a pervasive story. The Underground Railroad definitely existed -- safe houses where the escaping slaves could find food and shelter as they headed or Canada or other safe places facilitated the freedom of a great many slaves.
But the story of the "quilt code" did not exist until approximately 1986. Ah historian from Howard University happened to meet a dealer in antique quilts named Ozella McDaniels in South CArolina, a descendent of slaves, She told him that she had heard from her grandparents how quilts were used as signals to the run-aways. They would be hung on the clothes line or draped over a split rail fence and their patterns meant either safety or danger. The historian wrote a book about the story. As time went on Ozella told her niece other bits of "information" that went into the story. This was a very appealing story which soon made it's way into children's books and even on the Ophra Winfrey show.
And soon somewhat less gullible historians began to collate the stories are they had proliferated and punched holes in the whole concept. For instance the bear paw quilt was said to indicate that the run-aways shoud go over the Appalachain mountains, watching for bear paw prints and follow them because bears always knew where there were nuritious berries and fresh water. The first problem is that no underground railroad trail ran over the mountains and no one in their right mind would get very close to a bear. Other stories told of various ways a log cabin quilt could indicate safety or danger, depending upon whether the central squares of a log cabin designed quilt were red or black and whether the lighter side of the various log cabin squares was "Up" or "down". However the quilts are geometrically equal so equal numbers of dark and light squares are up or down. And so it went. In fact, the whole idea of quilt code was ironically disparaged by subsequent quilt historians.
That's too bad because I had managed to implant a false memory in my own recollections, thinking that way back in highschool history when I learned of the underground railroad I believed I had also learned about the quilt code. But I did not; it did not even exist at that time.
Just one of the fascinating things I have learned about quilt history as I've been researching in order to tell my class about it. To teach is to learn ... true, true, true.
A beautiful afternoon after a week of rain. So Rachel and I headed to Falmouth near the end of Cape Cod to see an art quilt show at Highfield Hall -- a beautiful mansion now used as an exhibition and performance center. Alas! the doors closed at 2:00 (we thought we had until 4:00) So what to do? We had noticed, driving into the Highfield, that many trees had been wrapped in knitted somethings, in all sorts of colors and designs, including birds on branches and flowers. Fat trees and thin trees. Delightful!
We couldn't go in but we could wander the gardens which are full of delights like a bird tree in the middle of the formal garden, a structure like a skeleton of a house with pieces of glass, some with words like Family and Love, flowers, woodland paths. Nice.
The picture at left is a tree with a knitted sleeve -- it is in Iceland, but the idea is the same. I supposed trees in Reykjavik need sweaters more than our trees do -- the ones we saw were brighter colors; but the idea is the same.
Then we decided to explore the main street of Falmouth. Clothing and tourist-oriented trinket shops. We saw creativity of all kinds from dress designs and wonderful textiles to jewelry, essential oils, ceramics of wonderful design and profusion -- not tacky, cheap tourist junk but creative craftsmanly designs. We are not so much shoppers as admirers. I saw some totally wonderful fuzzy animals that I might have to return and purchase for the great-grandchildren for Christmas. Our own town, Hyannis, has a main street somewhat on a par with these shops. So do other towns on the Cape. But we don't often go into any of them so an hour of browsing and admiring, comparing taste an disagreement about what is navy blue, what is purple, what is royal blue, what is deep teal, was a pleasure.
Ah and then we noticed the boulangerie (bakery, in English which at least I can spell) and knew we really need real croissants and coffee before we started home. Truly flaky, French croissants are a rarity in any town. These were authentic and lovely.
It was not a wasted afternoon. We did not see what we went to see, but we saw much else. The sun was bright, a cool breeze was giving the day a bit of an autumnal edge. It was beautiful. We'll go back and see the art quilt show -- it's on the whole month of October.
Much in the history of American quilts is unknown and possibly mythological. Some things are quoted from letters when the writer may have had very partial knowledge of the subject. In Roderick Kirokofe's The American Quilt he quotes a researcher, Dena Katzenberg, who wrote about the origin of the Baltimore Album quilt design. According to this story a wealthy Baltimore woman was partially disabled because of a violent allergic reaction an exotic nut she ate. She was unable to use her hands for fine sewin. But she was a very artistic and creative woman and designed the quilt of 20 squares of appliqued floral and wreath patterns to be surrounded by a wide border of appliqued leaves and flowers. Then she enlisted the service of 20 young black women, taught then to do very fine sewing and they constructed the first such quilt -- this was 1846 and it was not stated whether the women were free or slaves. She designed a few more of these quilts which caused a great stir in the community so that she began designing individual blocks for others to use with their own (usually simpler) block designs.
According to the book the craze for Baltimore Album quilts was only about 6 years. Not true. They are still being made in considerable numbers -- I saw at least thirty at the World Quilt Show in August. Of course the designs have evolved and changed and I suspect it is rare to find two exactly alike. This kind of applique is extremely time consuming. The book says someone calculated that for the original quilt it would have take an individual seamstress a year of 40 hour days of sewing to complete it.
The quilts I have seen are usually beautiful, always interesting in terms of the various block designs and awesome in terms of the labor that is obviously involved. It's a form of needle work that I can admire and know that I will never attempt. It is said that the best way to learn about a subject is to teach it -- that's certainly true in my attempt to put together a coherent history of quilting in America. The interconnections of social life, the surges in American life as the industrial revolution happened, effects of the Civil War and the settling of the rest of the country have so far given me a picture of the dynamics of this country I never grasped when I was a student.
