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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Materials and Techniques of American Quilts and Coverlets

Early American colonists and artisans, originally from Europe, brought to the New World their own craft traditions centered primarily around the use of linen and wool (22.55). These familiar choices were adapted to the colonies, whose climate and environment enabled the introduction and raising of sheep for wool and, in some areas—though with less success—the growing of flax for linen. The cultivation of silk—an exotic fiber originally brought from China—was attempted, but short-lived, in the northern states, although silk was used extensively by the nineteenth century (1983.349). Cotton thrived in the southern region, but was restricted to small-scale home production until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the invention of new mechanical equipment, including the cotton gin, special carding (for fiber preparation) and spinning tools, and new loom technologies facilitated its harvesting, spinning, and weaving on a large scale.

Quilts and coverlets were created from both homemade and commercially produced cloth. During the early colonial period and into the new republic, most commercial fabric was imported from England. Even goods that originated in foreign regions, such as the popular dye-printed calicoes from India and woven silks from China, were brought into the colonies via English ships. These were used in making quilts and also influenced American quilt design (1970.288; 38.59). By the mid-nineteenth century, most of the fabrics found in quilts were industrially produced and reflected the taste and achievements of the American textile industry. Specialty fabrics—particularly silk ribbons like those used in the Signature quilt (1996.4)—became popular by the second half of the nineteenth century.

Colors, Dyes, and the Dyeing Process in America
Prior to the development of synthetic dyes in the nineteenth century, early American dyers utilized natural dyes, derived from a variety of plants and animals, to create a wide-ranging color palette. Red colors ranged from the orange-red hue produced from the madder root (Rubia tinctoria) (56.113) to the brilliant scarlet made from cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), the scale insect that grows on cactus from Central and South America (22.55). Most of the blue colors were from indigo leaves (Indigofera tinctoria), and browns derived from a variety of sources, including tannins found in galls and oak trees.

Numerous shades of color could be achieved by the dyers, depending on the quality of the dyes, the purity of water, the type of utensils used (a copper kettle, for example, could affect the color), and the addition of specific mordants, or metallic salts, used to fix the dye to the fiber in order to create a strong, lightfast color. Mordants included alum, iron, copper, tin, and chrome, and, along with other additives to the dyebath, such as cream of tartar, vinegar, or ash, were essential to the dyeing process.

The dyeing of textiles with natural dyes was both an art and a science. Indigo blue, for example, with its complex chemistry, required a series of steps to reduce and oxidize the dyestuff, in order to produce the durable, lightfast blue color. Turkey Red was another complicated dye process. Originating in India to produce madder red dye on cotton fabric, Turkey Red was a method that involved a sequence of immersions of the cloth into oils, milkfats, and dung, among other materials (1974.24). Toward the end of the eighteenth century, books were published on the science and philosophy of dyes, thus heralding a period of experimentation for the creation and use of a whole new category of synthetic dyes that flourished at the end of the nineteenth century and continue to be used today.

Printing Techniques for Quilts and Coverlets
Many techniques were employed for printing the fabrics used in American quilts. Apart from the dyeing of yarns or whole cloths with a single color by immersing the fabric into cauldrons of hot dyebaths, methods of applying designs onto the surface of fabrics ranged from hand-painting and stenciling to block, copperplate, roller, resist, and discharge printing.

Block printing involved the use of carved wooden blocks, whose surfaces were “inked” with dye thickened with gum arabic or other starchy substances and pressed directly onto the cloth. Some appliquéd quilts (38.59; 1970.288; 2005.284) were made with floral designs from block-printed fabrics. Etched plates of copper were also used for printing, and in 1783 technological developments led to sheathing cylindrical rollers with etched copperplates for continuous printing, called roller printing (1985.347). This new technology enabled printers to produce more yardage at a much faster rate.

Construction of Quilts
The creation of complex quilts composed of many small pieces of cloth requires systematic organization. For constructing pieced quilts, a template might be used for creating the basic design unit, such as a square, diamond, or hexagon. The template—sometimes a heavy card or paper, or even newspaper—ensured an even, regular unit size, thus enabling the quilter to join together the many pieces of fabric, following an overall design arrangement (1996.4). Appliquéd quilts, also made by using fabric pieces, were constructed in a different manner. Appliqué is a versatile technique, enabling the sewer to compose visual patterns with multiple layers of solid-color and printed fabrics, creating depth and play in the overall composition (1974.24).

Woven Design and Structure in American Coverlets
American woven blankets and coverlets range from handmade to industrially woven products. Simple weaves, such as plain weave, twills, float weaves (often referred to as “summer and winter” due to their color contrasts) (10.125.410), and certain doublecoths were woven on simple looms (67.33). Creating designs in geometric patterning resulted from a weaver’s meticulous attention to the loom capabilities, along with the artistic use of contrasting colors and materials to highlight the pattern effects. Floral and larger-scale pictorial images generally required more complex patterning mechanisms. The Jacquard mechanism, developed by French weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard (31.124) in the late eighteenth century, utilized a series of pre-punched cards (made of carton perforated in patterns for particular designs) that would control the threads as woven on the loom. An early forerunner of the computer, the Jacquard loom was introduced to American weavers by the 1820s and used extensively to produce woven coverlets with both large and small-scale designs (1988.127).