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Friday, Aug. 22, 2014

Gray Matter: More about quilts

Monday, April 17, 2006

Several weeks ago we were discussing the fascinating subject of quilts and quilting. At the time, I was a little concerned that it might be boring to you male readers. So, I was more than pleased to read a recent account telling that in Pioneer days (perhaps out of sheer boredom) while confined inside a cabin in the dead of winter, some of the manliest of men picked up a needle and joined their womenfolk in this interesting pursuit. Then, too, I remembered that the late father of a friend living here in our town was a skilled quilter in his own right, and both he and his family were very proud of his accomplishments.

So now, with that assurance, I will continue with the story I promised concerning the remarkable collection of quilts belonging to a friend of mine. They were crafted by her great-grandmother who lived on a farm near St. Clairsville, Ohio, on this side of the Ohio River just across from Wheeling, W. VA.

The quilts, sewn in the 1870's and 80's were presaged by a sampler, stitched in 1833, when the seamstress was only 10 years old. It, too, hangs on my friend's wall. It seems that samplers such as this were done by the young girls of that era when they attended a sort of "finishing school" and were meticulously trained in the so-called womanly arts. Such samplers surface occasionally, though many have deteriorated with the years, but this one was far more complex and intricate than most. Remember, she was only 10!

But on to the quilts There are several in traditional geometric patterns some in wool and others in cotton. Pieces in most of them are very small; it's as though the quilt maker prided herself on the accuracy required in working with those tiny bits. The cotton prints have been dated by quilt experts who examined them some years ago as part of an assessment of historical quilts owned by Iowans at that time. It is interesting to learn how certain designs and dyes each had their day, so such dating can be quite accurate. One of those quilts in beige, brown and soft rose is particularly attractive.

Perhaps her most amazing achievement is a patchwork of silks and velvets pieced together, and then further delightfully embellished. Fabric painting, much of it in gold, was used for exquisite little flowers and figures. My friend isn't certain if the painting was done before or after the pieces were sewn into the quilt. In any case, after the piecing was done, complete with the painting, the quilt was then given a final flourish with an unbelievable array of stitchery - leaves, flowers, and more, in gorgeous bright silk floss--tracing around or over the patchwork pieces.

By the way, did any of you see a quilt like this on a recent Antiques Roadshow ? It had some historical significance for the city in which it was found, which may have added to its value, but the skill and artistry were no better than that of my friend's great-grandmother, and it was valued in the five-figure range, if I remember correctly.

The real star of the collection, in my estimation, is a quilt of pure white cotton, each block featuring a different flower delineated in pristine white thread. It incorporates a wide variety of quilting techniques, far beyond simple stitching.

One, called trapunto, is particularly amazing. Researching on-line, I've discovered that the style originated centuries ago in Sicily, spread to France, and was then brought to America by immigrants from those countries. After stitching around a particular design, the quilt is turned over and the quilter uses a stiletto (probably a darning needle) to separate the threads of the thin muslin backing. Then, still using the stiletto, she pushes tiny bits of stuffing through the little hole, thus producing a raised effect on the surface of the quilt. This technique was used to exquisitely vary the quilt's texture. Can you imagine the time and skill involved?

Four generations later, the family members are left with several tantalizing unanswered questions. These people were simple farmers. Where, they wonder, did great-grandmother get the rich fabrics for that gorgeous patchwork?

In my own family there was a much less spectacular quilt made of similar fabrics from that era. In this case, we were told the scraps had been given my ancestress by a dress-maker of her acquaintance. So I offered that suggestion, but who knows?

Another matter to puzzle over, was how on earth did that remarkable woman manage to keep that white beauty immaculate in a tiny cabin, where a family lived and where the floor was rough boards at best, and might even have been "swept dirt"?

One fact, though, has been authenticated down through the years. It is true that this industrious needlework artist did her extensive gardening by moonlight to save the precious light of day for her craft. As a result, she has left all who are privileged to view her handiwork aghast with admiration!