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Tracing the Double Wedding Ring 

In The Romance of Double Wedding Ring Quilts, Robert Bishop observes that the Double Wedding Ring pattern appears to be the most popular in the history of quilting. And in spite of - or perhaps because of - its ubiquitousness, the Double Wedding Ring is often presumed to be very old. But the earliest published example is a pattern in the October 20, 1928, edition of Capper's Weekly, which credited it to Mrs. J.D. Patterson of Wellington, Kansas. (This was Celia Yeager Patterson, b.1855 in Illinois to parents from Pennsylvania; she emigrated to Kansas between 1874-77.) A week later the pattern appeared in Ruby McKim's Kansas City Star column, and also was featured in the Ladies Art Company catalog of that year (it is absent from earlier editions). Quilt historian Roderick Kiracofe says that there are no reliably documented quilts in this pattern that date before 1920.

Noted quilt historian Johnathan Holstein concurs.  In the September 1978 issue of Quilters Newsletter Magazine, Holstein observed that 

..we have never seen a quilt using [the Double Wedding Ring pattern] which in design, materials or workmanship appeared to us to be of a date earlier than the 20th century, and we know of none dated in the body of the quilt, or firmly documented as having been made before the 1920s or 1930s."  

Holstein believes that the design originated in the late 1920s or early 1930s in one of the many quilt articles published during that period:

This dating would account for its absence from the [Ruth] Finley book [Old Patchwork Quilts and the Women Who Made Them] (published 1929) and presence in the [Carrie] Hall book [The Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America] (published 1935)....As for there not being "even folk takes about it to satify our curiosity," this would be accounted for by its recent origin.

Subsequent issues of QNM contained letters from quilters vigorously criticizing Holstein and insisting (although providing no concrete evidence) that the pattern dates from before 1900.  

But of the thousands of Double Wedding Ring quilts in existence, Bishop notes only three which are claimed to originate in the 19th century. One appears not to exist at all, and the evidence cited regarding the age of the other two raises more questions than it answers.  (To see the quilts discussed below, click here.)

  • The Shelburne quilt.  The first quilt claimed to have a 19th century origin is supposed to at the Shelburne Museum and dated "circa 1825-50".  But when asked recently for information about this quilt, the Shelburne said it has no record of a Double Wedding Ring or Wedding Ring quilt being in its collection.  The Shelburne does own a "Pincushion" quilt from 1835; but aside from being made of curved shapes, it is entirely different from the Double Wedding Ring pattern in appearance. According to Barbara Brackman's Encyclopedia of Pieced Quilt Patterns, other names for Pincushion (p.59, #301) include Bay Leaf, Tea Leaf, Lafayette Orange Peel and Lover's Knot, and she cites the Shelburne quilt, with dates, as its earliest example.  Her illustration of the Pincushion pattern appears directly above one for the Double Wedding Ring; could Bishop's reference be the result of a misreading of Brackman's book?  

  • The Sweeten quilt.  In Lone Stars: A Legacy of Texas Quilts 1836-1936, authors Karoline Bresnehan and Nancy Puentes date a Double Wedding Ring made by Lola Sweeten of solid red, indigo, green and white cotton, to "ca.1890".    

    The authors state that 1930s quilts "often use much smaller pieces in the rings" than the Sweeten quilt does. But the 40 Depression-era quilts pictured in Bishop's book have a median number of nine pieces per arc - exactly that in the Sweeten quilt.  (Fifteen of Bishop's quilts actually have fewer pieces - in one case only five per arc.)  

    Bresnehan and Puentes also point to the distinctive "bold piecing and striking solid color choices of a 19th century quiltmaker".  While they are not as common as printed pastels (which the authors assert were made by "brides-to-be"),  Double Wedding Ring quilts in "striking solid" and/or dark color combinations were by no means a rarity during the Depression, and Bishop pictures nine such quilts which are not of Amish origin. 

    Additionally, the Sweeten quilt is quilted in a fan pattern; of the date-inscribed fan-pattern quilts surveyed by Brackman, more than 80% are from the 20th century.  

    Bresnehan and Puentes state that the batting is "hand-carded" and that "cotton seeds" (described in the book as "tiny" although cotton seeds are the size of a navy bean) can be felt in the quilt.  But if, as the authors claim, seed-filled homemade batts were typical in the cotton-producing South well into the 1940s, this would not be a reliable indicator of age.

    They also speculate that the quilt's green background fabric has faded to tan because it was "home-dyed". (Presumably they mean with commercial synthetic dye, since vegetable dyes typically fade not to tan but to a paler shade of the original.) However, elsewhere in the book they point out that in Texas, home dyeing continued into the 20th century, and that it is difficult to distinguish home-dyed fabrics from manufactured ones because the latter often "blotched and faded" as well.  

    Although it is certainly possible the Sweeten quilt's green fabric dates to the 1890s, that fabric's age does not fix a date for the quilt itself.  As the authors themselves note, since quilters saved fabrics "over many years....fabrics in a quilt can be considerably older than the quilt itself, or even its maker."

