Coursework Part One: Project 1: Selecting and Identifying

Exercise 1.2 Substance and Story

Item Two: Patchwork Quilt


1 What is the textile made from?

The quilt is made from a mixture of re-purposed textiles: cottons, wools and possibly linens. Patterned dress fabric, woollen checks, stripes, fabrics with small ‘ditsy’ patterns (such as tiny, stylised flowers or diamonds on a plain background), leaf patterns, spots and florals. The majority of fabrics used in the quilt are patterned in some way. Colours are mainly shades of brown and cream, with smaller quantities of black and white, bubblegum pink, green, blue and a striking plain orange.

The creamy white backing fabric has a coarse weave and is thought to be linen or cotton.

The quilting thread is a thick white thread, probably cotton.

The quilt measures 2200 mm in length, and 2160 mm in width.

No maker’s label is present. There is an old exhibition label on the quilt, which states “Quilt in log cabin or ribbon technique. This design is used all over the world, including America, the Middle East and parts of Europe. The name comes from the way the quilt is built up rather as logs are laid on top of each other in the construction of the wooden cabins of America.” The quilt was removed from display in the Local Textiles Case in Dumfries Museum in March 2014.

Museum care is similar to the rag rug: the quilt is folded and wrapped in acid free tissue paper, then stored in a lidded archival box, together with other textiles, similarly wrapped. The wear and tears (probably due to moth damage and general wear to the fabrics) are left un-repaired.

In general, patchwork quilts can be gently hand washed in soap suitable for woollens. Care must be taken to gather the quilt and move it in one piece so that strain is not put on the stitching. The quilt can be rolled in towels and squeezed to aid drying, and should preferably be laid flat and turned once, until dry.

2 Production Methods

The patchwork quilt is worked in a traditional block pattern from recycled woven fabrics such as cotton and wool in light to medium weights. The block pattern is called log cabin – this is the ‘Courthouse Steps’ variation. A central square of fabric has two half squares (or in this case , whole squares)  added either side of the original square, then two strips of fabric are sewn top and bottom, then two more to the sides. The piecing is normally carried out on a foundation fabric, which helps to keep the strips straight, and the block square. This action of adding two strips at a time is repeated until a square block of the required size is achieved. All the side strips can be light and all the top and bottom strips dark, or vice versa. This allows design options using the light and dark areas to make patterns of the textile’s surface. The diagrams below from Robert Field’s book Geometric Patterns from Patchwork Quilts, illustrate the block and layout of this particular quilt.

Courthouse Steps Patchwork Block

Once the required number of blocks are assembled, they are laid out to form the chosen pattern, then sewn into rows, the rows are joined to form the complete top. The top is ironed before sandwiching with a batting/wadding and a backing fabric. The layers are basted (stitching or pins can be used), then (usually) attached to a frame for quilting. All three layers are sewn through (in this case, by hand) to join them together, creating additional pattern and texture. The edges of the quilt are trimmed to be square, before a binding is attached, covering the raw edges. On this quilt a cream fabric with tiny brown stars has been used for most of the binding, apart from one small section which is cream coloured with a self-stripe (an improvisation, perhaps due to the maker running short of the star fabric).

3 Where is the textile from?

There was no maker’s label on the quilt, and no donor details were found with it. It was just discovered one day amongst items in the Museum’s collection. It is thought to date to c.1900. A volunteer, Margaret, who was helping the Museum with the textiles archive discussed the problems with dating, such as people storing older fabrics which are then used in a quilt (sometimes generations old fabrics).

The majority of fabrics used in the quilt are probably recycled from old clothing and household textiles. The fabrics themselves provide clues to the age of the piece (by searching for known patterns and production techniques, the fabrics can be dated).

The wadding can be seen through some of the tiny damage holes in the top of the quilt. It consists of a fine fibre, white in colour, with a springy look to it, probably wool. From what can be seen, it does not appear to have been felted, and may have been loose wool tops distributed over the backing fabric.

The Industrial Revolution included many inventions that automated and increased the speed of textile production (for example, the spinning jenny, invented by James Hargreaves in 1764, automated weft thread preparation for weaving on the loom. Roller printing was in widespread use by 1810, and twenty or more colours in a single textile could be produced by the end of the century.) This meant that more affordable clothing and household textiles were available to many in society, and could end up being made into quilts such as this one, when they ceased to be useful as clothing etc.

