The elusive "Autumn Leaf" quilt pattern

Photo courtesy of Mahogany Ridge Antiques.

Every quilter  has favorite patterns which for some reason she never quite gets around to tackling.  Mine is the Autumn Leaf - a medallion quilt with concentric rings of snaking vines with with tiny leaves in 1930s pastel prints.  Yikes! I always think.  All those points! (And in miniature?  I'd go nuts!) But I'm always transfixed by this hard-to-find pattern.  Where - and when - did it originate? 

Two photos of an Autumn Leaf quilt at the Denver Art Museum appear in Carleton Safford and Robert Bishop's 1971 book America's Quilts and Coverlets. It is described as being "an exact copy of a quilt exhibited at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893." 

Oral tradition says that a Maple Leaf quilt made by Eliza Beck Kirby (now at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield) was exhibited at the 1893 World's Fair, but although the Kirby quilt is applique, it is completely different in design from the Autumn Leaf quilt, so that quilt, at least, cannot be the source. 

Jan Wass, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Museum, also notes that according to quilt historian Merikay Waldvogel, aside from one crazy quilt which still has its award ribbon attached, no records are known to exist concerning the quilts exhibited at the 1893 Fair.  So if there was truly an 1893 source, I was unlikely to find it.

I hunted down an old issue (March 1977, #89) of Quilters Newsletter Magazine which featured an Autumn Leaf on its cover. Called "Running Vine Medallion," it has a slightly different center, and is dated c.1940, but - to my exasperation - came with no other information.

A variation on the pattern is also pictured in the March 1978 issue (#100); now at the Minnesota Historical Society, it's described as an "original" design made by Marie Pedelty in 1963, and was displayed in Walter Mondale's office in 1978, "the first quilt to be 'officially' recognized as a work of art."  (Apparently the writer was unaware of the 1971 exhibit of quilts, "Abstract Design in American Quilts, held at the Whitney Museum in New York.)  

The Autumn Leaf quilt exhibited at the 1933 

Chicago World's Fair - Anne Orr's design.

Photo courtesy of Laurette Carroll.

Then the pattern peeked at me from an article by quilt historian Laurette Carroll on charm quilts, for which all those leaves are perfectly suited. 

I'd nearly resigned myself to having hit a dead end until I picked up Merikay Waldvogel's Soft Covers for Hard Times: Quiltmaking in the Great Depression.  There on page 32 was the Autumn Leaf quilt - whose design she credits to noted quilt designer Anne Orr: 


At least two quilts made from Anne Orr's quilt patterns received awards at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair Sears National Quilt Competition....One was an adaptation of Autumn Leaf, an applique pattern Anne Orr featured in her January 1930 Good Housekeeping column.  A simplified version appeared in her Good Housekeeping article in 1932....In 1930 the Orr Studio offered a hot-iron transfer pattern and directions for cutting out and placing the leaves and vines that meander around the center and side sections of the Autumn Leaf quilt.  A quilting pattern was offered separately.

In October 2004 Louise Tiemann wrote me that she had found a Nancy Cabot pattern for this quilt; the description calls it "a recent prize winner".

But what of the quilt's supposed 1893 antecedent?  

While researching Liberian quilts for my "quilt code" page, I ran across an account of a silk quilt appliqued with a coffee tree design made by Martha Ann Ricks, a black woman born into slavery in 1817. Ricks and her family were among the first former slaves repatriated to Africa (Liberia) in the 1830s.  

In 1892, Ricks traveled to England as part of a Liberian delegation, where she presented her quilt to Queen Victoria. It was then  displayed at the British needlework exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. 

Ricks made a duplicate quilt for A.M.E. Bishop Henry Turner, whose collection of African crafts was also displayed at the Chicago exposition.  (Among his many accomplishments, Bishop Turner was the first black chaplain in the US Armed Forces.)

Although it's hardly an "exact copy," the "Autumn Leaf" pattern is so similar to Ricks's "coffee tree" quilt that it is quite possible this is the quilt to which Safford and Bishop referred. But whether they just presumed Orr's design was a copy, or whether Orr ever even saw the Ricks quilts, is something I haven't yet learned.

Martha Ann Ricks's 1892 quilt from an old Kilburn stereoview, now in the Littleton, NH Public Library collection. From Black Threads:  An African American Sourcebook, Kyra E. Hicks (2003)


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