Detecting the Date

An evening with Sharon Newman

This article is based on notes I took during a presentation at the Dallas Quilt Guild on June 5, 1997.

Nobody taught her to quilt, Sharon Newman professed during her visit to the guild. She had been sewing for years, working on a variety of projects including quilt making. She said she noticed at some point that the square from the package of cheese slices made a good shape to trace around when making patchwork. Nobody told her this was a "template." Later she noticed the cheese-square template worked better than the one a friend had cut from a cigarette carton. After 20 years of making quilts, Sharon said, one day her mother asked her if she had ever seen her grandmother's quilt... looking at this older quilt may have been what interested her in studying the history of fabrics.

In the 1960's quilters worked with less fabric choices than we have today. Sharon says when she first opened her shop she even carried poly-cotton blends because that was what she could buy. Sharon notes that most fabrics only last one printing, and you're not alone when you wish you could find more of a particular print. It's been happening for a century or more. In addition, most fabrics are not called "reproductions" even though that's what they are. For example, the first line of Jinny Beyer prints, she said, were actually reproduced from antique plaids and paisleys. Many fabric prints are not new designs, but older ones that are enlarged or have the background dropped out (to make them easier and cheaper to print). Sharon said she has three fabrics in her collection, from different time periods, that are produced from the same design.

Sharon showed us a 1923 Irish Chain made in Iowa that inspired her to develop her current fabric line. Also from this period was a pair of Basket Lattice quilts, one of which clearly shows two different, probably multi-generational, makers. One end of the quilt is constructed from dark, Victorian-era shirting prints, while the other half is a newer mix of lighter and brighter calicoes. This quilt was probably finished during the Depression. The second quilt is a reproduction that Sharon made using contemporary fabrics with as many color and print matches as she could find.

In talking about the history of fabric and quilts, Sharon says that furnishing styles and fashion dictate the color and fabric choices available for home sewing. These fabrics are reflected in the quilts of the time. Early quilts were, in fact, made from the same fabrics that were used to cover furniture. Chintz, a glazed cotton, was quite popular during various time periods. Later, dressmaking prints became popular. Now, Sharon notes, quilting prints are being used in interior decorating. She cautions in the use of decorating fabric for quilting, since the weight of the fabric can make quite a difference in the wear of the finished quilt if it is mixed with lighter cottons.

At the turn of the century a number of new dyes and improved technologies added to the palette of fabric choices. Synthetic blues replaced indigo, a natural, but difficult color to extract.When talking about the dyes of different periods, Sharon explained that certain color popularities can often date a quilt. Indigo, for example, was most popular in the 1890's, though it was used throughout the preceding century. There is a particular shade of green that was developed in the 1860's -- before that the color was made by overdying blue with yellow, or vice versa. In the middle of the last century greens changed to be less yellowish, and the last quarter of the century is marked by a blue-green that fades to a tan. Mint green arrived on the scene in 1915, as did some shades of yellow. Red and pink became brighter in the 1890's, and an unusual shade of cranberry was used briefly between 1893 and 1895. The Art Nouveau period of the 1920's to 1930's used a lot of pastel solids. In general, red-white-and-blue fabrics were used in quilts during periods of national fervor, such as centennial celebrations and in wartime. Red and green combinations were popular at various times.

Sharon noted that colors like the mid-1800's double pink and the later madder reds are difficult to reproduce now. "When it didn't matter what happened to the person doing the dyeing you got a lot of bright prints." Today, in order to reproduce many of the scrap-bag quilts of the previous century, instead of searching for specific colors, Sharon suggests you "just use a piece of everything from your stash."

The quilt she showed us from the 1960's was made with squares of greens and browns that seem quite reflective of the time. Several of the prints are scraps from earlier years, and the whole thing has an earthy feel to it.

Quilts made during World War I can often be identified from their backings. During the period from 1900 to 1925 fabrics such as flannel, woven gingham, and stripes in soft colors were popular for backings. Also during this period, fabric was cheaply made. The demand for home sewing was so high that printers often left out a number of the details or colors in a print in order to produce more of it faster and less expensively. Sharon notes that the 1930's reproduction fabrics for sale today are of better quality than the originals.

In general, though, the older fabrics are more likely to have more printed detail than newer. In the 1830's shades of brown and red were used that show more colors in each print, as well as greater depth of detail. In current reproductions often only a few colors are used to simplify the process and lower production costs.

In addition to color, quilts can be dated by their size and styling. Quilts from the early 1800's are distinguishable by their central medallions, 8-pointed stars, and all-over appliqué inspired by classical mosaic designs. Houses were often small, and it was customary to keep a trundle bed under the master bed. Since the bed was higher, to accommodate the trundle, the quilts needed to be larger in order to hang properly. Sharon says that quilts of this period are typically 120 to 144 inches across. By 1830 houses were generally larger, and the height of the beds came down, resulting in smaller quilts. The 1860's saw an increased use of paper-folded appliqué patterns, much like the folded paper snowflakes that children make. Quilts of this period also include hearts, especially in baby and wedding quilts, a trend not picked up again until recently. By 1884 the traditional set of block patterns with a border cut from a floral stripe was established. During the 1900's the overall look of quilts changed from dark to light, with the addition of Tulip patterns and scalloped edging.

Sharon discussed preserving old quilts and their inherent values. She suggests that old quilts and tops not be washed or treated until you are certain of the age and condition of the fabric. Find somebody who knows old fabric and get more advice if you are in doubt. If you have just found an old quilt top, depending on the period and condition of the fabric, you may want to consider making it into a finished quilt. "Make blocks into tops and tops into quilts," she says, because families keep quilts longer than blocks or tops. Whether or not the quilt gains or looses value will depend on how it is finished. Sharon feels that many old tops are devalued because we are not doing the right thing when we embroider or machine quilt them. Finally, she says, quilts are dated by when they are finished. If you complete a 100 year old Lone Star top, it becomes a 1997 quilt, and a two-generational one at that.

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