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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Quilts and Coverlets

Bed quilts and coverlets, appliquéd, pieced, embroidered, or woven, are some of the few handmade objects that were created by American women to express their artistry and skill. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women of all social strata made quilts and coverlets. Although many of these were meant to be primarily utilitarian, they were often designed to be pleasing to the eye as well, and sometimes they were imbued with significance far beyond being simple covers for a bed. During the heyday of quiltmaking in the nineteenth century, America’s increasingly mobile population was moving westward, settling in the wilderness. Easily portable, and certainly necessary, bedcovers might be some of the few decorative objects a woman had in her home. Bedcovers were often wedding gifts, or made by a young woman to take with her to her future husband’s house. If that new home was distant from friends and family, a bedcover became an important keepsake from her old life. Quilts were also made to celebrate the birth of a child, as gifts to thank important members of the community such as the local minister, and even sometimes in remembrance of the dead (1983.349).

In the eighteenth century, quilts made of lengths of a single type of cloth, usually wool, called “whole-cloth quilts,” were the most popular type of bedcovering found in America. They were practical, and because they were often filled with wool batting as well as having both top and bottom layers made of wool, they were very warm. The three layers were stitched together with running stitches in decorative patterns. This type of quilt could be made in the colonies or imported from England. Fancier whole-cloth quilts, made with silk tops, or, in the second half of the century, with lengths of English copperplate-printed cotton, were also imported here.

Beds were designed to be fully draped with curtains in the eighteenth century. The enclosure made by the curtains provided both warmth and privacy. New England women sometimes created full sets of embroidered bedhangings for their best bed. A full set would include four curtains, a head cloth, valances, and a coverlet. (Coverlets can be defined as single-layer, unquilted bedcoverings.) These colorful bedhangings and coverlets were usually made of linen or linen/cotton, and embroidered in wool with flowers, birds, trees, and vines (22.55). Bed rugs, heavy embroidered wool pile coverings decorated with floral motifs, were also popular in New England, protecting their owners from the cold northern winters (33.122).

After the turn of the nineteenth century, finely printed cottons became widely available in the United States. In the early years of the new century, most were imported from England and France. Women took advantage of these bright and beautiful chintzes, and cut out portions of the patterns and sewed (or “applied”) them onto plain white bedcovers. These “appliqué” quilts and coverlets were particularly popular in the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states, but were found throughout the young nation (38.59; 1970.288). Bedcovers in this era usually had a centrally focused design. After the first few decades of the century, cotton printed with small repeating patterns (“calicos”) replaced the large-scale patterned chintzes in popularity for quiltmaking. These were available both imported from overseas, and from the newly opened textile mills of New England. Calicos were used to make “pieced” quilts and coverlets; these are bedcovers in which the decorative top layer has been made of many small pieces of fabric that have been stitched together to form the design (23.80.75; 1988.24.1).

During the middle decades of the nineteenth century, quilts had become an acknowledged art form within many communities. Quilts were produced that were not intended for use as everyday bedcovers; instead, their primary purpose was to commemorate an event or relationship. As such, these special quilts were preserved and treasured by their owners. When this type of quilt was made by a group of women (each contributing a patterned square), they were called “Album” quilts (52.103). If they were made by a single quiltmaker, to be given to someone on a specific occasion such as a marriage, they were called “Presentation” quilts (1974.24). A quilt related to this type in our collection is the extraordinary “Signature” quilt, which is made of hundreds of pieces of silk that have been signed in ink by some of the most important figures of the nineteenth century (1996.4).

Another popular type of bedcovering during the second quarter of the nineteenth century was the woven wool and cotton coverlet. While the earliest of these coverlets could have been woven in the home (10.125.410), professionally woven coverlets were more common by the end of the 1820s. They were made by mostly male weavers who set up shop in rural communities throughout the East Coast and Midwestern states. These independent weavers made coverlets, table coverings, and carpets for the local market. Many were immigrants from the British Isles or Germany, both places with large weaving industries firmly in place by the nineteenth century. The British-trained weavers, who settled in the New York–New Jersey area, had been trained as carpet weavers, and the doublecloth coverlets they produced on their Jacquard looms resembled ingrain (flatwoven) carpets in both structure and the large medallion motifs they employed (67.33; 1988.127). The German weavers had been trained as linen weavers and produced a variety of household linens in addition to coverlets and blankets. They used a somewhat different weaving technique to make their coverlets, one that is related to damask weaving. These German weavers settled in Pennsylvania, and eventually made their way west to Ohio and Indiana (56.113).

Another important group of American quiltmakers, the Amish, also followed the same route west from Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century. The Amish started making quilts at a relatively late date, and most classic Amish quilts date from the first half of the twentieth century. Amish quilts differ in appearance from other American quilts in several notable ways. Amish quiltmakers use only solid colored fabrics in a somber color palette, often employ distinctive piecing and quilting patterns, and their quilt patterns can have specific meaning within the Amish community (1973.94; 1988.128). Like their style of “old-fashioned” dress, even today Amish women intentionally create quilts that are a visual statement setting their community and traditions apart from those of the modern world.