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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Rare Yellow Work Quilt Leads to Research


Rare Yellow Work Quilt Leads to Research

Patricia L. Cummings
Several years ago, a friend who loves quilts and Redwork embroidery came to visit. Little did I know that one reason for seeing me that day was to give me a rare quilt rendered in yellow thread rather than the customary red hue used for a technique called Outline Stitch Embroidery.


Sandra Munsey had acquired this treasure in 1990 from a quilt vendor, Mildred Fauquet, who was selling quilts at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds in a booth called “Raggedy Ann’s Antiques.” A city bus shuttle from the American Quilt Study Group seminar site in Lincoln, Nebraska had transported Sandra to the fairgrounds. She had seen a quilt of this type only once before in all of the years she has been collecting examples of outline-stitch embroidered quilts in different colors (Bluework, Greenwork, etc.). After previously letting a Yellow Work slip through her hands to another buyer, she decided to purchase this quilt, in spite of its lofty price. I was very elated to receive this gift!

Quilt Features Fine Stitches

This quilt is the work of an experienced needlewoman and is very well made and nicely hand-quilted. The Baptist Fan or Methodist Fan style of hand quilting (so designated according to one’s personal choice of religion) is employed over the surface of the blocks and sashes. The outer edge sashes form an enclosed frame around the center and the other two borders are added. The three strips together feature a zigzag diagonal quilting pattern. The quilting lines are spaced at ¾” intervals.

The overall quilt size is 76 1/8” x 79 3/8” with the individual blocks being an average size of 10 1/8”. Sashes are 2.5” wide, the first white border is 2.5” and the outer yellow border is 3 1/2”, including the outermost part covered by a separate 1/4” binding (the size visible on the front). The backing is the same yellow fabric used to construct the top. A curvi-linear botanical motif is repeated (7 times) on each side in the white border.

Designs on this Quilt

Floral motifs and other 19th century designs, including owls, a woman leaning forward to hand an umbrella and hat to an unseen person, a girl jumping rope, a Jack and Jill motif and the customary inclusion of spider webs, cattails and a water scene are seen. All of the designs are stitched with fine pearl cotton thread in a deep ochre color.

Typical 19th Century Motifs/ One Source Found

In searching for the source of some of the designs, I leafed through the J.F. Ingalls' catalog and found three of them. The block of two birds sitting on a pine branch is the reverse image of the design he calls #880. The price of that 7” x 9” patterns is listed as $.15 cents. The second design I found, a girl jumping rope, is reminiscent of Kate Greenaway’s work. (She was a British illustrator of children’s books). Listed as #823, the 4” x 8” design sold for $.10 cents. The third design offered by Ingalls is the one I call “three chicks in a boat.” Originally intended for making a “splasher” (to keep water from off the wall when one used a pitcher and basin to wash up in a bedroom), the design area was 12” x 25” and the price was a whopping $.50 cents!

Mindboggling Number of Sources for Designs

Encouraged by finding these designs, I looked through the many pages of the M. J. Cunning & Co. catalog with its 3,000 designs but found no matches there. That company bragged of offering the most designs for sale than any other company, the same claim made by their competitor, T. E. Parker. At the height of the Redwork phase in the 1890s-1920s, a trend that began in Kensington, England, quite a few women’s magazines for women offered designs as premiums for subscribing.

The book titled
Briggs Transferring Designs: Patented for the United States of America and published by J.F. Ingalls, Lynn, Mass. The back page of the 234 page book, full of all kinds of botanical motifs, stylistic letters of the alphabet, designs to decorate handkerchiefs and more, features an advertisement for Briggs’ Silks for Embroidery and states that they can be used with the transferring designs and are available from J.F. Ingalls. Other companies made offers for cloth to be used with their products.

Many companies offered collections of designs. A non-comprehensive list would include
magazines and journals such as
The Modern Priscilla, Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s
magazine and
Godey’s Lady’s Book, sometimes offering sets of free designs as a premium for new subscribers. The Montgomery Ward catalog, the Victoria Art Manufacturing Company (William Pinch), and Virginia Snow Studios (a.k.a. Grandma Dexter) were soon competing for their share of the market by offering designs.

