Colonial and Early Euro-American Patchwork

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The block-style layout—in which quilt blocks of the same size are arranged in a grid—is considered to be an iconically American quilt design, but it is only relatively recently that this layout became prevalent in the United States. How did this layout develop and what other traditions influenced it? This series of three articles explores one of the many influences in American quilting: early European patchwork traditions. The series charts the impact of European traditions on colonial and early-Euro-American patchwork designs, as well as the period of transition from European influenced layouts and patterns to the block-style layout in the United States. This second article in the series looks at colonial and early American quilts to examine their relationship to earlier British and Dutch patchwork traditions and to document the beginnings of a shift to a new layout.

 

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As Europeans colonized the Americas, they brought with them their artistic traditions. Unsurprisingly many quilts made by European colonists and by citizens of the young United States reflected the aesthetics and construction methods of the quilts made in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands—as well as other European countries—in the 1700s and early 1800s. Styles, ideas, and materials flowed back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean via people, letters, and trade routes. In fact, early Euro-American quilts are so similar to their contemporary British counterparts that it is not possible to determine on which side of the Atlantic they were made. Because of this many quilts from this period held in museum collections in the United States today are listed as made in either the United States or the United Kingdom.

 

The first article in this series identified five common characteristics of eighteenth century British and Dutch patchwork, including:

1) They are predominantly coverlets, meaning they are unquilted. 

2) They are made from silk and pieced over papers.

3) They feature a medallion-style layout where the design builds outwards from the center in frames. 

4) They are made from pieced blocks that are set side-by-side, creating a busy aesthetic without space for the eye to rest.

5) They contain a limited number of geometric block patterns.

 

By the early 1800s, some of these characteristics had already shifted. For example, Indian cotton was a highly sought after commodity in the United Kingdom in the 1700s. It was so popular that it threatened the domestic wool and silk trades and the British government banned its import and banned printing on all-cotton cloth for the home market. Printed cottons could be exported, however, and were sent to the American colonies, giving manufacturers an incentive to develop cotton printing technology.[1] The ban on importing Indian cottons was lifted in 1774, but “British manufacturers had cornered the market on printed cottons, effectively eliminating India from the trade.”[2] The popularity of Indian printed cottons during this period meant that British imitations of the prints were used in both fashion and home furnishings, including quilts. 

 

While the fabric used to make patchwork changed and the arts of patchwork and quilting merged, the last three characteristics—the medallion layout, blocks set side-by-side, and the block patterns—remained common in British quilts made in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Cotton quilts with those three characteristics are found on both sides of the Atlantic. In the young United States, however, a shift in style and layout was starting to occur in the early 1800s. Whereas British quilts retained their busy aesthetic, with pieced blocks set side-by-side, in the United States quilters began to make patchwork quilt tops that alternated pieced blocks with unpieced blocks, creating space for the eye to rest.

 

 

A quilt from the collections of the International Quilt Museum (IQM) illustrates this change (fig. 1). This piece is dated in the bottom left-hand star block with embroidered cross-stitch that reads “EH 1813.” The bottom right-hand star block contains an embroidered tree of life motif and again the initials “EH.” Unfortunately not enough is known about the origins of this quilt to trace who EH was, but the provenance of the quilt is listed as probably New England by the IQM. The quilt does not contain any batting and is quilted in an on-point grid all over the whole quilt.

 

The quilt shares a number of features with eighteenth century European patchwork; specifically it is arranged in a medallion layout, building out from the center in frames. It also shares a feature found in a subset of British patchwork in which the center of the quilt is made from small scraps of fabric and the blocks and patches of fabric get larger as they build out from the center.[3] The blocks used in this piece are also all found in European patchwork from the 1700s: the nine-patch block, the eight-pointed nine-patch star, and the square-in-a-square. One of the key features of this piece that separates it from the European traditions, however, is the way in which the pieced blocks in the outer two frames are separated from each other by unpieced blocks. 

 

 

A second quilt made during the same period shares a number of characteristics with the quilt made by EH in 1813. This piece also has the medallion-style layout and block pattern—half square triangle and modified nine-patch—found in British and Dutch quilts from the eighteenth century. In this case the medallion design is built around a scarf, which forms the central focal point of the quilt. Large solid blocks of chintz fabric further highlight the on-point layout of the design. The T-shape of this piece indicates that it was likely made to fit on a four-poster bed, with the sections made of half square triangle blocks meant to hang down the sides of the bed. This piece was likely made between 1810 and 1830 and was possibly made in New England. It is quilted with different geometric patterns in each block.

 

As in the first quilt, the maker of this piece separated the modified nine-patch blocks from each other with unpieced blocks in the corner sections of the quilt. The maker also used half square triangle blocks to connect the on-point first frame of the quilt to the straight-set corner sections. Both techniques leave places for the eye to rest and distinguish this piece from contemporaneous British patchwork designs.

 

These pieces and other found in museum collections around the United States demonstrate the visual connections between the quilts made in Europe in the 1700s and early 1800s and those made in the American colonies and young United States. They also display the beginnings of a shift in design, specifically the technique of alternating pieced blocks with unpieced blocks. This design element will become an important characteristic of early American block-style layouts that will be discussed in the final article in this series.

 


[1] Clare Browen, “Making and Using Quilts in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” in Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories, ed. Sue Prichard (London: V&A Publishing, 2010), 45-47.

[2] Carolyn Ducey, Chintz AppliquéFrom Imitation to Icon (Lincoln, NE: International Quilt Study Center and Museum, 2008), 10.

[3] Janice E. Frisch, “English, Welsh, and Irish Influences on the Development of the Block-Style Quilt in the United States,” PhD diss., Indiana University, 2013, 111-118.

Janice E. Frisch, Ph.D., has been making and researching quilts for the past twenty years. She is the owner of the business Tangible Culture, through which she gives quilt history lectures, teaches quilting classes, and makes custom memory quilts. Her groundbreaking research on the American block-style quilt is published in the book American Quilts in the Industrial Age, 1760-1870, edited by Patricia Cox Crews and Carolyn Ducey. You can learn more about her work and book her for guild lectures on her website: www.TangibleCultureLLC.com