The elusive "Autumn Leaf"
courtesy of Mahogany
|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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.)
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
Ann Ricks's 1892 quilt from an old Kilburn stereoview, now in the
Littleton, NH Public Library collection. From
An African American Sourcebook, Kyra E. Hicks (2003)