Friday, September 19, 2014

Myth or Not

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.

3 comments :

barbara judge said...

June -- Your post was very informative. What fun to be teaching History of the American Quilt. Toqueville's remark that early women's work and stamina contributed to their families survival during our early history made me realize that, of course,they would not have time to quilt. Look forward to more about your class. -- barbara

June Calender said...

Thanks, Barbara, I'll probably put bits on once a week while this class continues.

June Calender said...

Thanks, Barbara, I'll probably put bits on once a week while this class continues.