Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Old Quilt Holds Mysteries

“Civil War Era” Quilt Holds Mysteries

Patricia L. Cummings

"Civil War Era quilt" - collection of Patricia Cummings

If only quilts could speak to us, what a tale they could tell! When I spotted a quilt in
an  antiques mall with a tag that said “Civil War Era quilt,” I was hooked at first 
glance. Immediately, I loved its colors as well as its somewhat organized scrappy 
look. No further information is available about the quilter or the circumstances 
under which this 19th century quilt was made. Certainly, the fabric prints suggest 
the possibility of a Civil War time frame but without verifiable information, we 
shall never know all the details we seek. At any rate, by 1870, the patchwork look 
had run its course in popularity paving the way for the ornate Crazy Quilts and
Redwork quilts of the next decades.

Quilt Features: Clues or Coincidences?

The more I examined this quilt, the more my mind went wild with possibilities. 

The backing of the bed-size quilt is slit diagonally for about 22” and the cotton 
batting has been removed in that area along with the short ties that once held all
three layers of the quilt together. To me, it appears that someone could have been
looking for treasure inside the quilt. During the American Civil War, money and
other “treasures” such as silverware or jewelry were hidden inside Confederate 
quilts to keep them from the marauding eyes of Union soldiers who often 
scooped up anything of apparent value to take with them. I wonder if this quilt 
originated in one of the southern states. Perhaps, someone decided to investigate
to see what might be found inside! This is one mystery we shall never unravel!

The Importance of a “Scrap Bag”

Due to an embargo that restricted trade between the north and south during the 

Civil War, the south suffered from a shortage of cotton fabrics. This is one reason
that many of the extant southern Civil War quilts are either silk or made from 
scraps, often from clothing. Women would cut up their dresses, just as they did in
the north, to recycle fabrics due to the scarcity of fabrics.

Pieces of Pieces!

In the quilt shown here, pieces of the quilt are they themselves pieced, as are the

borders, suggesting that the quilter worked from a scrap bag of recycled cloth to 
create strips, triangles and squares. In spite of the wonky piecing, the quilter 
managed to make a finished quilt that is nearly square: 82 3/8” x 83 5/8”. The 
borders of this quilt are variable in size (3 ¾” on the sides and 2 7/8” at top and
bottom). In this “well-loved” quilt, the clue that the quilt looked like this 
originally and does not have repaired borders is the fact that there is a“knife 
edge” finish all the way around.

Color Planning Shows Genius

Overall, the placement of colors in this old quilt is aesthetically-pleasing. The

double pink squares and triangles juxtapose well with the rich brown fabrics 
and indigo color squares and triangle. The quilter employs many neutral 
fabrics like light brown, gray, beige and tan and adds some strong geometric
prints. The quilter seems to have put a lot of thought into just how she would
arrange the fabrics she had at hand. The overall effect is balanced, a lot of 
work for “just” a utilitarian quilt.

Just Three Blocks

The quilt consists of three different geometric block configurations. There are

 (24) traditional Nine Patch blocks which are placed adjacent to (24) additional
blocks in which the corner squares of a Nine Patch block have been replaced 
with half-square triangle units in light and dark colors. The (1) center block is
a solo affair that has strips (unlike the others) and requires more intricate 
piecing of the side triangles, all of which have four interior triangles. All of the
blocks measure 10.5” square as a finished size.

Why Purchase Old Quilts?

What possessed me to purchase a quilt I shall never use? The reason is fairly

simple to those of us who love old textiles. Old quilts have a certain allure and
can present a kind of mystery. They are fun to “dissect” and study to see just 
how the quilter put them together, what types of fabrics she used and in the 
case of scrap quilts, how she worked magic from the limited materials that 
were accessible at the moment. This quilt, though very photogenic, now 
appears to be quite faded possibly from laundering or exposure to ultra-violet
rays of the sun.

Old quilts are a joy! We can imagine our own grandmothers, making do and

passing their days by crafting warm bed covers for their family. I offer the 
details and photo of the quilt here, just in case you are inspired to make a 
similar quilt. If you do, please do the next generations a favor. Make a tag for
the back of the quilt that indicates who you are, the date you made the quilt
and where you were located at the time. Future quilt historians will thank 
you! Of course, if this article does result in a new quilt you make,
photos are always welcome! Send to

Happy Quilting!

A pattern for this quilt prepared by Patricia Cummings was published in
ScrapQuilts magazine.

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