A typical cotton dress from the 1870s can be seen on the V&A website.

4 Problems Encountered

There is no labelling on the piece, and no known information on the maker or certain date of production.

Similarly to the rag rug, traceability might be important for archival care of the quilt: the type of fabrics used and age of the piece may dictate how it is cleaned, displayed and stored.

Further information on the date of fabrics used might be obtained by studying manufacturer’s textile designs of the period. Photographic evidence, or written evidence (such as descriptions of items making up a dowry, or left in a will, or described in a diary or newspaper article – if the quilt was entered for a show, for example -) may yet come to light.


1 Visual Examination

The Museum describes the quilt condition as “Some staining, but otherwise good condition”.

A series of small dark brown, possibly rust, marks are visible on the backing fabric; other black marks and some fainter brown stains can be seen. The fabrics are darkened (browned) through age and use. It looks to have been well used and somewhat worn in places with small holes in some of the top fabrics – either moth damage or holes in the more fragile fabrics that have deteriorated over time.

I could see no obvious repairs to the quilt, and the binding was still intact.

I imagine that this quilt was made by the lady of the house, using recycled clothing and household textiles, for use on the main double bed in the house, or perhaps the guest room.

2 Design elements, details, decoration and construction story

The log cabin pattern appears on quilts as early as the first half of the 19th century in Britain, although an earlier piece, an English perfume bag worked in silks, dated 1650 also features the pattern. In her book The Quilts of The British Isles, Janet Rae quotes from a book dating to the late 1800s, which proposes the theory that the bands of linen strips on Egyptian Mummies, were the inspiration for the pattern. This example from the British Museum’s website illustrates the theory well:-

Another suggestion is that the pattern came to the UK from America, where the block often has a red central square, said to represent the fire in a log cabin; the dark and light fabrics represent the fire light and shade falling on the cabin walls.

Rae also puts forward her own theory that the run-rig farming system, found in Scotland up until the end of the 18th century, might have been an inspiration to quilters. The strips of land on shared tenancy farms were apportioned and rotated among the farmers to ensure that everyone received a fair share of both good and poorer quality land. The ‘rigs’ forming side by side strips that abut with other strips, as can be seen in this small image: –

This versatile block can be arranged in many ways to produce different effects: chevrons, radiating diamonds (‘Barn Raising’ pattern), rows, all-over small diamonds or triangles, etc, which is probably why it has proved so popular over the years. Another positive point is that it can use up very small scraps of fabric, and all sorts of patterns, plains and even different weights of fabric can be mixed.

This particular piece is hand quilted with a thick white cotton or linen thread in diagonal lines, quite closely spaced, and meandering from the straight in some places, as if stitched without guidelines. The stitches are fairly large. Due to the density of layers of fabric used in log cabin quilts, many of them were tied rather than quilted, so this stitching through the layers must have been quite hard work. The quilting stitches give the fabric on the reverse of the quilt a lovely all-over rippled, puckered effect.

3 Nostalgia

Nothing is known of the maker of this quilt, however it is possible that the quilting was carried out as a sociable activity, as described in Janet Rae’s The Quilts of The British Isles: “In the Scottish Borders, women gathered to quilt in the evenings because they were otherwise occupied during the day. Not only did they gossip they recited poetry to each other while they worked.” Young girls would be introduced to the craft by threading needles for the women doing the sewing.

I have made three bed quilts (one with hand sewn hexagons, one with a rail fence variation and one with a diamond pattern), and numerous smaller pieces such as wall hangings. I favour the simpler patterns like squares and stripes. The log cabin pattern is a favourite, as I particularly like the scrap quilts made from tiny fragments of numerous fabrics. My Mother made machine sewn bed quilts from panels of fabric, when I was younger, so they were certainly part of my heritage. As soon as I saw this quilt online, I knew I would pick it as one of my three objects to study.


Written Notes:-

Cant, L. Rag Rug – DUMFM: 0207.65 handwritten notes taken from Dumfries Museum’s database 1/7/16.


Field, R. Geometric Patterns From Patchwork Quilts (2001) Tarquin, Norfolk

Fisher, Laura Quilts of Illusion (1990) Blandford, London

Rae, Janet The Quilts Of The British Isles (1987) Dutton, New York

Websites:- consulted 06/07/16 consulted 07/07/16 consulted 06/07/16

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