The speakers yesterday at the Bayberry Quilters' Guild were sisters, Barbara Persing and Mary Hoover who have a business together, make their quilts together but live 300 miles apart and so send their work back and forth via UPS. The orange quilt was one of their first. They sewed together strips of orange, of yellow and of purple, and then cut the pieces of fabric they had constructed into triangles which were arranged to make blocks of color --the arrangement looks somewhat random but has a sense of balance. Simple! They use mostly batiks which accounts for the subtlties of color. This quilt immediately reminded me of the Kaffee Fassett quilts I saw last month at the International Quilt show.
They moved from simple blocks/triangles to using the blocks (made by the same method) a background for floral designs. And then they experimented with blocks of more varied colors which were cut on a slant to give movement and direction to the background and their floral designs became more complex and exciting. When they add flowers (or leaves, etc.) they use a simple method of either freehand cutting or freezer paper floral temples, glue the edges and do not turn them in applique but quilt up and down over the flower to five petal definition and to repeatedly go over the edges. Barbara does some (or most) of this free motion on a regular sewing machine, but Mary has a long arm quilter and does the majority of the quilting. They have published a book full of simple directions and bright designs called StrataVariations.
They have a wonderful eye for color and they have a very sensible, collatorative approach to their work. As speakers they were comfortable, had worked who would talk about what but were informal and poised. The talk was delightful. They showed a spectacular new quilt that they are going to show at the big Houston annual show and which cannot be pictured yet. It was a most delightful way to begin the season and the only thing that took the edge off disappointment that my daughter from California who was to arrived early had cancelled her trip due to some hand surgery.
We all believe that the American quilt began when frugal, early settlers in America sewed together odds and ends of badly worn clothing into bed covers. I have been reading a lot and read that this is not the beginning of the patchwork quilt. To back track, I think we all know that whole cloth quilts were made in Europe before and contemporaneous with pre-Revoutionary America. By whole cloth quilt I mean a piece of cloth large enough to cover a bed was put together with a filling and a backing and then quilted, usually in a beautiful and rather elaborate design forming diamonds, often feather designs and so on. (Actually most looms only made about 36 inch wide fabric so a bed quilt would have to be two widths sewn together but that would still make a "whole" cloth quilt).
I have read two things lately: the first patchwork quilts found by collectors were from the Netherlands and Belgium. They were constructed of triangles -- perhaps a little similar to the one in the picture. And the idea of sewing together triangles, or patches of fabric was imported into the colonies. This is possible but it's also possible that any very early patchwork quilts made in America would have been used to death and simply don't survive. I have been reading that the earliest American settlers had no time at all for any kind of special needlework -- beyond making needed clothing. There was no textile industry in America for essentially the first 100 years. Textiles were brought here by the traders (East India Company --whether British or Dutch. India was the source of the majority of cotton fabrics for the European market. The fine cottons, dyed, and/or stamped with designs or hand painted as were many of the gorgeous palampores that were wanted when there was sufficient income to afford them. These were sometimes treated as whole clothe quilts, filled and quilted. And many complex Indian designs were carefully cut up and appliqued to plain whole cloths in the technique we call broider perse to make them go farther.
I am going to talk about all these things and more later today in my History of the American Quilt class and I have many photos in books to show of early quilts. I was not surprised to read that Alexis deToqueville remarked that the very hard, never ending work of survival of families in the new country rested largely on the women's shoulders. They worked from dawn to dark just to feed and care of their families. Only when enough people had immigrated (and immigration was rapid and enormous) to form cities along the East Coast, did there begin to be enough people and prosperity to afford women a little rest from incessant toil. Once they had a little time and access to textiles, they cared about having attractive clothing and turned their artistic talent to making quilts from what they could afford. When I try to imagine living in this country in the 1600s with absolutely no resources except what could be grown or hunted, my mind totally boggles.
I started teaching a course called History of the American Quilt today at the Academy of Lifelong Learning. I'm sorry my class is as small as it is but 10-12 people is very do-able. Today was difficult for me because I wanted to give some background before getting into all the kinds of quilts that have been made. One thing I discovered in my research was "bed ruggs" (that was the spelling in the 1600-1700 period. The background is a linsey-woolsey fabric (part linen, part wool) with a somewhat loose weave that made it possible to either embroider or hook (as in latch hooking a rug) a design on the top. The yarn of the design was usually wool and it often covered almost all the top.
This example is from the Metropolitan Museum in NYC and was dated 1795, which is fairly late. And it is somewhat more refined and even delicate in its design than many of the examples in a book I have. I read that Governor Winthrope of Massachusetts, back in the late 1600s sent word with his son on a trip to England to bring back 245 yards of bed ruggs. The colonists essentially had NO texile business of their own at first and depended on shipments, mostly courtesy of the East Indian Company, for something to sleep under. I didn't look into what they slept on, but I suspect it was bags of straw.
I was describing how heavy these ruggs must have been to work on and to sleep under and someone said, "they must have felt like that X-ray shield the dentist lays on your chest when he X-rays your teeth. I suspect she was exactly right.
I am not really a historian and there is very much I don't know about the settlement of the East Coast, but I am learning about textiles and dyes and so on. It seems indigo plants were growing in American and so was flax for linen. I believe it was some time before very many sheep were imported and a woolen industry could have grown up. I was somewhat surprised to discover that cotton grew more or less around the world and that the Carib natives Columbus met were wearing cotton garments. It's an interesting area for me to explore although I'm eager to move on to more modern times.
The mid-70s are a surprise! Part of me remains in the 50s -- age, I mean, not decade of 20th century. It's a joy ride, new experiences land in my lap and I've become a better quilter, poet, writer than I expected. It's a rich life for a person never rich financially. Hey, this is what the mid-70s are like!