"Amongst the most amusing labors of the needle, that of patchwork will, by many be accepted as the first. It offers great variety in its progress, producing many striking effects by means of exercising taste in all its combinations. In fact, this parqueterie of the work-table requires more of the qualities of the artist than might once have been imagined. It demands a knowledge of the power of form and the value of color. Patchwork is not now what it was a few centuries ago."
"Godey's Lady's Book," February 1860 (p.163).
When this commentary was published in "Godey's Lady's Book," silk quilts similar to this example were becoming increasingly popular. Silk quilts were made primarily for decorative purposes and were probably brought out only for show, since in comparison to cotton or wool quilts, they were fragile and difficult to clean. These showpieces often epitomize the kind of artistic quality celebrated by Godey's.
Silk quilts have a long tradition in America. Made in Massachusetts in the early eighteenth century, the Saltonstall quilt (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts), which is composed of small triangles of silk, is believed to be the earliest known American pieced quilt. Quilted silk petticoats were worn in the eighteenth century by fashion-conscious American women, and whole-cloth silk quilts very similar to those petticoats may be found in a number of collections.
The Quakers of Pennsylvania traditionally made silk quilts throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century. For most Americans, however, it was during the 1850s and 1860s that silk attracted new interest as a favored material for pieced quilts. Dress silks were generally used; these silks were often "weighted," an industrial process in which the cloth was treated with mineral salts to give it more body. Fashions in clothing had changed by mid-century, and fine cotton dresses were being replaced by silks. One reason for this was that silk became more plentiful and less expensive after 1826, when the British government rescinded its prohibition against the importation of French silks. The English silk industry was forced to expand rapidly in order to compete with the better-equipped French manufacturers. Probably borrowing from the technical advances made by their European neighbors, the Americans began to experiment with large-scale silk production during the 1840s. The 1845 edition of Webster's "Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy" notes: "From some specimens of American silk lately sent over to this country [England] there appears to be some reason for supposing that, before long, the material may be produced to a considerable extent in that country." It seems that with more silk being imported from England and France and silk also being produced in this country, Americans had easy access to silks of all types by about 1860.
A number of factors indicate that this Broken Dishes quilt was made during the first decades of the twentieth century. Its patterning is considerably more random than that of the other nineteenth-century silk quilts in the collection. The somewhat rigid quality of nineteenth-century quilts has been replaced by a quilt top on which the pattern appears to have grown organically; it is hard to decide whether the pieces were first joined in separate blocks or in horizontal, vertical, or even diagonal strips. One opinion suggests that it was pieced from the center outward, which may account for the fact that sections of somewhat incongruous printed fabrics appear only at the outer edges of the quilt. These printed fabrics may not enhance the quilt's overall appearance, but they do help in assigning a date to it, since they are easily identifiable as 1920s-style dress silks. Another clue to this work's approximate age is that the prevalent colors are not those most often associated with the second half of the nineteenth century. Bright yellows, pinks, and oranges like these are more likely to be the colors of the Jazz Age.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]