Eighteenth Century British and Dutch 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 will explore early European patchwork traditions, colonial and early-Euro-American patchwork designs, and the period of transition from European influenced layouts and patterns to the block-style layout in the United States. This first article explores early British and Dutch patchwork, identifying shared characteristics that will later be found in colonial and early-American quilts.

European patchwork traditions had a heavy influence in the Euro-American quilting tradition that can be seen even today. Two of those traditions, the British and the Dutch, had a particularly large impact due to their colonial presence in what is now the United States. Quilting and patchwork are arts with separate histories in Europe. For centuries, both were predominantly male trades related to the creation of heraldic imagery and the construction of quilted clothing, though women also quilted domestically. (1) In the United Kingdom in the 1700s, wealthy women with time and resources took up mosaic patchwork (commonly known today as English Paper Piecing) creating elaborate coverlets with geometric and pictorial designs. (2)

British patchwork from the eighteenth century has a number of distinctive characteristics: (3)

  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)
  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 (fig. 1). Note: block names given to these patterns are not period accurate but are instead descriptive names for ease of identification.

Fig. 1. Common block patterns found in eighteenth century European patchwork. Diagram by author.

Fig. 2. The 1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet. Unknown Maker. Dated 1718. Possibly made in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England, United Kingdom. Silk, Paper. Courtesy of The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection, 2000-11-A.

The oldest known dated patchwork in the United Kingdom is the 1718 coverlet and it displays all of these characteristics (fig. 2). The piece is unquilted and made from silk pieced over papers, which remain intact inside the coverlet. The blocks are all pieced, there is no appliqué, and the blocks are set side-by-side. A number of the common geometric block patterns—stars, square-in-a-square, hour-glass, nine-patch, four-patch, pinwheels, and combinations thereof—are found in the coverlet, alongside pictorial images of common English farm animals. The piece is also arranged in a medallion-style layout, though this is not immediately obvious. Close examination reveals that the maker or makers arranged the blocks in frames with horizontal and vertical symmetry and with the corners of each frame marked with similar blocks (fig. 3). A block with the initials “EH” and the 1718 date is found in the center of the quilt five rows from the top. The coverlet is assumed to have been made by a member of the Brown family of Aldbourne, England, who owned the coverlet at the time that it was purchased, but genealogical research has been unable to identify any individual or set of individuals whose initials are EH. (6)

Fig. 3. Frames in the 1718 Silk Patchwork Coverlet. Image courtesy of The Quilters’ Guild Museum Collection, 2000-11-A. Overlay by author.

Dutch patchwork from this period also shares a number of similar features to British patchwork, as seen in a piece made by an unknown individual in the Netherlands c. 1795-1800 (fig. 4). This later piece differs from the 1718 coverlet in that it is made from cotton and contains some hand appliqué as well as piecing. However, it is still constructed in a medallion-style layout with the pieced hour-glass blocks set side-by-side. The t-shape of the quilt, with the cutouts in the corners indicates that this piece was designed to be functional and used on a four-poster bed.

 

Fig. 4. Untitled, Dutch Patchwork Coverlet. Unknown Maker. c. 1795-1800. The Netherlands. Cotton. 86.25 x 112 in. Courtesy of the International Quilt Study Center and Museum, 2007.005.0001.

These characteristics of early European patchwork are also found in colonial and early American quilts and design elements found in these coverlets and quilts are utilized in the earliest block-style quilts in the United States. Both of these topics will be explored further in the next two articles.

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(1)See, An Moonen, History of Dutch Quilts (Westervoort, The Netherlands: Van Gruting Publishers, 2010), 16-19; Kathryn Berenson, “Political Partisanship in the Tristan Furnishings,” in Uncoverings 2018: The Research Papers of the American Quilt Study Group, vol. 39, ed. Janice E. Frisch (Lincoln, NE: American Quilt Study Group, 2018), 9-46; Clare Browne, “Making and Using Quilts in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” in Quilts 1700-2010: Hidden Histories, Untold Stories, ed. Sue Prichard (London: V&A Publishing, 2010), 32-44.

(2)Browne, “Making and Using Quilts,” 38.

(3)Janice E. Frisch, “British Influences on the American Block-Style Quilt,” Quilt Studies: The Journal of the British Quilt Study Group, 15(2014): 34-65.

(4)Janet Rae, “In the Frame,” in Quilt Treasures: The Quilters’ Guild Heritage Search, ed. The Quilters Guild (York, UK: The Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles, 2010), 17-20.

(5)Block and quilt patterns in the United States have a variety of names and one name can mean different patterns to different people. To aid in pattern identification Barbara Brackman designed a numbering system, the Brackman Number, to help quilt researchers know which pattern they were discussing (Barbara Brackman, Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns [Paducah, KY: American Quilter’s Society, 1993]).

(6)Bridget Long, “A History of the 1718 Coverlet,” in The 1718 Coverlet: 69 Quilt Blocks from the Oldest Dated British Patchwork Coverlet, ed. Susan Briscoe (Newton Abbot, UK: David and Charles, 2014), 11. See also Dorothy Osler, ed. Quilt Studies: The Journal of the British Quilt Study Group, 4/5(2002/2003).

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 her lectures on her website: www.TangibleCultureLLC.com.

Photo by Tall and Small Photography