Swatchbook:  1870-1885

Here's a look at some calicos from the years surrounding the nation's Centennial. These were rescued from a very badly-pieced quilt top that somebody had cut into; fortunately the fabric was still in pristine, unused condition.  Two strips of Centennial-print calico near the center of the quilt made it easy to date!  Although unused, many of the fabric strips had printing flaws; others had rough seams that were made before the fabric was printed, and I found several examples of different "colorways" of the same design.  And I counted almost 100 different prints!  This suggests that the maker may have had access to scraps from one or more textile mills; it'd be interesting to trace these prints to a particular mill or town. This is my favorite era!  I think it's really neat that the various shades of brown, rust and red are all produced with the same dye from the madder plant; the fabric was stamped with different mordants (fixatives) which caused the dye to turn different colors.  Click on the picture to see fabrics actual size.

Many quilters mistakenly believe that "Turkey red" refers to a particular color - or any deep red, for that matter.  (It's one of the most commonly misused words in quilt auctions on ebay!)  But Turkey red isn't just red, or a particular red, or even a dye you could buy in a packet at the general store.  It's actually a dye process that produces a rich and incredibly colorfast, cool (blueish) red.  And while "Turkey" may suggest that's the place from which western Europeans first acquired the technique, it was actually brought to Europe by Jewish and Syrian dyers from the Levant;  "Turkey" was simply the catch-all phrase for what we now refer to as the "Middle East".   Although textile printers used madder root for other colors (from vivid orange to brownish-black), producing Turkey red with it was so complicated that they didn't attempt it themselves.  Instead, they sent their fabric to Turkey red specialists to be dyed.   The Society of Dyers and Colorists website describes the process as one which

...involved thoroughly cleansing the yarn or cloth by boiling with alkali; steeping in rancid olive or castor oil, soda and cow or sheep dung, mordanting with alum and sumac; dyeing in a batch of madder, ox blood and chalk; finally, washing to brighten the colour. In the early nineteenth century the process could take three weeks or more.

The use of oil often caused Turkey red fabric to be described by vendors as "oil boiled".  Quilters loved it.  Turkey red was a luscious color, it didn't fade, and it didn't bleed; without it, the elaborate red-green applique quilts of the 1840-75 period would have been an impossibility.  But it was expensive.  Even after synthetic reds were introduced around 1875, Turkey red "oil boiled calico" sometimes cost ten times more. 

On the other hand,  synthetic reds, often advertised as "Turkey" red (such as that pictured at right) had a nasty habit of fading to beige or bleeding all over the place.

So until the mid-1920s when a reliable colorfast synthetic red was finally introduced, whever they could afford it, quilters bought Turkey red.  For more information on the history of this dye, see  Robert Chenciner's superb Madder Red and articles by W.H. Cliffe and Anthony Travis.

Often misrepresented as "Turkey" red and colorfast, synthetic home dyes for cotton (such as this one from an 1895 Diamond Dye book)  promptly faded to beige.


How do you know if your old quilt's red is real Turkey red?  If your quilt's at all worn, it's relatively easy.  Turkey red wears just like a pair of blue jeans:  high spots will weather to white.  John Sauls Antiques of Tyler, TX kindly provided some excellent photos of a c.1850 album quilt loaded with Turkey red - note in particular the closeup at lower right.  Click on the pictures to see typical wear patterns. 

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