The ground fabric of this quilt top is black silk. The stars are pieced of a variety of colored silks. The plain black blocks are diamond quilted. Each individual piece of silk that combines to farm the stars is quilted around its edges. The quilt's backing is of a dull green glazed cotton, and the binding is of red silk.
"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.
This quilt is unusual in both pattern and color scheme. The maker of this quilt quite clearly relied upon "a knowledge of the power of form and the value of color." Here, an overall grid of colorful silk pieces is played off against a somber background. The black ground may signify that it was a mourning quilt, since black is an unusual color choice for a bed cover. However, nothing is known about the quilt's provenance. The small, brilliantly colored touching stars that form the grid can be considered a variation of the traditional Star of Lemoyne pattern.
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.
[Peck 2015; adapted from Amelia Peck, "American Quilts & Coverlets in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," 2007]