|Wholecloth Quilts, Trapunto, and Boutis: History and Techniques - III
Early Wholecloth Quilts in America
by Patricia L. Cummings
I. Quaker Quilts in the United States
The Quakers began to migrate to the New World in 1656. Organized by George Fox, an Englishman, the group is also known
as the Religious Society of Friends. "All in Modesty and Plainness," is an article by Patricia T. Herr, (CA: The Quilt Digest
Press, 1985), 22-35. ISBN: 0-913327-02-6. There are two images of wholecloth items in the article itself: one is a silk quilt
from the first half of the 18th century, while the other is a silk petticoat. The quilt, which is now owned by the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, has been linked to a first generation Quaker woman, Elizabeth Coates Paschal (17-2-1767). The article, in its
entirety, is worth reading and is a nice overview of Quaker involvement with quilting.
Quaker Quilts were exhibited at the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania from January 18 to March 16,
1997. Patricia J. Keller, guest curator of the show, prepared the exhibition catalog, "Of the best Sort but Plain," - Quaker
Quilts from the Delaware Valley 1760-1890. The photo cover of this catalog is most striking as it features a portion of a
heavily-quilted, Quaker made, green quilt with vines, and highly stylized flowers and botanical motifs. The quilt was made in
II. Neoclassical Period of Wholecloth Quilts in America
The aesthetic tastes of quilters are constantly changing. Around 1800, there was a distinct preference for making white
wholecloth quilts. The era of neo-classicism had begun! Some great examples of the trend were shown by the Daughters of
the American Revolution (DAR) Museum, in an exhibit there from October 8, 2004 to April 30, 2005. The show, entitled
"Home and Country: American Quilts and Samplers in the DAR Museum," and its accompanying exhibition catalog, include
many outstanding quilts of this style from the museum's collection.
An example of this type of quilt is also shown in West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Echoes from the Hills, a book by
Fawn Valentine (Athens, OH: University Press, 2000), 31. The central medallion type of quilt made by Bella Pricket (circa
1820) features a basket with flowers and the quilter's initials.
A second quilt shown in Valentine's book is a wholecloth quilt from northern England, believed to have been designed by
Elizabeth Sanderson, a self-employed artisan who created pattern designs for quilting wholecloth quilts, many of which were
executed on cotton sateen, according to the author.
III. Early Wool Quilts in New England Feature Natural Dyes
Of course, many early wholecloth quilts were brought to New England from England, and were made by a flourishing trade of
professional upholsterers. In France, some early quilts were made by professional ateliers.
When one thinks of the woolen wholecloth quilts made in early New England, certain quilting designs and dye colors come to
mind. The most popular hand quilting motifs seem to have been crosshatch, clamshell, floral, "fine feathers," and concentric
Quilts of this type were dyed with the available natural dyes of the day. The year 1856 was a turning point in the dye industry,
as that is when the first aniline (or synthetic) dyes came into use, Before that, dyers depended on natural dyes from plans such
as madder and indigo.
Note: Tora Sterragaard wrote a note with the following reminder:
Under dyes used in early New England, you refer to natural plant dyes. Please don't exclude natural mineral dyes which also
predate Perkin's aniline dyes. (Prussian blue, Antimony yellow and orange, etc.). Dr. Bide at URI (the University of Rhode
Island) asked me if I took water and an eye dropper to test the glazed wool "calimanco" at a house museum in Connecticut.
My response was "Huh, why?" - (The answer was) "To test to see if it repels water."
Ads from early Connecticut newspapers include calimanco shoes???? Maybe glazing was for water repellency, not just
fashionability, which would make sense for shoes.
Interesting information! Thanks, Tora.
Indigo Quilt Traveled
The calendered Indigo quilt, shown below, with its extensive "fine feathers" is pictured in the 1995-1996 exhibition catalog,
"Material Pleasures: Quilts from the Kansas Museum of History." The catalog states that this kind of quilt was popular in New
England from the 1770s to about 1840. The quilt is reported to have been made by Sarah Phelps Hamilton, circa 1793. Age
has taken its toll on this quilt which traveled from Massachusetts to Wisconsin and then to Kansas.
Sarah Phelps Hamilton quilt: this scanned photo image is part of the "Collections of the Kansas Museum of
History," http//www.kshs.org/places/museum.htm, and is included here with permission of the museum.
Linen and Wool: Available Fibers in Early New England
New England flax with its lovely blue flowers has European origins. The word "flax" has roots in an Olde English word of
West Germanic origin: flaex. The plants were delicate and had to be weeded barefoot. They were, of course, the source of
linen thread. The preparation of linen is very labor intensive. One thousand yards of linen thread were needed to create a 36"
square piece of woven linen fabric. An early, pieced bed quilt, in my collection, that dates to circa 1830, has a clear New
Jersey provenance, and it is backed with linen.
Lynne Bassett, former curator of Old Sturbridge Village, stated in a personal letter to me, "Of the scores of early New England
whole cloth quilts I have examined, I have never seen a whole cloth quilt made of linen." She adds that she has seen one with a
linen warp and a wool weft in the Maine state collection.