Eva Niles capitalized on the needlework fad by writing her own book,
Fancy Work Recreations: A Complete Guide – Knitting, Crochet, and Home Adornment (Minneapolis, Minn.: Buckeye Publishing Co., 1884), in which she pirated Kate Greenaway designs, in some cases. One design in her “Outline Designs for Patchwork” is almost identical to a Greenaway design, yet no mention of the British artist is made. In the days before copyright was stringently enforced, any artist’s drawings were up for grabs. In fact, one magazine (that shall go unnamed) suggested that people trace Kate Greenaway designs directly from her books and from the look of some extant Redwork quilts, many ladies took that advice!

Designs Frequently Offered by Sales Catalogs

Common images of designs to be copied for embroidery were butterflies, musical instruments, sayings, religious icons such as Jesus or Mary, squirrels, owls, canes, vegetables growing animals, Nursery rhyme characters (often call kindergarten blocks and intended for children to embroider), and border edge motifs and corner fillers for square corners of doilies. Water scenes appear on many splashers, some of which feature herons, the rising sun, children jumping off a bridge into water, children in a rowboat, cattails, or sailboats at sea.

What is the Best Way to Transfer Designs? Companies Compete

Companies that sold designs also provided advice and products for transferring designs to fabric and in the 20th century, they began to sell linen already stamped with designs. Before that time,
The Art Amateur: A Monthly Journal Devoted to the Cultivation of Art in the Household provided a recipe for making a stamping paste.

The M.J. Cunning Co. includes a huge perforated pattern that is the same size as their oversize catalog (10 7/8” x 15 3/8” large) as a sample in their 1886 catalog.  One must hold it up to the light to see the design. In their 1905 catalog, they offered stamping pads to use as a dry stamping method. Other methods included wet stamping by soaking a wool cloth with gasoline, running it over stamping wax and in turn, rubbing it over the top of a perforated pattern weighted at each end. J.F. Ingalls sold a stamping paint. In addition, women found they could use flour, starch, charcoal with perforated designs, or pencil lead that filled a whole sheet of paper in order to transfer designs to cloth.

Let a Sewing Machine do the Work!

Sometimes, ladies would also draw their own designs and purchase a sewing machine attachment called “Little Wonder Perforator” to perforate their own paper. Presumably, a home sewing machine could do this work with an un-threaded large needle, reserved for just that purpose because over time, the needle would become dulled. A dressmaker’s tracing tool with saw-tooth edges could manually perforate the design lines. Failing that, M.J. Cunning Co. offered to perforate anyone’s design sent to him and charge prices similar to those seen in their catalog for designs the same size. The catch was that the company would consider those designs an acquisition to their own library of patterns and could very well include them in their next publication.

More Innovation during the Victorian Age

Briggs developed the iron-on transfer method which they first demonstrated at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Iron-on transfers became the mainstay of companies like Aunt Martha Studios. The bold embroiderer could draw designs directly on the fabric with the indelible pens developed for inscribing quilts with signatures. Failing that, there were rubber stamps for imparting designs to fabric.

Skilled Transference of Designs

We do not know exactly how the quilter who made this quilt transferred her designs but the manner is imperceptible on the finished quilt. After checking all of the major catalogs and books in my personal library, I did not find any other exact matches for the designs of this Yellow Work quilt. At least one purveyor of patterns encouraged his clients to use their own creativity in combining designs.

Is this a Case of Humility or Humor?

There are two motifs that are purposely added in an upside down orientation. There are those people who believe in the myth that quilters included a “humility block” in the past, in order to show deference to the Almighty who is perfect in every way. As a quilter, I can safely say that this quilter either had a sense of humor or was doubly humble!

A Fun Research Project

As usual, I cannot undertake a research project without learning a lot more about old quilts. Unfortunately, we do not know the name of the lady who made this quilt in the early 1900s. Influenced by the designs that were all around her, the quilter put together this unique quilt that has been “well-loved.” At one point in time, someone apparently spilled ink on the surface. In an attempt to remove the stain, a harsh substance was used that did not totally succeed in that effort but also inadvertently removed some of the yellow color from the sash. Nothing and no one leaves this life unscathed, un-scarred or perfect. With these old quilts we have to love them for what they are even when we can only envision what they had been like when new. I hope you have enjoyed this special feature as much as I have enjoyed writing it.


Patricia Cummings is the author of books about Redwork and its History (as well as other books). She is an E.G.A. certified master craftsman in quilting, a quilt historian, a quilt judge and a free-lance writer.
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