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The mystery of the patchwork quilt

The unfinished patchwork coverlet

All references in this blog come from one of my favourite books of all time: 'Quilts 1700-2010' Sue Prichard Ed. V & A Publishing, 2010.

I have read many chapters in this book over and over, and will continue to do so! If you do not have it, buy it. If you cannot afford to buy it, ask for it as a birthday gift! So many snippets of historic information not found elsewhere. So much to learn about social history as well as fabrics.

I hope this little investigation makes your mouth water for this book!

This blog comes about because I have recently bought a patchwork quilt. Pictured above.

I have been in love with patchworks as far back as I can remember and the V & A book explores so many actual examples through history. I rarely sell them, because I cannot bear to part with the few that I own. Scattered around the cottage, they become worn and faded in use, something I feel very guilty about. The earliest I have dates to the late 18th Century and it has been draped on an armchair for so many years, it is literally falling apart in front of me, but I cannot remove it - it has become a part of my existence.

So, tempted as I am to keep it, the one being examined with you today is going to someone who will save it from daily use!

Why are patchworks so special? Because they tell a story. They tell many stories indeed. And they are just about as personal as one can find in the historic textile world. Where facts are missing, our imaginations can run wild; what were the fabrics used for, who collected the fabrics, who made the quilt, was it for the poor or was it rather rich ladies with nothing else to do but sew? Could it have come from a prison? The famous Quaker, Elizabeth Fry who worked tirelessly on prison reform, was known to encourage female prisoners to learn fine sewing rather than wallow in misery in the terrible conditions.

This patchwork is an unfinished quilt, possibly meant as a coverlet. I was delighted to find that it is still unlined, as many early quilts are. The underside of a quilt can tell us so much. Here, we can see the beautifully small whipped stitches, probably made in linen thread, to attach each hexagon to the next. Early work indeed and so similar to quilts shown in the V & A examples.

More interesting, and a feature I love to find, is that some of the templates are still to be found enclosed inside the hexagons. Most are to the edges [which still show tacking stitches] but a lovely one protruding in the centre, clearly shows the handwritten word '...field', and all of the templates seem to be in the same hand, perhaps letters to someone?

The V & A book includes a chapter called 'The Chapman Coverlet: texts, myths & mysteries', written by Angela McShane, Ann Christie & Abigail Turner [2010, pages 125-127. Their in-depth investigation of the Chapman Coverlet, dated to 1829, is utterly fascinating and reveals so much, whilst leaving some questions. I am going to focus on the paper templates they found at the back of the quilt. The papers found consisted of personal notes, children's copy books, bills and receipts, pamphlets and leaflet fragments and blank paper. This says so much about the value of paper in the 18th and first half of the 19th Century:

'Paper was hand made until the mid 19th Century and was both expensive and extremely useful. Waste-paper was a valuable household commodity and was kept over a long period.'

Papers taken from the back of the Chapman Coverlet, V & A - References as before.

The paper in our patchwork has clearly been washed over time and is much faded. But delightful to see the writing remains on it.

The Chapman Coverlet article again helps us so much:

'But why were the papers left in the coverlet? This cannot be answered with certainty, but another cover in the V & A's collection may offer a clue.... ....... Should we conclude that 'piecing-in' papers were not considered disposable, but formed part of a quilt's layering, adding both insulation, and incidentally, some contextual clues for historians? Perhaps many historic patchwork coverlets have lost their piecing-in papers, due to later washing rather than deliberate removal?'

Such a wonderful thought! In my own examination of 18th & early 19th Century bonnets, reticules and stomachers, for example, I have often found fibrous, hand made paper or card within the lining, deliberately used to stiffen and support the garment. So why not with quilts as well?

So now you have indulged my obsession with the underside of the quilt, Let us look at the topside! Although not nearly so complex as some of those in the V & A Collection, some careful thought has gone into the placement of the tiny hexagons within the entire hexagonal shape. The use of light and dark is very effective in forming 'bands' of colourways extending outwards to the edge. At the very centre, we have a lovely single flower!

Looking closely at the beautiful range of prints, I can see that some of the fragments are lightweight linen, and some early chinz, as well as the majority of cottons. All are very well matched for fabric weight though, so the overall effect is lightweight and balanced.

I am not going to give a dating for this quilt. Looking at the prints and the sewing method, I am guessing that it dates to the 1820-30's. BUT! It could date to as early as the late 18th Century right through to the early 1840's. This is for you to research [and let me know, please!]

The reason I cannot be sure is all down to the stunning examples in the V & A book. All of which are very similar and date over a period of these 50 years. Some of them, in fact, have been analysed to find that one quilt can include fabric throughout an extended period of time, all saved by a family who have a dislike for waste! Here is an example of a later quilt, early Victorian:

'The Rajah Quilt 1841' made by convicts. Held in the National Galley of Australia. V & A 'Quilts' as before, pages 94-5, Chapter 'Creativity and Confinement' Sue Prichard.

However, the 1800-30's era was the perfect time to collect fabrics for small projects. Here, we turn again to the V & A book. 'The Catalogue - 1 The Domestic Landscape' pages 163-179, includes a coverlet by Ann Randoll, dated 1802. [P179] This contains a very wide range of linen and cotton printed fabrics.

Ann Randoll's coverlet, 1802. Constructed of fabrics from many decades. V & A, refs. as before.

The authors explain that the fabrics were collected over a significant period of time, but may not have been re-used and damaged fabrics from the home. Tailors and dress-makers had so much choice at this period with a huge range of printed textiles which 'flooded the market....... Tailors and dress-makers were capitalizing on this growing trend by offering cuttings and fragments for sale'. They quote a short passage from an early story book on patchwork which is truly special:

'She went sometimes to Bristol to buy meal and salt, and she took the opportunity of going to a great many dress-makers, from whom she got a large packet of cuttings, which were too small fro general sale.'

'The History of Polly Patchwork' pub 1815 [V & A, 2010, p 179, Ref as above]

200 years on, I think most people use Ebay for their fabric scrap purchases!

Thank you for reading. Further photographs of this unfinished patchwork can be found in the 'Period Home' department of Poppies Cottage. If you have any comments on the date, I would love to hear from you.

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