What to Include in your Quilt Labels

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After decades of studying historic and contemporary quilts, I have become more and more of an advocate for labeling your quilts, especially as adding a label or signature seems to be a final step that often gets overlooked. When I ask quilters why they do not label their quilts, I’ve had them tell me that they simply forget, that they are ready to be done and move on to the next thing once the binding is finished, and that they don’t know what to write. But labeling your quilts is important both for your own legacy and for the legacy of women’s arts. And like every other good habit, labeling is something that you learn to do regularly through practice. 

Why are labels important? 

They are the only chance that you have to tell the story of the quilt in your own words. Without a label you leave the quilt’s story to the fate of a game of intergenerational telephone, with the story slowly morphing and changing over the years. The quilt’s recipients and their decedents or heirs will pass on the details as they remember them and will likely fill in the gaps with what they imagined happened. Remember that no one will know more about your quilt than you know now!
 

In working with historic quilts in museum collections, I have seen a number of ways to label your quilts and I have felt both the thrill of finding a quilt with a label and the disappointment when that label doesn’t contain enough information to actually identify the maker of the quilt.


Fig. 1. Inscription on the back of an Early American Block-Style Quilt. Attributed to Rebecca A. Burroughs, c. 1830-1850. Inscription reads: “pieced and quilted by Rebecca A. Burroughs before 12 yrs of age 1832.” Possibly made in New England or Mid-Atlantic, United States. Cotton. 109 x 103 inches. Courtesy of the International Quilt Museum, 2003.003.0162.
 

Take for example the quilt made by Rebecca A. Burroughs that I discussed in my article for Modern Monthly on “Early American Block-Style Quilts.” This quilt has a fading inscription on the back that reads: “pieced and quilted by Rebecca A. Burroughs before 12 yrs of age 1832” (fig.1). At first glance this seems like a great label; we have a name, we have her age, and we have a date. Unfortunately, Rebecca Burroughs happens to be a common name for the region where the quilt was found and without further information, like a town or birthdate, genealogical researchers were unable to find anyone in the census records who might have been the maker of this quilt.


Fig 02: Touching Stars Quilt. Made by Mary Ann Manwaring, c. 1840-1860. Possibly made in Indiana, United States. Cottons. 87.5 x 68.5 inches. Courtesy of the International Quilt Museum, 1997.007.0935.

Unclear labels can also be easily misinterpreted down the line

One of my favorite quilts that I have researched was made by Mary Ann Manwaring and is in the collections of the International Quilt Museum (fig. 2). Mary Ann quilted her name (fig. 3) and the date, Oct. 20, 1821 (fig. 4), with trapunto quilting in her piece. You cannot miss her name and the date as they literally stand up off of the quilt. Museum records had listed the date on the quilt as the date that it was made, but as I looked at the quilt alongside museum staff members, we all felt that the block pattern of the pieced top was a style that did not appear in American quilts until around the 1840s. We knew from family lore associated with the quilt that Mary Ann was from Indiana so the museum’s volunteer genealogical researchers went back to see what other information they could find. They found Mary Ann listed in the 1900 federal census which lists birth month and year and we learned that Mary Ann was born Mary Ann Harvey in Oct. 1821 and that she married Joel Manwaring on August 17, 1836. Suddenly the discrepancy between the date on the quilt and style of the quilt top made sense. Mary Ann had quilted her name and birth year into the piece, not the year that she had made the quilt. The use of her married name also suggested that the piece was made after her wedding, so in the second half of the 1830s or into the 1840s, when star quilt layouts like hers were becoming popular. Fortunately, in this case we knew enough information to uncover more details about Mary Ann’s life and gain a better idea of when she made the quilt. However, as Rebecca’s quilt and the countless anonymous quilts in museums around the world show us, most quilts and their makers aren’t as lucky as Mary Ann.


Fig 03: Detail of Mary Ann Manwaring’s name trapunto quilted into her Touching Stars Quilt. Image by author, used with permission of the International Quilt Museum, 1997.007.0935.

Here is what to include in your quilt label:

So what should you include on your label so that the recipients of your quilts today and tomorrow know who made it? It’s as simple as remembering the “5 Ws” that many of us probably learned for writing essays in school: Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

Who

-       Who made the quilt? Include your full name (and maiden names are good to include here too).

-       Who quilted the quilt if it wasn’t you?

-       Who is the quilt for and what is the relationship between recipient and quilt maker?

What

-       Name of the quilt pattern or design, whether that’s a commercial pattern or an original design you created.

Where

-       Where did you live when you made it? Include city and state (or province or county, however your country breaks up regions).

-       Where is the person who is receiving the quilt living?

When

-       The dates that you made this piece. Try to include date started and date finished where possible or generalize if you can’t remember (summer 2006 for example).

Why

-       Why did you make it? Is it a gift, for a swap, something you made for yourself because you liked it? 


Fig 04: Detail of the date trapunto quilted into Mary Ann Manwarings Touching Stars Quilt. Image by author, used with permission of the International Quilt Museum, 1997.007.0935.

Every quilt that you make will be different and the details of the information that you include on the label will be as well. But keeping these “5 Ws” in mind will help you to include all of the information that a quilt historian and, most importantly, the people who will use and love the quilt will need to know.
 

Remember, it’s not done until you sign it!

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

Photo by Tall and Small Photography.