Fabrics in old Sears
of Sears catalogs - Because
they're such a great snapshot of what the average
American wanted to buy, old Sears catalogs are a
fabulous resource for quilt and textile sleuths.
You can see the common width of calicos and percales
(there's even a chart in the bottom right corner of this
page - indicating that 18-24" wide fabrics
were available as late as 1908). You can get an
idea of the patterns of prints then in fashion. You can
even trace the history of dyes.
As late as 1924, washable cottons were
limited to variations of red, blue, black, tan, and an
occasional lavender, medium green, and yellow; they were
rarely printed in more than two colors. By 1924,
fabrics in solid tangerine, helio[trope] (lilac), and
jade (also called Nile) green were added, but through
1926 the old standbys remained indigo, turkey red,
claret, and "Shaker" gray. This would suggest
that collectors not automatically assume a quilt in that
palette dates to the 19th century.
The 1927 catalog introduced a wide
selection of "new handsome multicolor effects in
sharp, bright colorings". Quilters just
couldn't resist these jazzy sherbet-colored prints, and
used them to advantage in thousands of Wedding Ring and
Grandma's Flower Garden quilts.
For your enjoyment and information,
following are links to oversized images of pages from 25
years of Sears catalogs, beginning in 1896; I'll add
more whenever I can. (To enlarge the picture to
readable size, hold your cursor over the lower right
corner of the picture, then click on the orange box that
Here are some pages from the 1933 Montgomery Ward catalog, including one featuring quilt batting and one of ready-made clothes showing how these fabrics would've been used. Two items of
particular note: indigo and "Shaker gray" a/k/a mourning prints were still being offered, suggesting it's not wise to automatically assign a 19th century date to such fabrics; and scrap bundles for quilters were offered, which means that a
scrappy quilt is not necessarily a record of the maker's family wardrobe. Click on thumbnails for full-sized images.
seeds" and other notes on quilt batting
not uncommon to hear somebody trying to sell a vintage
or antique quilt claim that when the quilt is held up to
the light, "cotton seeds" can be seen. These
"seeds" - often described as "tiny"
- are pointed to as an indication of extreme age ("dates
from before the cotton gin was introduced in 1798")
or of the batting being homemade or the quilt being
Southern in origin.
Problem is, cotton
seeds are not "tiny". They are about the
size of a dried navy bean, and hard as a rock. (Here's
a life-sized photo of a cotton boll in which you can see
the seeds.) Left in the batting, they make
quilting very difficult; over time, cotton seeds also
tend to leak oil which stains the quilt. So
while quilters in cotton country often made their own
batts, they were careful to remove the seeds, either by
hand or with a cotton gin. It
is therefore extremely rare to find seeds in anything
but the roughest tied utility comforter. The specks that are
visible when a quilt is held up to the light are
actually bits of leaf and boll (the husk around the
cotton blossom). Since cotton waste was
common in budget quilt batting from the time it was
commercially produced in the 19th century well into the
1960s, it is not an indication of either age or
And commercially-made cotton batting has been around for a long time. Teri Klassen notes that the November 6, 1839 issue of The Indianan contains an advertisement by Cole, Parker & Co. for
"cotton bats for quilts." Joan Kiplinger has kindly supplied a number of catalog ads which show a wide range of batting types - from black cotton (Bloomingdales, 1886),"nicely papered and
folded" (Sears,1902) and bleached, unbleached, and wool/cotton blends (Sears, 1920) to "cross quilted" batts
stitched in a 5" grid to prevent clumping (Montgomery Ward, 1925) and "natural color" budget batts made of cotton and cotton "linters" (the fuzz remaining on the cotton
seed after ginning) (Sears, 1943).
But even as late as the Depression, homemade
batts were not uncommon in parts of the South where cotton could be raised. (I've met
quilters here in the Florida Panhandle who made their
own batting as late as 1940.) From John Rice
Irwin's 1984 book A People and Their Quilts, some
recollections of rural Kentucky and Tennessee quilters,
all born between 1890-1913:
night [my mother] would piece quilts and she raised her
own cotton She’d plant the cotton, and those of us big
enough to help work in the garden would help pick it.
Then during the winter at night she’d string out some
of that cotton in front of the fireplace and get it good
and warm and you could take the seeds out of it easy if
it was good and warm. She knew how to use those cards
that you card the little batts to put in the quilts.
carded many a batten to put I quilts. I used to set down
and card for Mommy and she’d have her frames up and
her lining in and I’d set there and card that batten
and she’d put them in. Now just say you had some
blankets that was gettin’ old and ragged. She’d put
that in between instead of batten. But she used cotton
more’n anything. Theys’ two pounds of cotton in ever
quilt she quilted.
grew our own cotton, seeded it, and carded it to make
the batten. It was a hard job picking out all them seed.
