10 Year Anniverary & New Releases Winners: Carrie Fancett Pagels' Butterfly Cottage - Melanie B, Dogwood Plantation - Patty H R, Janet Grunst's winner is Connie S., Denise Weimer's Winner is Kay M., Naomi Musch's winner is Chappy Debbie, Angela Couch - Kathleen Maher, Pegg Thomas Beverly D. M. & Gracie Y., Christy Distler - Kailey B., Shannon McNear - Marilyn R.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Colonial Hand Quilting - Labor of Love

I'm always fascinated by the trades and occupations that our colonial ancestors held, especially the long hours they kept and the primitive manner which they worked, without the conveniences that we enjoy today. In my novel Pattern for Romance I've chosen to highlight the trades of a merchant tailor, mantua-maker, and a quilter. When doing my research I was fascinated to learn the interesting history of quilting in early America.

My heroine in Pattern for Romance, from an upper-middling class family in England, learned to quilt as a leisurely activity. Upon her arrival in Boston, Massachusetts under dire circumstances she turns to her skill and finds employment as a quilter at a mantua-maker's (dress) shop. Her painstaking, meticulous stitches earn her only a pittance and for this reason quilters in the 18th century were often accused of theft, a crime my protagonist also gets accused of. But alas, it is no secret that the hero will come to her aid so she won't have to bear the brand of a T for theivery on her work-worn hand.

There are many romantic notions about quilting and one of them comes from our early American history. It is a myth commonly believed that colonial women sat around quilting bed coverings as a past time. Most women in these times did not have leisurely time for such activities when there was so much work to be done each and every day.

Photo I took at CW.

You may be surprised to learn that some of the earliest quilted objects in America were garments, not bed covers. Before there were piecework quilts such as Broderie perse/chintz applique and Mathematical/Lone star quilts made from imported fabrics (contraband during the trade embargoes with Britian) there were whole-cloth quilts. The whole cloth was quilted to add warmth and style, thus the whole-cloth quilt. Beautiful patterns were quilted into the fabric to create exquisite pieces worn by men, children, and women. The lovely open-robe style colonial gown purposefully displays the quilted outer petticoats worn by women to show off the beautiful creations. I border on obsession when it comes to my admiration of these garments, here you can see why.

QUILT - A coveríng for a bed, a petticoat for a woman made by stitching one cloth over another with some sort substance between.
~  The New And Complete Dictionary Of The English Language, 1775

Open-robe gown and quilted petticoat. Heart: Wholecloth
calimanco quilt by Esther Wheat, Conway, Massachusetts,
about 1790, Smithsonian Institution. Whole-cloth quilt
by Lucretia Smith, dated 1776, Bowers Museum,
Santa Ana, California.
This calimanco and linsey woolsey quilted bed cover
was taken as a prize in the Revolutionary War from a
British vessel. Click through to see detail.

The warm and beauty provided in the quilted cloth were also used for bed covers and a research trip to the New England Quilting Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts afforded me the opportunity to see first hand some of the beautiful white-work, whole-cloth bed quilts. Unfortunately I was not able to take photographs, but the images are impressed in my memory and I'm so glad there are extant samples of the exquisite 18th century quilts for us to appreciate today. You can imagine how delighted I was when I discovered these beauties during my trip to Old Fort Western in Maine where museum interpreters are learning how to quilt whole-cloth as they did in the colonial period.

Let's not forget the quilting bees/parties that were held to make much work lighter. The women would spend the day quilting away and invite the men to join them at the end of the day to celebrate with food, music, and dancing.

For more views of colonial quilts please visit my Quilts of Love Pinterest board

What colonial occupation intrigues you? How do you finding pleasure in your labor? In your rest?

Happy Labor Day!

Women Folk
Massachusetts Quilts: Our Common Wealth
Quilt Index

Hand quilting at a quilting museum video demontration.


  1. What a good post, Carla. Think of the hours that went into making a quilted dress panel. My sister-in-law is a quilter, so I'm going to email this link to her. She's part of the Linus Project, people who make quilts for seriously ill or traumatized children. There's a group of quilters at my church. They sell them for money for church projects and they give them away to nursing homes,etc. It is an art that is very much alive today.

  2. I'm inspired by those groups of quilters you mentioned, Susan. Truly a labor of love! I cannot imagine the hours spent making these beautiful works.

  3. I know! Incredible detail. Can you imagine all the hours and hours of neck-breaking work it took? But worth it in the end, I think.

    1. There certainly was a different work ethic back then. We are in such a rush to get things done today.

  4. Ohhh how lovely. I wish I could do such things and had the time. My grandmother was an amazing quilter.

    1. It does seem like we often are pulled in other directions this day in age, but even though our grandmothers were so busy they often were so industrious at home.

  5. I love quilting, although I haven't done much lately. I piece my quilts on my grandmother's old black Singer (until I can get my great-grandmother's treadle machine working again) and then I hand quilt the layers.

    I also enjoy spinning fibers, most wool, into yarn. Spinning wasn't colonial occupation until the boycott of goods. Then it became a necessity. I mainly knit with my yarn, whereas the colonials would have woven theirs.

    1. How wonderful, Pegg! I admire you even more now!!

  6. What an interesting post, Carla. I do some quilting and aplique work. I have a character in my WIP who quilts a dress panel. Your Pinterest Board is lovely.

    1. I bet your work is just lovely, Janet, and am glad you enjoyed my Pinterest board. It sure was fun to do. Laura Frantz just created one for quilts, too!

  7. Thank you Carla for the post. As a man, I was drawn to "Hidden in Plain View" aspect of the quilts, the secret quilting code that aided in the underground railroad. The case was made in the book of the same title. In your research, did you uncover the origins of the basic quilt patterns such as the monkey wrench, waggon wheel, bear paw, shoofly, bowtie, etc? I used to do a presentation about the "secret code." But never came across the actual beginning dates for the various patterns.

    1. That sounds so interesting. My research mostly centered on the 18th century quilting techniques. There is another book in the Quilts of Love series that involves the underground railroad, but I am not sure to what extent the stitching patterns were involved. Thank you for your comments.

  8. Interesting post, Carla! I love quilts - I can remember my grandmother making quilts & hand stitching them, all those tiny little stitches! Thanks!


Thanks for commenting, please check back for our replies!