    Finally, Mrs. Sweeten is described as wearing "handmade" (presumably by herself) dresses her entire life, suggesting that she plied a needle well into her old age.  She lived until 1941, and would have been in her 70s during the Double Wedding Ring's heyday. We have no other quilts by her for comparison, but  one wonders why a busy farm wife with seven children would choose this complex pattern for what the authors say is a utility quilt.  Could the "large" quilting stitches be the result of age and eyesight rather than the quilt being "made rapidly for cover"?  

  • The BMA quilt.  Another Double Wedding Ring quilt - like the Sweeten quilt, in solid fabrics - is part of the collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art.  Dated "ca.1870," it appears as a small black and white photo in The Great American Cover-Up (a 1971 catalog of the BMA's quilt collection) with this description:

Pieces of cotton are joined together in a skillful arrangement of color to achieve a rainbow effect and then are appliqued to the cream colored quilt top forming interlacing circles or rings.  The edge of the quilt is beautifully scalloped.  Background quilting is a continuous pattern of a small circle within two squares which forms an eight-pointed star

(In fact, the photograph shows that the star quilting pattern is not continuous but is centered in the "cream" areas, and the rings are quilted with two equidistant rows.)  The rings are appliqued onto the base rather than pieced, but Brackman notes that Needle Craft Magazine published an appliqued Double Wedding Ring pattern around 1930.  Bishop quotes curator Dena Katzenberg as saying the museum acquired the quilt in 1946 from William Rush Dunton, Jr., a psychiatrist who became interested in quilting as occupational therapy for what he called his "nervous ladies".  In his 1946 book Old Quilts, Dunton (1868-1966) recalls never having seen a quilt in his home as a child, making it unlikely that his Double Wedding Ring was a family heirloom, or that he could have had any firsthand knowledge of its origin.  Dunton says he began collecting quilt patterns for his patients about 1915, but did not go further than that until "a number of years" later, when he focused on what are now known as Baltimore Album quilts (which until that time had been virtually ignored).  We can therefore surmise that Dunton probably did not begin collecting quilts before the 1920s.  It seems odd that although Dunton clearly was fascinated by the specific age and origins of the Baltimore Album quilts in his 1946 book, the BMA seems to have no such information from him regarding this particular quilt, which was his gift to the Museum that same year.  

Katzenberg says that the fabrics in the BMA quilt are in "faded solid colors" and include "colors post the aniline processes".  (Does she mean that the dyes used are anilines, developed after 1858, or the numerous synthetic dyes that supplanted them beginning in the mid-1880s?)  Katzenberg believes "a dating of third quarter 19th century" is accurate based on "the quilt's muslin surfaces" and "handwork stitches". But 19th century quilters commonly used bleached (white) muslin, not unbleached ("cream"); and the quilting pattern is remarkably similar to those common to 20th century Double Wedding Rings. 

As evidence of the pattern's 19th century origin, Katzenberg cites Carrie Hall's 1935 Romance of the Patchwork Quilt in America, which calls it a "popular old pattern".  Modern quilt historians have shown Hall's "history" to be unreliable; she tends to overstate the age of patterns and trends (for example, ascribing a "Colonial" date to applique quilts from the 1850s). 

Another source claims as proof of the 19th century origins of the pattern a 1930 Successful Farmer article by Carlie Sexton.  Sexton says the pattern is known by other names including Rainbow, Around the World (names it was called in Capper's Weekly just two years earlier) and King Tut.  She claims that "[i]t is not a new pattern....one of my readers asked me about the pattern a long time ago...."  But since Sexton did not have a column (and therefore had no "readers") until 1923, "a long time ago" would seem to be seven years at most. 

Possible antecedents

More likely is that the Double Wedding Ring's unusual, continuous design gradually evolved from earlier quilt patterns.   It may be the visual descendant of the late 19th century motifs known as Philadelphia Patch/ Pineapple/Pine Burr; a diagonally-pieced version of the Log Cabin design called Pineapple Log Cabin; or a pieced-arc design called Pickle Dish, which itself may be a simplification of an unnamed pattern offered after 1889 by Newcomb Loom Works.   By the Depression, Pickle Dish was sometimes referred to as Indian Wedding Ring, which may be how Double Wedding Ring eventually obtained its name. 

Rather than being covered with these motifs in a continuous, overall design, earlier quilts in these patterns often separate these blocks with setting squares (unpieced blocks) or sashing (fabric strips). 

   

Above, left to right: 1870s Pickle Dish quilt, unnamed Newcomb pattern card and appearance of the Newcomb design unsashed. Right, late 19th century Pineapple Log Cabin and Pine Burr quilts.  The owner claims the Pine Burr quilt was made 1840-60 by an African-American slave and that there is some African meaning  to its three "tan" blocks. But when new, those blocks would have looked like the rest of the quilt;; the dyes used to color them were unstable synthetics developed after 1870.  

The use of  post-1870s fabric and fan quilting indicate this Pine Burr quilt could not have been made in 1840--1860; the maker would accurately be described as an ex-slave.  


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