An article that she wrote that covers early wool wholecloth quilts appears in, "What's New England about New England
Quilt?," Symposium Proceedings (1999), a publication that may still be available by contacting the Old Sturbridge Village
Museum gift shop. (508) 347-3362.
She co-authored a book on the same subject of New England wholecloth quilts: Northern Comfort: New England's Early
Quilts 1780-1850 by Lynne Z. Bassett and Jack Larkin (TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998).
The term "linsey-woolsey," has mostly fallen out of use now, but originated in Linsey, Suffolk County, England, in 1450,
according to Cole's Dictionary of Dry Goods, 1892. The words refer to a type of flannel composed of linen and wool, in
combination. In later years, linsey-woolsey has also come to mean a fabric of cotton and wool content. Without a more clear
and defined association, words other than linsey-woolsey seem to be the preferred descriptors of this type of fabric
Indigo Rules the Day
A predominant color for early wholecloth quilts in New England seems to have been Indigo (blue), derived from the Indigo
plant, a plant that grows naturally in Japan, Java, West Africa, and various other parts of the world. For centuries, Indigo has
been harvested to use as a dye-stuff in dyeing cloth.
Of interest is the fact that in some cases, the wool battings of New England quilts were also dyed blue with Indigo. This
practice certainly would prevent tufts of white fleece from becoming visible on the top surface of the quilt, in worn places, or
if the larvae of moths chewed holes while the quilt was stored.
These blue quilts were often "calendered." That means that a combination of heat and pressure were applied to the wool cloth
to create a shiny appearance that glows by candlelight. The task of calendering was not accomplished at home, but by an
industrial device. The process of calendering fabrics may have begun in Great Britain, but there is no definite proof of that.
Quercitron: Another Dyeing Agent of the Nineteenth Century
Down by the Old Millstream: Quilts in Rhode Island, a book edited by Linda Welters and Margaret Ordoñez (Ohio: The Kent
State University Press, 2000), 194, states that in 1795, Dr. Edward Bancroft of Massachusetts commercialized quercitron, a
dyeing agent that is derived from the bark of the American Oak Tree. This bark yielded the permanent colors of yellow,
brown, or green, depending on the type of mordant used. Often, when we see early calimanco wholecloth quilts in brown, a
dull mustard color linen has been pieced to create the back.
In New England, wholecloth quilts can be seen in a number of museums. Photos of some of them have been included in a few
of my articles for The Quilter magazine, such as the one I wrote about Strawbery Banke Museum (May 2003), and another
article that discusses the quilts at Old Sturbridge Village (May 2005). Yet another can be seen in the article about the Shakers
of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, a piece of writing that is currently on this website.
In looking at the quilts in the New Hampshire Historical Society collections, while writing an unpublished study of them in
1994-1995, I was able to see quite a few wholecloth quilts. One quilts is made of flax and linen grown on the farm where
Sally Parsons lived; the other is a stuffed and corded piece made by Margaret Mitchell.
Documented wholecloth quilts in the collections feature the colors brown, blue, yellow, and green. One particularly intriguing
wholecloth quilt coverlet is red wool has the name of the quiltmaker quilted in light brown thread on the section intended for
the "drop" on the end of the bed: Elisa Gooden, Milford (NH), October 1826.
This 92" square has a quilted religious poem stitched on both sides lengthwise, in two verses. The poem begins:
"Thou spread'st the curtains of the night, Great guardian of my sleeping hours, Thy sovereign word restore the light, And
quickens all my drousy (sic) powers."
Upon acquisition of this coverlet, the lettering of the poem was initially deciphered by James Garvin, architectural historian,
and husband of Donna-Belle Garvin, curator at the time, but who now manages museum publications.
Exhibit at Historic Deerfield, Massachusetts
In 2003, Historic Deerfield mounted an exhibit which included some wholecloth quilts. The show, curated by Lynne Z.
Bassett, provided some great examples of this genre of quilts. She wrote the accompanying museum catalog, Telltale Textiles:
Quilts from the Historic Deerfield Collection, which may still be available at their museum store which is open year round.
Contact the shop by phone at: (413) 775-7170.
Wool Quilts and the Term "Calimanco"
In Quilts in America, the authors provide a discussion of the term "calimanco," sometimes spelled "calamanco." An alternate
(preferable) choice of words is "quilts of glazed worsted." This term would describe all wool quilts that were imported from
England for approximately one hundred years, from 1730-1830, and which were calendered (made to shine by heat pressing).
At the time, there were many different manufacturers' names for woolen goods in England, but "glazed worsted" does seem to
best fit these quilts, although we still hear most people using the term "calimanco." Old habits are hard to break.
Wool was often the stuffing preference for wool quilts and this meant that some of these early quilts were very heavy. One
wonders how an individual sleeping under such a bedcover could turn over during the night!
Of course, some early wholecloth quilts were made at home: homespun, home-loomed, hand-dyed, and hand-quilted. As
stated, they were made in a variety of colors. Often a linen warp (lengthwise strands) and a wool weft (crosswise strands)
were set up on the loom. The combination of fibers added strength and stability to the end product.
