Fabrics in old Sears catalogs

Speaking 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 appears.)

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. 

"Cotton seeds" and other notes on quilt batting

It's 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 "homemade-ness".

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:

At 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.

I’ve 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.

..we 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.

I 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.

What else did quilters use for batting?  Wool:

One 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.

Rags, worn-out blankets, and old coat linings:

Sometimes we’d take old rags that wasn’t fir for nothing and we’d wash them and use them for padding.

We just stuffed them with any old rags that couldn’t be used for anything else.

What 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.

And even milkweed!  (Wouldn't that be a delight to quilt?)

My 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 with.


Ladies Art Company pattern books

1922 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. Many 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. 

Quilt 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

A Ladies Art catalog 

from before 1922

That 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 Art fans. 

Dates In Publication

 Highest Block

Pattern Number

Catalog Title Catalog Dimensions
1895a 272   6x9.5" (approx.)
1897 400
Diagrams of Quilt, Sofa and Pincushion Patterns 
1898b-1912 420
1912-1922 450
1922 500

Quilt Patterns: Patchwork and Applique

Thanks to the generosity of Martha Gray, I'm able to offer the 1922 edition - see below.

9x12" (approx.)
1928 509 (510?) 7.5x10"
1928-34 511-530
1934-70s 531
ca.1930 --

Catalog of Quilts and Quilting: 

Attractive Applique Patchwork Designs with Border

1933-35 --

Catalog of Quilts and Quilting: 

Cut, Ready-to-Sew Quilt Tops


Full scans available below

Also 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. 


Connie Chunn's research indicates the 1897 catalog of 400 patterns is the earliest actual catalog; it was preceded by a "list" of 272 patterns.


Other sources say 1901-06, but Larrie L. Rochholtz owns an "8th Revised Edition" of this catalog whose copyright date is 1898.


1922 catalog

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.

1933-35 catalog

This 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.

Tina at 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.

Susan 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.

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