They used to put a big batch of cotton around the fire
every night and have everbody to seed enough to fill his
shoes. So the bigger feet you had, the more cotton you
had to seed....Later on we got a little home-made cotton
gin, and that was a big help.
raised cotton right out there [behind the house she has
lived in her whole married life], you know, and I learnt
to card my batts, you see, to pad my quilts. I had a box
that I knew just exactly how much it took to pad a
quilt. Law, you talk about good quiltin’ - that was so
good. We had an old cotton gin, and you’d lay your
cotton down in front of the fire and get it good and
warm, and you run it through that cotton gin . It had a
wheel on it.
else did quilters use for batting? Wool:
time [in the 1920s] they was one of our sheep that got
tangled up in the wire fence up here...and it couldn’t’
get out and it died. I found it up there dead and I
pulled the wool from it by the handful. I took that wool
and washed it, cleaned it, and carded it, and used it
for batten for this quilt.
worn-out blankets, and old coat linings:
we’d take old rags that wasn’t fir for nothing and
we’d wash them and use them for padding.
just stuffed them with any old rags that couldn’t be
used for anything else.
we used most in them days for padding was the linings
out of old coats. You know they’ve got a quiltin’ in
them. Put them together and make paddin’ fer them
quilts. Or either we’d take old wore-out quilts, and
put them in there and make paddin’ outta them If you
have a old wore out blanket you could use that. Now them
[quilts] that you saw out there, they’re mostly padded
with old wore-out blankets. Except that one that my
grandmother made, and I think she padded hit with old
wore-out shirts and things like that....
In North Carolina (and probably other tobacco-growing regions), quilters used "tobacco cloth," a loosely woven cotton fabric used to protect tobacco seedlings. It's not uncommon to find
Southern utility quilts filled with layers of burlap sacks - which produces a quilt that's warm but almost unbearably heavy.
even milkweed! (Wouldn't that be a delight to
grandmother, when she gardened, I can remember her
planting and raising [cotton]. She raised just a little
cotton; just bunches here and yonder. I tell you what
she did do. When she’s a livin’ , ever fall, you’ve
seed those milkweeds ain’t you? You know what they
are. That stuff that busts out and looks like feathers.
She’d take her a big sack, and when them busted out
she’d go gather enough of that to make her fillings
Ladies Art Company
and 1933-35 editions now online! (See below.) The
St. Louis, Missouri company known as Ladies Art was one
of the earliest producers of commercial quilt patterns.
Its origins are obscure. Nobody seems to know when
it was founded, but the consensus seems to be around
1889; it seems to have gone out of business sometime
after 1979. One thing is certain: its role
in shaping quilters' tastes, standardizing block names,
and in the number of patterns it offered is rivaled in
size and timespan only by the Kansas City Star newspaper.
of the names quilters give blocks today were first
coined in Ladies Art Company catalogs. But
because the company kept poor records, collectors often
have a hard time figuring out exactly how old their
particular Ladies Art catalog is.
historian Wilene Smith painstakingly sorted through extant
Ladies Art publications, and reported her findings in a 1990
symposium paper published in that year's volume of Uncoverings.
Ladies Art catalog
book, and 1994's On the Cutting Edge (in which Merikay
Waldvogel combined her own Ladies Art research with that of
Smith and the earlier work of Cuesta Benberry), are out of
print, very hard to find, and often expensive when you do
track them down, so this important information is not readily
available. For that reason I've prepared this
simplified chart, which I hope will be of some help to Ladies
|Diagrams of Quilt, Sofa and
Patterns: Patchwork and Applique
to the generosity of Martha Gray, I'm able to offer the 1922 edition -
of Quilts and Quilting:
Applique Patchwork Designs with Border
of Quilts and Quilting:
Cut, Ready-to-Sew Quilt Tops
scans available below
produced were a number of very small (4x6") supplemental or
advertising catalogs. These are undated, often printed in one color,
and sometimes advertise an upcoming, full-sized catalog. The company may
have included them in shipments of patterns that customers purchased.
research indicates the 1897 catalog of 400 patterns is the earliest
actual catalog; it was preceded by a "list" of 272
say 1901-06, but Larrie L. Rochholtz owns an "8th Revised
Edition" of this catalog whose copyright date is 1898.
Pattern collector extraordinare Martha Gray has kindly offered scans of the 1922 edition of the catalog. Click on the thumbnails to see the pages full-size.
one was easy to date - it's got an NRA
(National Recovery Act) stamp on the front, and the NRA was in
effect only from mid-1933 to mid-1935. Click on the thumbnails to see the pages full-size.
Country Road Antiques has recently made some fabulous reprints
of the 1928 and 1930 catalogs (the 1928 is blocks; the 1930 is
applique, embroidery and quilting designs). They're a
great resource, whether you're interested in quilt history or in
designing your own quilts with traditional blocks or quilting
designs. If you'd like to purchase either or both,
you can reach Tina by clicking here.
1933 Century of Progress pattern catalog
The Century of Progress quilt competition sponsored by Sears at the 1933 World's
Fair attracted thousands of entries and marked the beginning of the Depression-era quilt
revival. And thanks to the generosity of Martha Gray, I'm able to offer full-sized scans
of the pattern book featuring designs of the prizewinning quilts. Among them is an early origami-style Catheral Window pattern, which the authors call Daisy Block. Probably because it uses a ton of fabric (an 18" square of muslin for each finished
4" block!) it didn't catch on until the more prosperous 1950s. Click on the thumbnails to see pages full size.
Wildemuth has more old quilt pattern catalogs on her website,
including a biography
of "Nancy Cabot" and information on the "Martha
Washington" catalog and its author.