Making a quilt was labor-intensive, if one had to start with shearing the sheep, cleaning and carding wool, growing the flax
and proceeding through all of the steps to render it into usable linen fibers. The sewing machine, thought invented earlier, did
not come into widespread use until the 1850s, after Isaac Singer had devised a clever marketing plan which involved giving a
"sample" machine to the wives of ministers.
Some early wholecloth quilts were made of silk, and sometimes a silk petticoat was "recycled" as the center of a new, silk,
quilt top, in America. For a description of silk petticoats, please refer to "18th Century Quilted Silk Petticoats Worn in
America," a research paper written by Tandy Hersh in Uncoverings 1984, an American Quilt Study Group publication, 83-98.
Silk: A Textile Connoisseur's Delight
Silk, an elegant, natural fiber, created by harvesting filaments from the cocoons of silk worms, has long been considered a
luxury cloth and a status symbol, available only to those who could afford it. Decorative quilting on silk or satin wholecloth
quilts began in England in the seventeenth century. By the next century it was very fashionable, according to the book Quilts
in America by Patsy and Myron Orlofsky (New York: Abbeville Press, 1992 reprint edition), 223.
A wonderful book about the history of silk is The Book of Silk by Phillipa Scott (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1993).
Another beautiful book is Silk Quilts: From the Silk Road to the Quilter's Studio by Hanne Vibeke De Koning-Stapel (The
Quilt Digest Press, 2000). This book has patterns, definitions, "how to work with silk" tips, information about sericulture,
many photos, and a gallery. The photo that I enjoy the most is on page 46. The captions called the item an Osier cradle with a
padded silk quilt. This is owned by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
A Look Back at a Quaint Practice
In the 1870s, patchwork quilts were going out of style in the United States, but wholecloth quilts were very much in vogue. In
Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them, (VA: EPM Publications, reprint, 1992), a book first published in 1929
by Ruth Finley, the author says this about that decade:
Thus it happened that, when colored counterpanes began to go out of style in the late seventies, many a woman turned her gay
red and green masterpiece wrong side up, thereby dressing her bed without added expense in fashionable plain white. Soon the
machine-made Marseilles "spread" came to stay...until after the World War. (WWI).
Author's Note: The red and green masterpieces to which Finley refers are the appliqué quilts that were so much in favor
during the 1850s.
Crazy Quilts and Marseilles Spreads: A Pleasing Combination
In the 1880s, all-white, woven, wholecloth quilts and spreads were sometimes livened up with the use of "Crazy Quilt Bed
Toppers." A colorful, embroidered, crazy quilt, made of "fancy fabrics" such as cotton velveteen, weighted silk, and other
dressmaking fabrics (sometimes remnants) would be fashioned into a square comprised of asymmetrical, conjoined pieces.
When this large square was completed, it would be positioned on a bed, on point, and was intended simply for decoration
during the day, and was removed at bedtime.
Early Twentieth Century Wholecloth Boudoir Quilts
Wholecloth sateen quilts enjoyed a brief popularity in American during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Some of
these shiny-surfaced, elegant quilts were known as "boudoir" quilts. Not long ago, I saw one of these in an antiques shop, in a
pink color, and in fine condition. We always regret the quilts we leave behind.
Twentieth Century Quilted Garments
The Wholecloth Garment Stori by Mary Stori (KY: American Quilter's Society, 1998), ISBN: 1-57432-718-6, is a book for
people who want to "personalize their garments." Two chapters of the book discuss "Basic Trapunto" and then "Corded
Trapunto." The author points out that the act of doing "stipple quilting" around the stuffed motifs brings out design elements
even more. The cover of the book has a beautiful vest that has the motif of sheaths of wheat.
Pre-Marked Kits for Wholecloth Pillows and Quilts in The 21st Century
The simplicity of wholecloth quilts is appealing. Today, quilters do not even have to mark their own designs. They can
purchase a pre-marked quilt kit. Holice Turnbow is a name that many of you will recognize as a designer for white wholecloth
quilts. Those kits are available at Keepsake Quilting in Centre Harbor, NH, and elsewhere. For those who enjoy hand quilting
more than piecing or appliqué work, this kind of a quilt can be just what you would like.
Long-Arm Quilters Make Machine-Quilted Wholecloth Quilts
Wholecloths quilts are even being made by expert long-arm machine quilters. They are lovely. There were quite a few terrific
examples at the Machine Quilters Expo 2005 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
One well-known, long-arm quilter who makes stunning wholecloth quilts is Karen McTavish. Her book Whitework Quilting:
Creative "Techniques for Designing Wholecloth and Adding Trapunto to Your Quilts, is "for machine and hand quilters and
those that love beautiful quilts." This incredibly inspirational publication was produced by On-Word Bound Books, in Two
Harbors, Minnesota in 2004. The popular teacher is available to travel internationally to share her specialty, wholecloth
trapunto, longarm machine quilting, and design. She can be reached at: McTavish@designerquilts.com
©Copyright 2005. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. Files on this educational website are
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