Warming Up Your American Quilt-Buying Knowledge

A red and white Lone Star or Star of Bethlehem pattern quilt, circa 1900.

Quilts are everywhere this time of year—in decorator magazines, at winter bazaars, for sale at all kinds of stores, and in many antique shops. How do you know what to look for if you are interested in buying one, but didn’t grow up around quiltmakers? First of all, it helps to have a basic understanding of what a quilt is.

“To quilt”—from the Latin “culcita”—means a stuffed sack, mattress or cushion. Today a quilt means a cloth “sandwich” of two pieces of cloth (the top is usually pieced or appliqued), held together with stitches, and something in between, such as a batting.

People discovered early in prehistoric times that putting two layers of fabric together made a garment or coat warmer and stronger than just one layer. The earliest known example of a quilted garment is on a carved ivory figure of an Egyptian pharaoh, circa 3400 B.C. There is also an example of cloth found in Mongolia in 1924 of a quilted floor covering made between the first century B.C. and the second century A.D.

Quilting has been used in garments and household goods all over the world, from China and India to England and France, but in America, there are no written references to quilts until the end of the 17th century. Textiles were difficult and expensive to make or buy in the Colonies, and precious to their owners, who preserved them for as long as possible and used every scrap. The earliest surviving American pieced quilt—the Saltonstall quilt from Massachusetts—is from 1704.

A rose wreath pattern, appliqued, circa. 1890.

Young girls were taught needlework at an early age, and most learned quilting as well as other fancy sewing. Quilting bees were referred to as early as the 1750s, and became very popular as social gatherings in the 19th century as a fun way to combine practical and social activities. From 1800-1900, quilts were made with great creativity in America. There were album quilts, crazy quilts and autograph quilts, as well as pieced quilts. The sewing machine was patented in 1846, and between 1856 and 1860 more than 130,000 machines were sold, proving that women were delighted to have this labor-saving device. Women were very proud to show off their new machines, and often used contrasting colors of thread in their machine quilting. 

By the end of the 19th century, blankets became cheap enough that quilt making declined, but as in all handcrafted work, quilts were still being produced. Then, during the Great Depression years of the 1930s, came a resurgence of quilt making, due perhaps to a need to keep occupied at home doing a relatively inexpensive craft. At any rate, many colorful quilts were produced during this time, and quite a few patterns became very popular, including the Double Wedding Ring, the Grandmother’s Flower Garden, Sunbonnet Sue, Dresden Plate and many others.

Quilts were being made during the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, but it was during the 1970s that the great quilt revival began, and it has continued ever since. There are quilt guilds composed of quiltmakers all over America, with most of them hosting a quilt show once a year. The big Houston show is in October every year, and another big one is in Paducah, Ky., in April, with many other national venues throughout each year. These are good places to go to see and buy old and new quilts.

Most of the newer quilts being made by quiltmakers are being machine quilted, and it is amazing how complex and what good quality can be produced by a good machine quilter.

A blue and white Jacob’s Ladder pattern, circa. 1910.

A Strippy Tumbling Blocks pattern, Pennsylvania, circa 1920.

If you are interested in beginning a quilt collection, don’t be fooled into buying an imported quilt, unless that is what you want. There have been thousands of quilts sold in the United States in the last 30 or more years that were made in China, India or in the Philippines. Most of the time it is easy to tell they are imports, especially if they are labeled correctly, but occasionally they end up in antique malls without their original labels. Look for large quilting stitches, knife-edge finishing, and generally less quilting than in American antique quilts.

It is best to try to educate yourself in advance, by reading about quilts, and looking at as many handmade quilts as you can before you start to collect them.

Suggested Books for Dating and Appraising Quilts

A Lone Star or Star of Bethlehem pattern, circa. 1930.

• Brackman, Barbara; “Clues in the Calico,” EPM Publications, Inc., 1989
• Trestain, Eileen J.; “Dating Fabrics,” AQS, 1998
• Kelley, Helen; “Dating Quilts from 1600 to the Present,” C & T Publishing, 1995
• Ginsburg, Madeleine; “The Illustrated History of Textiles,” Portland House, 1991
• Meller, Susan & Ellfers, Joost, “Textile Designs,” Dohosha Publishing Co., 1991
• Shoeser, Mary & Rufey, Clia; “English and American Textiles,” Thames & Hudson, 1989
• Orlofsky, Patsy & Myron; “Quilts in America,” Abbeville Press, 1974, 1992
• “Uncoverings,” published by AQSG yearly
• Rubin, Stella, “How to Compare & Value American Quilts,” Miller’s, 2001
• Aug, Bobbie; Newman, Sharon & Roy, Gerald; “Vintage Quilts,” Collector Books, 2002

Terri Ellis, ISA CAPP, has been studying and appraising quilts and textiles since 1995. She is a certified quilt appraiser by the American Quilt Society and a Certified Appraiser of Personal Property by the International Society of Appraisers. She is also a collector and dealer of antiques, and she conducts estate sales in Fort Worth, Texas. Visit her website Mistletoe Estate Sales. You can e-mail her at tquilts@mac.com.

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