Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Honeycomb Quilt

Elizabeth Van Horne Clarkson (1771–1852)
ca. 1830
Made in New York, New York, United States
107 5/8 x 98 1/4 in. (273.4 x 249.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William A. Moore, 1923
Accession Number:
Not on view
Elizabeth Van Horne Clarkson made this quilt from hundreds of small hexagonal pieces of fabric. It is the earliest wholly pieced American quilt in the Museum's collection. Although pieced quilts were popular in England in the eighteenth century, the technique did not catch on in America until the nineteenth century, as increased leisure time made quiltmaking more popular and small patterned printed cottons were less expensive to work with than English chintzes. The quilt was made in a pattern known as Honeycomb. The multicolored hexagons are sewn together with whipstitching. Elizabeth Clarkson probably made the quilt as a wedding present for her son Thomas in about 1830.
Elizabeth Van Horne Clarkson made this extraordinary quilt from hundreds of small hexagonal pieces of printed cotton. Outstanding in both intricacy of design and skilled needlework, it is the earliest wholly pieced American quilt in the Museum's collection.
Although pieced quilts were popular in England beginning in the eighteenth century, the technique, with a few rare exceptions, did not catch on in America until the nineteenth century. The proliferation of cottons printed with small-scale designs in the early decades of the nineteenth century may have stimulated more interest in the technique, perhaps because of the sampler-like aspects of a pieced quilt. Increased leisure time made fancy quiltmaking more popular, and both domestic and imported printed cottons were considerably less expensive to work with than fine English chintzes, such as those used for other examples in the Museum’s collection (see 38.59 and 1970.288).
Elizabeth Van Home Clarkson's quilt was made in the pattern known in the early decades of the nineteenth century as “Honeycomb,” in which each tiny hexagon of fabric was first formed over a template cut out of stiff paper in the same shape. Hexagon quilts are built up from small to larger units. After each individual cloth hexagon has been shaped around a hexagonal piece of paper backing, seven of these are whipstitched together to make a schematic flower: six hexagons for the petals, one for the flower's center. It is a technique that requires a patient needleworker. By designing a large and elaborate central medallion and a carefully pieced border, Elizabeth Clarkson elevated this common, methodical technique to create a quilt of great beauty. The quilt's overall design preserves a continuity with earlier appliquéd quilts, which were also focused around a central motif; at the same time, it heralds the transition to a new quiltmaking style in which piecing, rather than appliquéing, would be the favored mode.
The following instructions for mastering this extremely time-consuming method of quilt-making appeared in the January 1835 issue of “Godey's Lady's Book” (p. 41): Perhaps there is no patch-work that is prettier or more ingenious than the hexagon, or six-sided; this is also called honeycomb patch-work. To make it properly you must first cut out a piece of pasteboard of the size you intend to make the patches, and of a hexagon or six-sided form. Then lay this model on your calico, and cut your patches of the same shape, allowing them a little larger all round for turning in at the edges.
Of course the patches must be all exactly of the same size. Get some stiff papers (old copy-books or letters will do) and cut them also into hexagons precisely the size of the pasteboard model. Prepare as many of these papers as you have patches. Baste or tack a patch upon every paper, turning down the edge of the calico over the wrong side.
Sew together neatly over the edge, six of these patches, so as to form a ring. Then sew together six more in the same manner, and so on till you have enough. Let each ring consist of the same sort of calico, or at least of the same colour. For instance, one ring may be blue, another pink, a third yellow, &c. The papers must be left in, to keep the patches in shape till the whole is completed.
The daughter of Augustus Vallete Van Horne and Anna Van Cortlandt Marston Van Horne, Elizabeth Van Horne Clarkson was related to many important old New York families. On October 30, 1790, at the age of nineteen, she married Thomas Streatfeild Clarkson (1763-1844) of Flatbush, whose brother General Matthew Clarkson (1758-1825) was a well-known Revolutionary War hero. Elizabeth's brother, Garrit Van Horne (1758-1825) was married to her husband's sister, Ann Margaret Clarkson (1761-1824). The couples built two neighboring houses at 31 and 33 Broadway in lower Manhattan.
Elizabeth's husband, who went by the name of Streatfeild, together with his brother Levinus, owned a prosperous import and export business called S. & L. Clarkson Company, which was based in New York City. Perhaps this business supplied Elizabeth with the English cottons that she pieced into her quilt. After Streatfeild's death in 1844, Elizabeth moved to 11 West Twenty-first Street, where she died in 1852 at the age of eighty-two. She and her husband were interred in the Clarkson family vault in Flatbush.
The couple had eleven children, nine daughters and two sons. Elizabeth Clarkson's quilt apparently descended to her son Thomas Streatfeild Clarkson (1799-1873), who in 1828 married his first cousin Elizabeth Clarkson (1810-1883), Levinus's daughter. (As with many well-to-do families at the time, the Clarkson and Van Home families continually intermarried, most likely in order to keep their wealth intact.) From them, the piece descended through the family to the donors, Elizabeth's great-granddaughter, Emilie Vallete Clarkson (1863-1946) and her husband, William A. Moore (1861-1922). The couple had no children; in 1923 the quilt was presented to the Museum along with a large store of other family articles. The only quilt among furniture, silver, and paintings, it was obviously a valued heirloom.
It is tempting to suppose that Elizabeth made the quilt as a wedding present for her son Thomas. If completed in 1828, it is a very early example of this type of template quilt in America, although hexagon quilts were made in England beginning in about 1780. It is possible that through her husband's import/export contacts, Elizabeth learned about the popular English style before most of her compatriots. The first known publication in the United States of a pattern for hexagon patchwork was in the January 1835 issue of “Godey's Lady's Book” quoted above. The fabrics used in this quilt, all very well printed, were made in the first few decades of the nineteenth century; the latest of them has previously been dated to the early 1830s. Therefore, for the present, about 1830 must be considered the most accurate date we can assign to this work.
The Metropolitan Museum is fortunate to own, in addition to her quilt, a portrait miniature of Mrs. Clarkson (23.80.83). It was painted by New York miniaturist Thomas Seir Cummings (1804-1894) and depicts Mrs. Clarkson it her old age. Her black attire may indicate that she is in mourning; both this, as well as the style of her dress, leads us to assume that the portrait was painted after the death of her husband in 1844.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]
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